Performance: Snapdragon 800 for Windows Phone

For the first time we’re seeing a Windows Phone powered by a Snapdragon 800 SoC, which is currently the most powerful SoC that Qualcomm makes and a popular one with a range of manufacturers. I’ve had a lot of experience with this particular chip, the MSM8974, in the past few Android flagships that I’ve reviewed, and it’s definitely delivers a great deal of power to the user.

The Snapdragon 800 consists of a 2.26 GHz quad-core Krait 400 CPU, Adreno 330 GPU clocked at 450 MHz, a Hexagon QDSP6V5A DSP at 600 MHz, a dual-channel LPDDR3 controller capable of providing 12.8 GB/s of throughput, Category 4 LTE, up to Wi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0, IZAT Gen8B GPS and dual image signal processors. As you can see, it provides the majority of the Lumia 1520’s backbone on the one die, especially when considering the package-on-package 2 GB of RAM that’s included.

The Lumia 1520 also comes with NFC as provided by a secondary chip, as well as 32 GB of internal NAND complemented by a microSD card slot. Another slot is provided for the SIM card, which curiously is a nano-SIM rather than the micro-SIM that the smartphone community has been accustomed to in all phones bar the iPhone.

In the past, Windows Phone has proven itself to be an extremely optimized operating system, on hardware ranging from the low end Snapdragon S4 MSM8227 in the Lumia 520, to the MSM8960 that we saw in the Lumia 925 and Lumia 1020. However the Snapdragon 800 is a good deal more powerful than any of the SoCs we’ve seen in a Windows Phone before, making the performance of the Lumia 1520 especially interesting.

As you might expect, the overall system performance of the Lumia 1520 is very good. Everything from loading apps and using the camera, to browsing through the interface and changing settings is incredibly fast. Animations are also very fluid, which is expected from the powerful Adreno 330 GPU that accelerates all aspects of Windows Phone. But it’s not the fastest smartphone that I’ve used.

Similar to iOS 7 on the iPhone 5s, it’s actually the operating system itself that makes the Lumia 1520 seem slower in comparison to top-end Android devices, despite its speediness compared to older Windows Phones. Where flagship handsets like the Nexus 5 load applications instantly, thanks to minimal use of animations in Android, Windows Phone is jam-packed with animations throughout every aspect of the operating system. When using the Lumia 1520, it feels like tasks are being completed on the powerful Krait 400 CPU cores well before the transitional animations are complete, giving an illusion that the device is slower because content isn’t displayed as quickly.

Unlike iOS 7, there is no ‘Reduce Motion’ setting to shorten the length of animations, or any setting to turn them off, so there is no way to truly deliver the full potential of such a powerful SoC while navigating the operating system. Of course apps are another story, as the extra grunt allows webpage manipulation to be faster than ever before; multitasking has also received a speed bump, both from the inclusion of 2 GB of RAM and the Snapdragon 800.

Gaming is a whole other story, because until now there hasn’t been a GPU in a Windows Phone that’s as powerful as this. Previously we’ve had the Adreno 225 delivering graphics power to Windows Phone handsets, but the step up to the Adreno 330 is huge: the Snapdragon 800 SoC delivers three times (if not four times) the GPU performance of the previous MSM8960. This means that even considering the jump from 720p to 1080p displays - 2.25x more pixels to render to – the Adreno 330 is a more capable GPU that gives developers more room to work with.

I tried a range of titles from the Windows Phone Store and naturally all of them performed extremely well on the Lumia 1520. Not only is gaming great on the six-inch display, but the Adreno 330 keeps everything smooth and fluid, no matter what title you’re playing. It will also be great for major upcoming titles such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which are sure to require a bit of grunt to run smoothly on 1080p displays.

Moving on to the benchmarks and it’s interesting to see how the Lumia 1520 performs in browser benchmarks versus some other top-end Snapdragon 800-powered Android handsets. Windows Phones have typically posted unimpressive scores in Futuremark’s Peacekeeper benchmark, and the Lumia 1520 is no exception: it may be 53% faster than the Lumia 1020, but it’s still 45% lower than the Galaxy Note 3.

To confirm that Internet Explorer 11 on Windows Phone 8 is in fact slower than Chrome/Android browser, I also ran Mozilla’s intense Kraken benchmark on a range of smartphones. Here the performance gap is even more pronounced, with the Galaxy Note 3 completing the benchmark more than three times faster. I wouldn’t say this difference entirely translates to real-world experiences, but it does feel like the Lumia 1520 has a slower web browser than leading Android smartphones.

WPBench, an all-round Windows Phone only benchmark, shows just how fast the Snapdragon 800 is in comparison to some older handsets. The Lumia 1520 is 116% faster in this test than the Lumia 120, which goes to show how more (and faster) CPU cores, a better GPU and more memory bandwidth can boost performance significantly.

Like with most devices of this class, you’re given top-end connectivity options that function perfectly. I had no trouble connecting to Optus’ LTE network in Australia, achieving speeds upwards of 30 Mbps in good coverage areas. Wi-Fi functioned perfectly for me as well, being able to connect to both my 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz 802.11n networks (802.11ac is also available) with little effort. I also found no issues with Bluetooth, GPS or NFC during my testing, although NFC still struggles in transfers to Android devices.

The Snapdragon 800 SoC is capable of 4K encoding and decoding, but it appears as though Windows Phone 8 currently lacks support for this capability. The Music+Videos Hub in Windows Phone recognizes and can play back Ultra HD videos, but it stutters significantly as if decoding was occurring on the CPU rather than accelerated with the help of the Hexagon DSP. This isn’t much of an issue right now, but the emergence of 4K content in the next few years will make this a more critical feature.

Overall the performance of the Lumia 1520 doesn’t disappoint, easily cementing itself as the fastest Windows Phone available with the best range of hardware, including Wi-Fi 802.11ac, LTE Category 4, 2 GB of RAM and a microSD card slot. It doesn’t quite match Android devices with similar specifications, but it keeps Windows Phone right up there with the rest.