Inside Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 1: The Next Android Supercomputer

Inside Qualcomm's Snapdragon 8 Gen 1: The Next Android Supercomputer

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  • We’re going to have a lot of hands-on and testing of the new chipset over the next few days here at the Snapdragon Summit, but here are the initial details on the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1. Qualcomm has long tried to get people to stop talking about CPUs. Apple is forcing its hand. The all-purpose, Swiss Army knife of computing, the CPU does whatever needs to be done, but isn’t necessarily built for any specific task. Over the past 10 years, Qualcomm has instead focused on chips for specific tasks: a very optimized sensor hub, or image signal processor, or AI unit. That makes sense in the power-constrained world of smartphones, as these specialized blocks are generally more power-efficient. Meanwhile, Qualcomm fell back on using its partner ARM’s CPU designs. There isn’t even a specific slide about the CPU in my pre-briefing presentation! But then two things happened: MediaTek caught up, and Apple surpassed them. The Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 has one ARM Cortex-A2 core running at up to 3GHz, three A710 cores and four A510 cores, giving it 20% better performance and 30% lower power consumption than the Snapdragon 888, says Qualcomm VP of product management Ziad Asghar.

  • “It’s Huawei not being in the business and that volume shifting over to the OEMs that we work with, on the most part … we’re gaining a lot of the Huawei business that was HiSilicon [Huawei’s in-house chipmaker], and is now shifting,” he says. “Snapdragon 8 Gen 1” is the first in a new numbering system for Qualcomm. For the past 10 years, it’s been numbering chips with three digits starting with 200, 400, 600, 700, and 800, based on their power. But the company is up to 888+, 780G, 695, and 480+, according to a Qualcomm slide, and since it doesn’t want to change the first digits or switch to hex, it needed to do something. (Still, though, how cool would the Snapdragon 8FE be? Maybe just for old geeks.) Qualcomm hasn’t explained yet what it’ll do when it needs to release multiple chips in the same series during the same year, such as this year when it released the 870, 888, and 888+.

On the other hand, I hate to mention it, but the MediaTek Dimensity 9000 launched last week has the exact same CPU core layout. And the Dimensity may in fact outperform the Snapdragon on pure CPU measures because of faster RAM support: while Qualcomm uses LPDDR5 memory at 3500Mbps, MediaTek can use, in theory, LPDDR5x memory at 7500Mbps. The Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 has a bunch of other features that are better than the Dimensity 9000, but we’re talking about CPU here. We’ll benchmark the new Snapdragon later this week and tell you how that really shakes out. Meanwhile, Apple’s M-series processors, with custom cores, have set the PC world on fire in ways that Qualcomm’s Snapdragon for Windows chipsets have failed to do for the past three years. Some of that is because Apple controls its OS and toolsets, and has been able to transition its whole platform to ARM in a way Windows didn’t. But some of it is just that the M-series CPUs are better, and PCs rely on pure CPU much, much more than phones do.

The Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 has three 18-bit image signal processors (ISPs) that support up to three 36MP cameras shooting at once; 64 and 36MP dual cameras shooting at once; or a 108MP camera. For video, the chip supports 8K HDR video at 30 frames per second and 720p slow-mo at up to 960 frames per second. A new ISP unit connected to the low-power sensing hub lets the camera turn on without waking up much of the rest of the system, for low-power Face ID-like experiences.

But there are more changes to come. Last year Qualcomm bought Nuvia, a startup formed by some of the engineers behind Apple’s A-series processors. At an analyst event earlier this month, Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon said the first chips using Nuvia custom cores will start sampling late in 2022 and be “competitive” with Apple’s M-series processors. “So now for us with the Nuvia asset on board and working with Microsoft even more close than we had before, the partnership will allow us to bring some sort of a virtual vertical capability into the Windows market, to enable that ecosystem to flourish the same way,” Katouzian says. Since they’re off-cycle, these CPUs would likely go into PC-centric chipsets first, potentially then followed by late 2023’s Snapdragon 8 series.

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