|Last week, we took a trip to San Diego to meet with Qualcomm and discuss the company's cutting edge 20nm radios and upcoming Snapdragon processors. Unlike the already-launched Snapdragon 801 and 805, these are fundamentally new chips with updated CPU cores as well as Qualcomm's new Adreno 400-class GPU. Qualcomm is announcing two new chips today -- the Snapdragon 808 and the Snapdragon 810.
The 810 will be the highest-end solution, with a quad-core ARM Cortex-A57 paired alongside four Cortex-53 CPUs. We've discussed ARM's big.Little implementations before -- unlike the designs we saw debut in 2012, these new cores will support the asymmetric operating modes that ARM described in 2013. That means that the chip won't be limited to either four Cortex-A57s or four Cortex-A53's -- it'll be able to distribute workloads across all eight cores at the same time.
The 808 will also use a big.Little design, but the core layouts will be asymmetric -- two Cortex-A57's paired with four Cortex-A53's. The Cortex-A57 is, by all accounts, an extremely capable processor -- which means a pair of them in a dual-core configuration should be more than capable of driving a high-end smartphone. Both SoC's will use a 20nm radio and a 28nm RF transceiver. That's a major step forward for Qualcomm (most RF today is built on 40nm). RF circuits typically lag behind digital logic by at least one process node -- it's difficult to scale the transceivers down to new nodes and the benefits of doing so aren't always as great as what we'd expect in other circuits.
Given that RF currently accounts for some 15% of the total area and 30-40% of the PCB, however, the benefits of moving to a smaller process are significant.
Adreno Graphics Grows Up:
The Snapdragon 810 will use the Adreno 430 GPU, which improves on the Snapdragon 805 / Adreno 420 in several ways. The Adreno 430 will support LPDDR4 for improved power savings while holding total platform memory bandwidth constant relative to the Snapdragon 805. The new chip also implements OpenGL ES 3.1 (the current 805 is limited to OpenGL ES 3.0) and Qualcomm's first video hardware with support for H.265 (aka HEVC) encode and decode in hardware.
Other features include 4K video playback at up to 30fps, 1080p playback at 120fps, and a dual 14-bit image sensor with support for 55 megapixels. The sensor fidelity is probably more interesting, given that simply jacking up the megapixel rate on the camera isn't particularly useful -- the 808's sensor will support 12 bit data capture; a slight loss of fidelity.
The Snapdragon 808 will use a GPU dubbed the "Adreno 418," slightly less than the Adreno 420 in the current 805. Based on the nomenclature, we're betting this will be a slightly slower version of the same chip Qualcomm is using today with more-or-less the same performance. The company didn't say much about the Adreno 430's estimated performance, preferring to focus on the upgraded video codecs, encode/decode blocks, and other areas.
The 810 will also support display-out via HDMI 1.4a or 1080p60 Miracast at a 3:1 pixel compression ratio.
|An Evolutionary Product|
|If you've paid any attention to the semiconductor market over the past few years, you're likely aware that the upcoming 20nm node is expected to offer fairly modest benefits compared to 28nm. Both TSMC and GlobalFoundries have pinned their hopes on 16nm FinFET (14nm-XM for GlobalFoundries), which they claim will offer a much greater performance scaling.
Still, the benefits of moving to the Cortex-A57 and A53 should be significant. ARM's new core is expected to deliver a boost over current 32-bit products; the Cortex-A53 will improve efficiency and battery life, and both chips will be able to utilize all of their cores at the same time. Meanwhile the 20nm radio will offer its own boots. The Snapdragon 810 will integrate features like Carrier Aggregation -- that won't matter much for US buyers, where technology introductions lag other nations, but it will benefit those of you who live in countries where wireless rollouts are actually prioritized.
Finally, the benefits of Qualcomm's 28nm RF may not be as sexy as other components, but the power savings can be utilized to drive either higher burst performance or better battery life. On the software side, if Android vendors see the same benefit to 64-bit that Apple did, the 810 could be 20-30% faster than the 805. Meanwhile, the 808 could be the real sleeper hit of the year -- Qualcomm has promised that it will outperform the 801 -- if it also improves power consumption, it could make a great platform for users who want high-end performance but with reasonable battery life.
20nm won't be the dramatic step forward that we saw from the 40nm - 28nm transition, but the introduction of 64-bit operating systems, higher-performing chips, and better wireless tech should collectively drive mobile performance upwards at a good clip through 2015.