MAUI — For the third year in a row, Qualcomm transported a worldwide group of press and analysts to an island in the middle of the Pacific for three days of sessions on the latest in 5G cellular technology and the company’s latest Snapdragon processors.

Qualcomm president Crisitano Amon on stage at Tech Summit 2019 (Image: Qualcomm)

With 5G rollouts started and many more areas getting 5G in 2020, this was the event for the company to roll out the first application processors specifically designed for 5G – the flagship Snapdragon 865 (SD865) and the more highly integrated Snapdragon 765 (SD765).

Qualcomm is expecting big thing for 5G in 2020, because it took the unusual strategy of splitting the two Snapdragon 5G processors between both TSMC and Samsung Foundry – the SD865 is built in TSMC’s 7NP process and the SD765 is in Samsung’s 7nm EUV process. While using two foundries complicates circuit design sharing between the SD865 and SD765 teams, it’s a hedge for Qualcomm to split the business between the two foundries to avoid capacity constraints.


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Breaking up is hard to do

One unusual development for the SD865, is that Qualcomm decided to build the flagship chip without a cellular modem or WiFi on the die. The company will use the previously announced discrete Snapdragon X55 multi-mode 5G modem instead of integrating it into the SD865 applications processor.

There are a number of reasons this makes sense.

By not allocating a lot of die area for the 5G modem, the designers had more die area for AI and multimedia functions. This is how Apple builds its A series of application processors for the iPhones. The SD865 is designed for the premium tier smartphones, where the size can support more chips. Also, not including the modem, makes it easier to take the processor into other markets that don’t need the cellular modem. WiFi and Bluetooth features are also provided by a separate chip – the FastConnect 6800.

The development of the SD865 focused on improving AI performance and multimedia. Smartphones have become our portable media devices – recording and playing back audio and video. To support the next generation of smartphones cameras, Qualcomm made many changes to its image processor. The new Spectra 480 architecture has been re-architected to read and operate on four pixels at a time. With this new architecture, the SD865 can process 2 GigaPixels/second. The new capability includes support for a 200-megapixel sensor. While 200-megapixel may sound like overkill, it allows for extreme digital zoom pictures – emulating an optical zoom.

The Spectra 480 is the latest evolution of the Snapdragon image processors. Qualcomm added support for 4K High Dynamic Range video in the Snapdragon 865, then added HDR10+ support in Snapdragon 855.

With the SD865, Qualcomm is the first company to support Dolby Vision for video capture. Dolby calibrates each phone model, including the image sensor and the display, to replicate the image to Dolby standards. The camera can also support 4K video at 120Hz and 960FPS Slow Motion recordings (at 720p) for an unlimited time.

Computational photography

The capabilities of smartphone applications processors to apply computational photography to these tiny sensors is putting a lot of pressure on traditional camera vendors. The camera industry focused on a mission of recreating the image the photographer saw in the most realistic way possible (in a basically very analog way, even is a digital sensor is used). But now the goal is to dissect the image into components, apply (multiple) filters to each elements, and then reassembly an image in a purely synthetic manner. The end product may be very appealing, but it may not resemble reality in any way.

The applications for AI processing in smartphones are exploding. While today the cloud is responsible to many AI tasks, there’s many reasons to increase the processing of AI tasks on edge devices. While those include lower latency responses, reduced network traffic, pre-filtering data for the cloud, the most important reason may well be privacy. By processing locally, that data can be stored in secure enclaves on the smartphone. One example is voice translation – by converting speech from one language to another on he phone, that data is kept local and private.

The use of AI in image processing includes semantic separation which breaks a picture into different regions such as foreground, sky, hair, etc. The ISP can then apply different filters to the different regions for an optimized picture.

Qualcomm’s 5th generation Spectra+ AI engine uses all the processing elements on the chip including Kyro CPU, Adreno GPU, Hexagon DSP, and Spectra ISP, for up to 15 TOPS total. The Hexagon 698 unit in the SD865 has a new Tensor accelerator. The new unit has four times the TOPS performance of the SD855. Qualcomm is betting that AI will become more important and integral into many different smartphone applications.

Adreno GPU, Kyro CPU

The Adreno 650 GPU was designed to be 25% faster rendering and 35% more power efficient than the previous Adreno GPU in the Snapdragon 855. Power efficiency is critical to sustained graphics performance, otherwise the GPU will quickly hit thermal constraints and begin to throttle performance.

An interesting development for gamers is that Google is making changes to Android to allow for updates to the graphics subsystem drivers without updating the entire operating system. This will allow Qualcomm to offer an app that can install the very latest graphics drivers for Adreno. This feature is good for the release of optimized drivers when new games ship. For the Snapdragon 765, the company offered a version with a higher speed GPU called the 765G. Mobile gaming has become a very important application segment for smartphones.

The Kyro CPU complex wasn’t left out, but modern smartphones are moving towards a very heterogeneous architecture, with extremely power-efficient dedicated processors for functions. The CPU uses a modified version of Arm’s big:little architecture – there’s one prime Cortex-A77 designed with a higher clock speed and larger cache, then three additional Coretx-A77 mainstream cores at a lower performance and power point, and finally four very power efficient Cortex-A55 cores.

The Snapdragon 865 Kyro CPU complex. (Source: Qualcomm)

To support all these concurrent processing elements is a 3MB system cache shared by the CPU, GPU, ISP, and DSP in addition to the caches in each unit. The system cache improves data sharing between functional units. The latest LPDDR5 DRAM interface at 2.7GHz supports the main memory requirements.

Two other key blocks in the SD865 are the Sensing Hub and Processor Security. The low power sensor hub that draws less than a milliamp (mW) and can interface with an ultralow power camera to recognize gestures and supports multi-word voice wake. The Processor Security Unit builds on the Secure Processing Unit in SD855 as the first mobile SoC to receive smart card equivalent certification. The SD865 adds dual SIM, dual standby capability.

Summary of new features in the Summary of Snapdrago865 (Source: Qualcomm)

Beyond Smartphones — AR/VR/XR, Always-Connected PCs

In addition to the smartphone Snapdragon processors, Qualcomm also updated its processors for Microsoft Windows on Arm (Always Connected PCs) program and AR/VR/XR. For Microsoft Windows PCs, Qualcomm added two addition processors targeting lower price points below the Snapdragon 8CX. The Snapdragon 8C and 7C offer consumers additional system price points, while not compromising on 4G LTE connectivity.

In the AR/VR/XR market, Qualcomm has racked most of the wins for standalone head mounted displays (HMD) and controllers. Microsoft HoloLens 2, Oculus Go and Quest, Google Glass 2 are among the best know wins. As the market for XR (extended reality is Qualcomm’s preferred term) continue to evolve with higher-resolution displays, higher refresh rates, and additional cameras, Qualcomm has a line of dedicated Snapdragon XR processors that is separate from the smartphone chips.

Product life spans are longer in XR than smartphones, so the refresh rates for Snapdragon XR processors has a different cadence. In addition, product requirements are different for XR devices than for smartphones. While 5G connected smartglasses is a good goal for the future, today most XR devices are WiFi connected or tethered to a smartphone. The Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 5G processor includes support for up to 7 cameras required for cutting edge HMDs with eye tracking and inside-out six degrees of freedom (6DOF) tracking. The XR2 can perform room mapping using the cameras to create a virtual playground.

Displays are getting higher resolutions and the XR2 supports 3Kx3K pixels per eye at a 90Hz refresh rate. The video decoder can support a virtually mapped 2D 8K video stream at 60Hz for a virtual big screen experience. Also, it supports HDR10 and HDR10+ video quality. Qualcomm is working on a reference design for the XR2 and has a partnership with Pokeman Go creator Niantic to develop AR glasses. Pokeman Go is probably the most popular AR game created to date – which makes the project very interesting.


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Conclusions

After three days of Snapdragon briefings, the company put on an impressive show. But this was a watershed event for Qualcomm as 5G begins its inevitable destiny to replace 4G/LTE. The smartphone has become the largest development platform on the platform and these products will reach hundreds of millions consumers over the next few years. And these new platforms will bring more machine intelligence to the edge (although I can’t vouch for the humans). These are the devices transforming our lives, one new Snapdragon at a time.