The biggest winner of Mobile World Congress 2016 wasn't a phone or a phone manufacturer, but a phone chip manufacturer: Qualcomm. Having endured a rough time in 2015 due to heat and power issues with its Snapdragon 810 flagship-class processor, the American chipmaker has returned to form with its new Snapdragon 820 generation. Practically every smartphone manufacturer in attendance at MWC had a Snapdragon-powered device to show off to the world.
Samsung introduced its new pair of flagship handsets, the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, which will rely on the Snapdragon 820 in the United States. LG broke all its previous records for hype and excitement with the modular G5, which will be powered by Qualcomm's chip around the world. And Sony brought out a trio of new smartphones, with the Snapdragon-powered Xperia X Performance looking like an unofficial new flagship for the Japanese company. This is a total turnaround from last year, when Samsung opted to skip the Snapdragon 810 entirely and everyone else struggled mightily to fit it into the thin and elegant chassis of a modern smartphone.
Put a Snapdragon-only filter on the major news from the show and you'll miss out on nothing: the other big newsmakers announced at MWC were Xiaomi's Mi 5 and HP's Elite x3, both running on the Snapdragon 820 chipset. And it's not just the top tier that Qualcomm dominated, as niche devices like the Cat S60 thermal imaging phone and lower-end options like HTC's new Desire handsets also used its silicon.
Everybody loves Qualcomm right now
Xiaomi co-branded its entire event with Qualcomm and the Snapdragon logo and even set a press registration time of 8:20AM, paying a subtle tribute to the 820 chip powering its new flagship. LG also went above and beyond the call of duty for a hardware partner, bringing out Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf during its G5 presentation and showering his company with compliments. Those are the gestures of satisfied customers, and at MWC 2016, Qualcomm had an absolute abundance of them.
The reason for ebullience from Qualcomm's partners is obvious the moment you pick up a Snapdragon 820 phone: these devices are wicked fast. I got my hands on all of the above-mentioned smartphones here at Mobile World Congress and was only disappointed by HTC's low-end offerings that were using older-generation chips. Qualcomm's latest silicon combined with the efficiency and polish of Android Marshmallow is the quickest shortcut for any phone maker to provide a truly modern, ultra-responsive user experience. It's almost cheating: you check the Android and Snapdragon boxes and 95 percent of your UX takes care of itself. Cameras are fast, animations are fluid, high-intensity graphics are handled with ease, and Qualcomm promises that all of this is being done with much greater power efficiency than before.
Android Marshmallow + Snapdragon 820 will be the defining spec for 2016
This isn't yet a total return to Qualcomm's hegemony of a couple of years ago, but it's a big step toward reasserting its position as the dominant force in mobile chips. Samsung's Exynos, Huawei's Kirin, and Apple's A series of processors will all figure as important counterbalances to this year's upcoming Snapdragon ubiquity, helping to ward off complacency at Qualcomm. And MediaTek, the company that's been most active in stealing away market share from Qualcomm, will be sure to redouble its efforts after having a subdued MWC.
It's no accident that Qualcomm's biggest chip of the year coincided so perfectly with the biggest mobile show on the calendar. Like camera companies building up to Photokina, Qualcomm had been working for months in advance to make sure it could blitz MWC with a barrage of new Snapdragon devices. Many companies have such ambitions, but it's rare to see them come off as well as they did for Qualcomm this year.
Verge Video compares the Samsung S7 and the LG G5