Qualcomm has a new flagship smartphone processor: the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1, announced at the company’s annual Snapdragon Tech Summit, giving an early preview at the brains behind the most powerful smartphones of 2022.
The successor to last year’s Snapdragon 888, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 is the first chipset to bear Qualcomm’s new naming scheme (which the company had previously teased last week), ditching the triple-digit numbering system that Qualcomm has previously used for new, generation-based monikers.
As is the case every year, Qualcomm is promising some major improvements in the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1, with better performance, camera technology, AI capabilities, security, and 5G.
Let’s start with the hard specs. As expected, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 is the first chip from Qualcomm to use the latest Armv9 architecture from Arm. Specifically, the new eight-core Kryo CPU will feature a single prime core based on the Cortex-X2 at 3.0GHz, along with three performance cores based on Cortex-A710 at 2.5GHz, and a quartet of efficiency cores based on the Cortex-A510 design at 1.8GHz. Additionally, the new chip jumps to a 4nm process, from the 5nm process on which the Snapdragon 888 was built.
All told, Qualcomm promises that the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 will offer up to 20 percent better performance and up to 30 percent more power efficiency over last year’s model.
Meanwhile, the new Adreno GPU (much like the Gen 1’s Kryo CPU, Qualcomm didn’t give a specific number for the updated hardware here) promises to offer 30 percent faster graphics rendering, in addition to 25 percent better power efficiency compared to the Snapdragon 888. It’ll also offer a new GPU control panel for fine-tuning how games are running on your phone.
Making its debut on the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 is Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X65 modem, which promises a whole suite of 5G features and firsts. As Qualcomm’s fourth-generation 5G modem, it builds on the existing mmWave and sub-6GHz compatibility that came before, adding support for up to 10Gbps speeds and the latest 3GPP Release 16 specification. As is always the case, you almost certainly won’t actually see that kind of speed in the real world.
The Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 also supports Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E, Bluetooth LE Audio (a first for Qualcomm), and the company’s Snapdragon Sound technology for enabling AptX Lossless wireless audio.
As is traditional for Qualcomm’s top-tier processor, the company is putting a big emphasis on its beefed-up camera capabilities, which the company is bundling together for the first time under a new “Snapdragon Sight” brand.
While the Spectra ISP is once again a triple ISP system, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 upgrades things up to an 18-bit system (up from 14 bits on the 888). That translates to 4,096 times more camera data and up to four additional stops of dynamic range for very bright or very dark scenarios. The triple ISP (image signal processor) also allows for things like shooting 240 12-megapixel photos in a single second or simultaneously shooting in 8K with HDR while snapping 64-megapixel stills thanks to an increased 3.2-gigapixel per second throughput.
Qualcomm is also offering more high-end camera features out of the box, including support for shooting in 8K video with HDR 10 Plus and shooting in 18-bit RAW (assuming your phone has the camera hardware to actually pull it off).
The 8 Gen 1 also features a variety of other imaging improvements, including better dark mode pictures that can use data from up to 30 images in a single shot (up from six images on the 888). There’s also a host of better AI processing techniques, with improved auto-exposure, auto-focus, and auto-face detection technology, a dedicated “bokeh engine” for adding portrait effects to 4K video, and an “ultrawide engine” that can de-warp and remove chromatic aberrations from shots.
Qualcomm is also adding a fourth ISP, located in the dedicated sensing hub on the SoC: unlike the triple ISP for the primary camera, the new ISP is designed specifically to power an always-on camera that’s active at all times. Qualcomm has some big ambitions for what developers can do with the always-on camera, like automatically shutting off your screen when you put your phone down or if it detects someone trying to read over your shoulder.
And while the idea of an always-on camera raises some obvious security concerns, Qualcomm argues that the feature is intended to help make using your device more secure, with any camera data for the always-on camera staying locally on-device in the chip’s secure enclave. Additionally, customers will be able to opt in to using the always-on camera, much in the same way that they can choose whether to use an always-listening microphone feature for voice assistants.
Still, though, the added capability — and how manufacturers implement it into their devices, if they do at all — will be something to watch when the first chips with the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 roll out.
On the AI side of things, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 features Qualcomm’s latest Hexagon processor, with its seventh-generation AI engine, which the company says is four times faster than its predecessor and up to 1.7 times more power efficient.
The company showed off a variety of use cases that the boosted AI performance can enable, including the aforementioned camera functionality, a “Leica Leitz Look mode” that emulates Leica lens effects, and improved detection of where you’re holding your phone for optimizing antenna performance. Additionally, Qualcomm is adding AI-powered sampling to offer a DLSS-style effect for improving mobile games, something that it says will happen automatically when gaming on the 8 Gen 1.
Lastly, there are security improvements. The Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 adds a new hardware-level layer of security with a “dedicated Trust Management Engine,” in addition to offering support for the Android Ready SE standard, enabling support for digital car keys, driver’s licenses, IDs, and e-money wallets. There’s also built-in iSIM support for directly connecting to cellular networks.
Despite the new branding, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 doesn’t appear to break the mold for Qualcomm’s chips, offering the usual generational upgrades we’ve come to expect from the company’s annual flagships. Still, in a world where bespoke chips like Google’s Tensor or Apple’s A-series processors are becoming increasingly popular, it’s good to see that Qualcomm has no intention of slowing the pace on its own top chips, even as the competition heats up.
And with the first Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 smartphones expected before the end of 2021, it won’t be long before we’ll be able to see just how powerful Qualcomm’s latest chip is for ourselves.