Qualcomm building 8 cores into its new Snapdragon 4-series chips

A Qualcomm exec had previously labeled 8 cores 'a dumb idea,' but if everyone else is doing it....

A Qualcomm snapdragon 820 prototype

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Qualcomm announced a pair of Snapdragon processors for midrange phones Monday night with what might be a tinge of embarrassment. Both include eight cores, a strategy derided by a senior Qualcomm exec two years ago as a dumb idea.

There’s nothing inherently wrong about the Snapdragon 617 and Snapdragon 430—two chips that, as their product designations imply, will be marketed as phones that are cheaper than the flagships housing the Snapdragon 820. Qualcomm also said Monday that the communications processor within the 820 will be known as the X12, supporting “4G+” connectivity with bandwidth up to 650Mbps down and 150Mbps up.

It’s just that in 2013, Qualcomm senior vice president Anand Chandrasekher called eight-core smartphone processors “dumb." Asked whether Qualcomm would follow Mediatek into the market with an 8-core chip, he replied, “We don’t do dumb things.”

Well Chandrasekher, that was then, this is now: Both the Snapdragon 617 and Snapdragon 430 both have octacore processors inside, company executives said.

Why this matters:  Poor Chandrasekher was trying to make a point that simply adding cores was a dumb idea if they couldn’t be used cohesively. Now, however, the core count has become another metric of performance.  With four major smartphone players—ARM, whose designs are used as is by smaller chip houses and adapted by others; Qualcomm; Samsung, and Apple—the competition is forcing vendors to do things they previously thought off-limits.

Communication is the key, Qualcomm

The new Snapdragons will use an older ARM A53 core, not the new Kryo core that will be featured in the 820. So far, Qualcomm has said only that Kryo will be a quad-core chip running at speeds of up to 2.2GHz, on a 14-nm process.

Few details of the new Snapdragons were released, though both chips will include the Hexagon DSP for computational processing and always-on sensors. The 430, meanwhile, boasts a new Adreno 500 core but support for “just” 1080p displays, rather than the higher-resolution displays used by flagship devices. Commercial devices featuring the Snapdragon 430 are expected to be available in the second quarter of next year, Qualcomm said, while the 617 should be shipping in phones before the end of 2015. 

Both chips also boast what Qualcomm calls QuickCharge 3.0, which halves the time to apply a full charge to phones that support it, versus QuickCharge 1.0. QuickCharge 3.0 can charge a phone from zero to 80 percent in about 35 minutes, the company said. According to Mark Shedd, director of marketing for Qualcomm, QuickCharge 3.0 can increase or decrease the voltage in 200-millivolt increments, decreasing the wear and tear on the battery and increasing its lifespan. (It’s possible that phone makers will see this as another argument for sealed, unreplaceable batteries, however.)

Perhaps the real differentiator between the two is the modem. The Snapdragon 617 uses a Qualcomm X8 LTE modem, with support for 2x20 MHz LTE-Advanced, with 300Mbps up and 100Mbps down. The 430 uses the X6 version, with 2x10MHz LTE-A, and 150Mbps down and 75Mbps up.

The capabilities of the modem are apparently also the last of the details Qualcomm has slowly dripped out about the capabilities of the Snapdragon 820. Here’s what you need to know: The X12 supports Cat 12 download speeds up to 600Mbps and Cat 13 upload speeds up to 150Mbps via carrier aggregation. On the Wi-Fi side, the phone supports tri-band: 60GHz for 802.11ad, plus 2.4GHz and 5GHz coverage for 2x2 802.11ac. The modem will also tap into unlicensed LTE spectrum (LTE-U), and the Zeroth modem will be able to switch back and forth between Wi-Fi and LTE for voice as well as video calling.

This story was updated at 2:50 PM on Sept. 16.

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