Qualcomm unveils the Snapdragon 888 5G, its next smartphone processor

Qualcomm promises significantly improved graphics and AI capabilities in the new chip.

qualcomm snapdragon 888 mockup

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Qualcomm has unveiled the name of its next smartphone processor: the Snapdragon 888 5G, designed to bring 5G smartphones into the mainstream and accelerate the camera and AI capabilities.

Qualcomm kicked off its virtual Snapdragon Tech Summit with an introduction to the Snapdragon 888 5G platform, which will replace the Snapdragon 865 that Qualcomm introduced a year ago. That 865 chip advanced the smartphone’s camera capabilities by adding 200-megapixel still photos and 4K HDR/8K video capture, while pairing the 865 with the standalone X55 5G modem. Qualcomm, unfortunately, is leaving some key details about the Snapdragon 888 in its pocket until Wednesday, when it will present a deeper dive into its inner workings.

According to Gartner Research, Apple’s iPhone and its A-series silicon make up 11 percent of the global smartphone market, ceding much of the remainder to Qualcomm-powered smartphones like the Samsung S9 phone sold in the United States, and the OnePlus series. (Huawei, with its 14-percent share, reportedly can buy older 4G components from Qualcomm, Reuters reported.) 

Essentially, that means that much of the smartphone world is dependent upon Qualcomm silicon. Qualcomm has lined up a number of customers and partners in support of the new Snapdragon 888 platform: carrier partners Verizon and NTT DoCoMo, and handset makers Sony, OnePlus, and Xiaomi. ASUS, BlackShark, Lenovo, LG, MEIZU, Motorola, Nubia, realme, OnePlus, OPPO, Sharp, vivo, Xiaomi, and ZTE were also listed among the handset partners who will support the Snapdragon 888 platform. (Samsung was not among the vendors Qualcomm listed, however.)

Qualcomm did not announce any enhancements to its PC platform for Windows on ARM, also known as Snapdragon Compute. Alex Katouzian, senior vice president and general manager of the Mobile Business Unit at Qualcomm, noted that Qualcomm had recently announced its Snapdragon 8cx 5G Gen 2. "Our portfolio is strong, and growing with many more devices coming soon, across different tiers," he said.

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Qualcomm president Cristiano Amon will kick off the Snapdragon Tech Summit.

Snapdragon processors typically consist of a Kryo CPU and Adreno GPU, plus the Spectra camera image sensor processor, a modem, and the Hexagon DSP for AI. Expect to see details on each of these Wednesday. For now, though, here’s what we know of the Snapdragon 888:

  • The Snapdragon 888 will include a new Spectra ISP, which can capture 120 photos per second, each at 12MP resolution, for a total throughput of 2.7 Gigapixels per second, 35 percent faster than the previous generation, the 865.
  • The Snapdragon 888 will integrate the 5G modem, the first Snapdragon 8-series part to do so. (The Snapdragon 765 and 765G both integrated Qualcomm’s X55 modem, and the Snapdragon 690 and 750G integrated 5G modems as well.) Qualcomm’s Katouzian confirmed that the integrated modem will be the X60, which debuted in February.
  • Both the short-range, high-bandwidth mmWave technology and the long-range sub-6GHz technologies are supported, naturally. Qualcomm’s also disclosing that the chip supports 5G carrier aggregation, which allows for bonding 5G channels together for greater bandwidth.
  • The Snapdragon 888’s integrated Adreno GPU delivers what the company calls the “most significant upgrade in Qualcomm Adreno GPU performance,” with a 35 percent increase in GPU performance. 
  • Qualcomm’s Hexagon AI processor will deliver 26 teraflops per second, and complement a new Sensing Hub, which uses always-on AI processing.
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A publicity still of the RC car race Qualcomm staged, using the Snapdragon 888 platform.

Naturally, 5G is one of the key technologies that Qualcomm is promoting with the Snapdragon 888.  According to Ookla, mmWave speeds are 1 times faster in the United States than sub-6GHz, Cristiano Amon, Qualcomm's president said. Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS), allowing 4G and 5G to share bandwidth, will allow 5G to be more pervasive as well as accelerate the rollout. Sub-6 carrier aggregation will allow sub-6GHz channels to be bonded together, allowing sub-6 speeds to more closer approach mmWave, he said. 

Nicki Palmer chief product officer at Verizon, appeared on Qualcomm's streamed keynote to note that Verizon will offer 5G mmWave service in 60 cities by the end of 2020. Naoki Tani, chief technology officer with NTT DoCoMo, said that his service launched service in September, and will launch sub-6GHz aggregation soon.

To show off the power of its new Snapdragon and the related 5G silicon, the company staged a race between two RC cars powered by the Snapdragon 888, which was run over a mile away from the operators. Using a 5G connection and a prototype Snapdragon 888 handset, two drivers steered the car around the track. The cars’ location was also tracked on a map of the event, using positional capabilities. 

This story was updated at 8:05 AM with additional details. 

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