Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 vs Snapdragon 865: The big changes

Here's how the two premium Snapdragon SoCs stack up against each other.

Qualcomm’s President Cristiano Amon took to stage to announce next year’s flagship Snapdragon 888 5G SoC at the Snapdragon Summit. The SoC will power most upcoming flagship smartphones, some of them such as the Mi 11, Oppo Find X3, and Realme Race being the very first ones. With the new SoC now out, we look at how it differs from the Snapdragon 865 SoC and what Qualcomm has improved in its newest shiniest new silicone chips. 

Snapdragon 888: 5nm Process

For starters, one of the key differences is the scale. The Snapdragon 865 is built on TSMC’s 7nm FinFET process while the Snapdragon 888 5G is built on Samsung’s 5nmLPE process that generally makes it faster. Qualcomm hasn’t revealed the specifics of the CPU cores yet, however, the key improvements this time around are in departments such as 5G, AI capabilities, as well as ISP (computational photography). 

The Snapdragon 888 is the first SoC to come with the new Cortex-X1 (Prime Core) and Cortex-A78 CPU IPs by Arm. It continues to use the 1 + 3 + 4 cores setup. The prime core is clocked the same as the previous Cortex-A77 generation which is 2.84GHz, however, it doubles the L2 memory cache to a max of 1MB. All this does represent a boost of 25% for the new CPU, however, that number is cut to half when compared to the Snapdragon 865+ which clocks in at 3.09GHz. The prime core is accompanied by three Cortex-A78 cores which are again clocked the same as the Cortex-A77, but have double the L2 cache.  All this plainly means that Qualcomm’s CPU this year runs a chance of getting beaten by the likes of Samsung’s Exynos flagship as the improvements are modest compared to last year.

Integrated 5G Modem

By far the biggest change here, the Snapdragon 888 5G chips now feature an integrated modem, the 3rd generation 5nm Snapdragon X60 5G. What this means is that the modem baseband and application processor are combined into a single chip, optimized for performance and power efficiency. The Snapdragon 865 had a separate 5G modem. The reason to integrate the modem, from Qualcomm’s viewpoint, is that the 5G market is now more mature. However, we know that’s far from true in certain regions like India which is the world’s second largest smartphone market.

Qualcomm also boasts that the X60 modem is the first to aggregate Sub-6, TDD bands and FDD networks while the Snapdragon 865 modem did not supports such varied bands. This means that that network carriers will be able to mix and match more available Sub-6GHz spectrums to provide better bandwidth. In general, all this should lead to more flexibility for network operators in terms of frequency band support. It also supports global multi-SIM, SA and NSA networks, and Dynamic Spectrum Sharing. 

6th-gen AI Processor

The Snapdragon 888 also brings substantial AI improvements. In fact, this is where Qualcomm has focussed more of its upgrade efforts. It is propelled by a new 6th-gen AI Engine which is a hexagon 780 processor with 26 tera operations per second (TOPS). It is a complete new build compared to the Hexagon 600 and has 3x performance per watt which is rare to see in the industry. For comparison, the Snapdragon 865 maxed out at 15 TOPS. This is around a massive 70 percent increase that promises better image and sound recognition, and much more. It also now has Qualcomm Sensing Hub that allows low-power always-on AI processes to function in the background for AI-based features. 

Better Spectra ISP

Moving on to the computational photography part, Qualcomm promises a triple-fold improvement to “transform smartphones into professional-quality cameras”. It has a new Spectra 580 ISP with gigapixel speed that is up to 35% faster than the previous generation Spectra 480 ISP. It essentially allows the SoC to now run three independent camera modules concurrently, which opens up completely new use cases for camera apps. For example, users will be able to employ three sensors (ultra-wide-angle, wide-angle and telephoto modules) to capture a single scene at the same time. Further, there is a new low-light architecture that is claimed to help capture brighter photos, even in near-darkness.

Part of that improvement is to be able to capture photos and videos at 2.7 gigapixels per second through a concurrent usage of up to three 28MP sensors with zero shutter lag. Users will also be able to burst capture roughly 120 photos at 12MP in a single second or three 4K HDR videos at the same time. There’s still also support for ultra-high-resolution sensors up to 200MP.  The 10-bit colour depth in the HEIF format will allow for capturing vivid colours.

Better Adreno GPU

And lastly, the Snapdragon 865 was already a beast in gaming, the Snapdragon 888 still promises to best it with a 35% increase in GPU performance, thanks to the Adreno 660. Qualcomm doesn’t open up much about the intricacies of the new upgrades on its GPU, but this number means that Android flagships could go toe-to-toe with Apple’s latest silicone next year. Also, the addition of variable rate shading (VRS) onto the Adreno GPU is a cutting-edge PC and console-grade feature. This shows Qualcomm’s commitment to bring the latest of mobile GPU features to the mobile platform. 

The key takeaway from this is that the Snapdragon 888 CPU focuses on AI, GPU, and camera improvements as well as 5G. As flagship smartphones become more and more alike, Qualcomm has opened a doorway with the new camera ISP implications as well as AI features that OEMs will be able to play with to differentiate themselves from the herd. Hence, we can expect to see smartphone manufacturers using these new features to their advantage in the coming year.

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