The Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 Performance Preview
New Features and Specifications
It is increasingly obvious that in the high end smartphone and tablet market, much like we saw occur over the last several years in the PC space, consumers are becoming more concerned with features and experiences than just raw specifications. There is still plenty to drool over when looking at and talking about 4K screens in the palm of your hand, octa-core processors and mobile SoC GPUs measuring performance in hundreds of GFLOPS, but at the end of the day the vast majority of consumers want something that does something to “wow” them.
As a result, device manufacturers and SoC vendors are shifting priorities for performance, features and how those are presented both the public and to the media. Take this week’s Qualcomm event in San Diego where a team of VPs, PR personnel and engineers walked me through the new Snapdragon 810 processor. Rather than showing slide after slide of comparative performance numbers to the competition, I was shown room after room of demos. Wi-Fi, LTE, 4K capture and playback, gaming capability, thermals, antennae modifications, etc. The goal is showcase the experience of the entire platform – something that Qualcomm has been providing for longer than just about anyone in this business, while educating consumers on the need for balance too.
As a 15-year veteran of the hardware space my first reaction here couldn’t have been scripted any more precisely: a company that doesn’t show performance numbers has something to hide. But I was given time with a reference platform featuring the Snapdragon 810 processor in a tablet form-factor and the results show impressive increases over the 801 and 805 processors from the previous family. Rumors of the chips heat issues seem overblown, but that part will be hard to prove for sure until we get retail hardware in our hands to confirm.
Today’s story will outline the primary feature changes of the Snapdragon 810 SoC, though there was so much detail presented at the event with such a short window of time for writing that I definitely won’t be able to get to it all. I will follow up the gory specification details with performance results compared to a wide array of other tablets and smartphones to provide some context to where 810 stands in the market.
The Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor is a SoC (system on a chip) that combines nearly every aspect of hardware a device needs to operate with exception of memory. Wi-Fi was left off of the SoC with this generation as well but I’ll discuss that a bit later. It marks the first flagship chip from Qualcomm to use TSMC's 20nm process technology, the same used on Apple's A8 and A8X. This will provide an interesting comparison to the upcoming Samsung parts that will instead use 16nm process technology.
The majority of tech enthusiasts know Qualcomm for its processor lineup, which is typically a custom design based on ARM’s CPU architecture. The Krait family of cores was introduced in late 2012 and shared architectural similarity to ARMs Cortex-A15. Before that Qualcomm built the Scorpion core, based on the Cortex-A8 and A9. But these custom designs included additional performance, power efficiency and features that differentiated them from “off-the-shelf” processors from ARM.
But for the Snapdragon 810, the company is using parts directly from ARM’s design books: the Cortex-A57 and Cortex-A53. There are four of each of these 64-bit ARMv8 processing cores which operate in a big.LITTLE configuration allowing the larger and faster (but more power hungry) cores to run during intensive computing scenarios while the smaller and more power efficient cores operate during standard use cases and in idle states. We have been covering the technology behind ARM’s big.LITTLE initiative for several years and the methodology is well understood.
This shift away from custom designed cores is very likely a temporary fix for Qualcomm and you should expect follow-up generations of Snapdragon to reintegrate custom 64-bit cores. For now though, Qualcomm had to ensure that it wasn’t being perceived as falling behind in the ecosystem with a processing capability of only 32-bits, even if the need for 64-bits is somewhat exaggerated for today’s users. It also means that Qualcomm’s SoC loses one of its key selling points over other parts like Samsung’s Exynos 5433 and 7410, both of which also integrate the same A57+A53 8-core design. This might also explain the rumored move from Snapdragon to Exynos for Samsung’s Galaxy S6 later this year.
From a performance perspective, we still expect the Snapdragon 810 to be faster than the 801 and 805 designs that used quad Krait custom cores. The 64-bit ISA buys software some “free” performance upgrades, and the continued migration of Android Lollipop will keep that upward momentum throughout 2015.
The graphics portion of the new Snapdragon 810 is powered by a new GPU design, the Adreno 430. This mobile GPU supports OpenGL ES 3.1, OpenCL 1.2 Full and improves performance over the Adreno 420 as well. Qualcomm claims that A430 will offer 30% “faster graphics performance” and “100% faster GPGPU compute performance” when compared to A420. Truthfully we don’t know much about the exact specifications of the Adreno 430 just yet, but it looks like it will be a modular step forward – increased shaders, cache and clock speed to gain the performance we see in our benchmarks.
The Adreno 420 is a unified shader model with a VLIW-5 pipeline, 128 ALU/shaders and clock speeds ranging from 500-600 MHz. 420 is rated at 337.5 MTriangles/s and up to 4.8 GigaPixels/s along with a peak performance rating of 172.8 GFLOPS. The new Adreno 430 is rated at 388.8 GFLOPS at its top speed (600-800 MHz), which is a 2.25x increase and should result in impressive gaming and graphics gains if true.
Architecturally, I don’t think the Adreno 430 offers any features that weren’t already supported on the A420. With the Adreno 4x series we saw Qualcomm add support for DX11.2 hardware tessellation and full profile OpenCL, all of which are carried over the A430. Full support for the Android Extension Pack (AEP) exists as well to improve graphics feature support beyond just OpenGL ES standards. With an abundance of added compute capability though you can expect Qualcomm to have better GPGPU integration as well, which should be helpful as we dive into the 4K content discussion.
Both graphics and processor segments of the Snapdragon 810 will benefit from the inclusion of Qualcomm's first LPDDR4 1600 MHz memory controller. Compared to LPDDR3, used in nearly all modern SoC, the memory controller on the 810 should provide substantially more memory bandwidth, helping in all areas of compute: graphics, compute and GPGPU.
Both content creation and content consumption are accelerated with the Snapdragon 810 processor. The multimedia processor on the SoC is Qualcomm’s first to enable both hardware encode and hardware decode support for H.265/HEVC. HEVC allows for as much as 64% better compression for video content at 4K resolutions but requires a lot of processing resources to be encoded and decoded in real time. The Snapdragon 810 will be able to record 4K video at 30 FPS with bit rates ranging from 20-60 mbps, and a demo we saw on-site featured 4K video editing in a nearly real-time fashion on the reference platform.
Obviously along with support for 4K recording, 810 will support 4K output on both internal displays and external displays via HDMI 2.0. It is also possible that with support for WiGig (802.11ad), a high-bitrate streaming solution will be produced for 4K content.
One of the most important areas for Qualcomm, and admittedly an area I am still learning about, is the LTE modem space. The Snapdragon 810 includes the first commercial modem to support integrated Cat 9 LTE-Advanced carrier aggregation. Carrier aggregation is used to increase bandwidth for device communication without breaking backwards compatibility with previous LTE standard. By combining up to three carrier channels at 20 MHz each, you can achieve a total bandwidth of 450 Mbps. This integration of the Cat 9 LTE supports all cellular modes and bands while also supporting new standards like LTE Broadcast, VoLTE (voice LTE) and LTE DSDA (dual SIM).
Along with the modem integrated into the Snapdragon 810, Qualcomm has a next-generation 28nm RF chip (WTR3925) and the previously shipping RF360 that supports global LTE infrastructure at a reduced cost to the OEM. Qualcomm specific features like Envelope Tracker, Antenna Tuner and CMOS PA/switching are available to customers that integrate the RF360 and are able to improve power efficiency and coverage/call reliability.
WiFi and Connectivity
As I mentioned above, the Wi-Fi controller for the Snapdragon 810 is actually on a different physical chip. The QCA6174A offers 2x2 capability and quite a bit of improvement on supported connectivity, including 802.11ac (wave 2) and 802.11ad (60 GHz WiGig). Support for the second wave of 802.11ac will enable users to utilize multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO) once you upgrade to a supported router in 2015. (As a side note, Qualcomm had doubts if currently shipping routers with claimed MU-MIMO support would actually be able to meet the standard.)
With WiGig, or 802.11ad, Qualcomm is setting up the Snapdragon 810 for a future of ultra-high bit-rate streaming, and during a live demo of the technology we saw 4K video streaming at upwards of 70 Mbps. Bursts of up to 7 Gbps have already been measured and I was assured that despite all the commotion about it, range in a single room doesn’t not appear to be an issue during implementation.
It’s not the first SoC to support it, but USB 3.0 is going to more important for flagship mobile processors going forward. After all, if you are recording and capturing 4K video then you are going to want a way to remove that video from your phone quickly. Migrating several Gigabyte files over USB 2.0 or even fast Wi-Fi can be arduous. I definitely hope we see Type-C connectors rather than the often criticized micro connection for USB 3.0.
Speaking of storage, the Snapdragon 810 will be the first part from Qualcomm to support UFS 2.0 (universal flash storage) and data rates as high as 1.45 GB/s. That is a dramatic boost over eMMC v5.0, which peaks at 400 MB/s but no phone had yet to integrate that version. As 4K video and other content creation tasks get moved to mobile devices, faster storage can help improve the user experience as well transfer speeds on and off of the phone/tablet.
As important as performance is for a flagship device, a crucial part of the experience is known as skin temperature, the temperature of the phone surface where you are holding it. This is controlled by a combination of power consumption of the unit and heat dissipation properties of the enclosure. In a normal use case, with a room temperature of 25C, skin temperatures should be in the 30-35C range, while in heavy uses cases (gaming, 4K recording) that can reach as high as 45C.
By moving to a 20nm process technology with the Snapdragon 810, Qualcomm is able to produce better performance at lower thermals, resulting in devices that are more comfortable to hold than could be built with Snapdragon 801.
This example presented by Qualcomm at the tech day, shows 20-30 minutes of gaming time between devices. In the result from the Snapdragon 801, skin temperatures reach as high as 45C within a 20 minute window. The Snapdragon 810 maintains a 40-41C temperature while gaming for as long as 30 minutes. The end result is the ability for the GPU and CPU to remain at higher clocks for longer periods of time, producing better frame rates for users.
Using 4K recording as another skin temperature example, the SD 810 has an even larger advantage thanks to the native HEVC/H.265 encode acceleration. On the older SoC, temperatures reached 42-43C within 6 minutes but the Snapdragon 810 only hit 35C in the same time span.