Get ready for your next Android smartphone to have super-fast 5G connectivity and in-screen fingerprint readers.
Those are just a couple of the features made possible by Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 855 processor.
The company this week is hosting its Snapdragon Technology Summit in Maui, Hawaii. Qualcomm has brought partners like Samsung, OnePlus, Verizon and AT&T to talk up their plans for 5G devices and networks in 2019. Samsung, for instance, said it plans to launch a 5G phone in the US in the first half of 2019.
It’s likely that phone — and many others — will use Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 855 chip.
The processor will likely provide the brains and network connectivity for most high-end Android smartphones hitting the market in 2019 (Huawei uses its own Kirin chip for phones). Nearly every major handset vendor works with Qualcomm, with one big exception: Apple designs its own chips to power its devices and now, amidst a licensing battle with Qualcomm, relies on Intel’s modems for connectivity.
For non-Apple high-end phones, the Snapdragon 855 has a lot to offer. It enables better camera processing capabilities, like being able to shoot videos in 4K HDR and detect who and what’s in front of the camera.
It’s the first chip to work with Qualcomm’s 3D Sonic Sensor, anthat’s embedded right into the display itself. And the Snapdragon 855 also is the first major processor to support 5G wireless connectivity — but notably, 5G isn’t embedded onto Snapdragon 855 itself.
And while the Snapdragon 855’s capabilities sound impressive, none of that matters if handset-makers using the 855 processor in their premium phones opt not to use all of Qualcomm’s features.
Secure ‘ultrasonic’ fingerprint sensor built into the screen
The Snapdragon 855 is the first chip to work with Qualcomm’s 3D Sonic Sensor, an ultrasonic fingerprint reader that’s embedded right into the display itself. As smartphone makers have stretched the screens of their devices across the entire front of the display, they’ve either ditched the home button entirely (Apple) or moved the fingerprint reader to the back of the device. The 3D Sonic Sensor will let them return the fingerprint reader to the front of the phone but still have a display that fills the entire front of the device.
Samsung is widely expected to roll out an in-screen fingerprint reader with the Galaxy S10 early next year. It’s likely many others will follow.
Shoot portrait-style videos
You know how portrait photos blur the background while keeping the subject in focus? Portrait mode for video promises to do the same in a moving clip. The Snapdragon 855 chip is the first to put portrait mode into a 4K HDR video.
The feature tracks the main subject, so you’ll can even swap out the background for something else, say a tropical island setting. Even with all the computational muscle required, Qualcomm claims you’ll still see at least four times the power savings.
And speaking of video, phones using the Snapdragon 855 chip can capture 4K video at 60fps — while saving power (30 percent) compared to previous 4K video captured at 30fps.
Store twice the photos and videos
This one’s a little obscure, but stick with us because it’s sneaky-cool. Phones that use Snapdragon 855 will be able to take advantage of the technology in the latest iPhones. HEIF, or High Efficiency Image Format, squeezes down your photos to half the size of an ordinary JPEG, without losing photo quality. That means it’ll take you a lot longer to run out of space.
Moreover, HEIF serves as a container for a variety of images, so you can store a traditional still, a raw file, burst mode photos and a depth map all within the same “container”. For example, on a phone with three rear cameras, you’d be able to capture and keep the telephoto, wide angle and super-wide angle perspectives at once, and repurpose them any time.
The advantage here, other than space savings, is that Qualcomm designed the 855 chip to process HEIF files quickly and at low power. Read more.
Talk to multiple AI assistants at once
What if you like Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa — why should you have to choose? Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 chip will let phone makers support multiple voice assistants. Some phones have done this in the past, but you had to download extra apps and could only use one at a time. It isn’t completely clear how this works, but we’ll hopefully learn more in an upcoming demo. It’ll support Google Assistant, Alexa, Baidu DuerOS and more.
Qualcomm is also using AI to fight echoes and background noise that can interfere with voice assistant. The end result is that you should be able to talk to the assistant with less frustration.
AI also powers the futuristic feature of voice matching, so that your phone will only respond to you. Someone else trying to wake up your phone using their voice won’t be able to access the device. This feature could pave the way for voice unlocking capabilities in the future.
Use less power while watching videos
A new feature in the Snapdragon 855, called Cinema Core, gives you up to seven times the power savings while watching videos from services like Amazon Video.
Cinema Core also will make HDR10+ playback possible for the first time on mobile devices. HDR promises improved image quality over standard dynamic range video, with brighter highlights and more realistic colors. The HDR10+ version, created by Samsung, incorporates dynamic metadata that allows a high dynamic range display to adjust brightness levels on a scene-by-scene or even frame-by-frame basis, improving the picture quality.
Access more realistic-looking games and VR videos
The Snapdragon 855’s new Adreno 640 GPU has 30 percent faster performance, something that will enable HDR gaming. Like the feature in watching videos, HDR makes the images look more realistic. Qualcomm says HDR gaming on smartphones will have over a billion shades of colors.
And the company also has a new lighting and texture technique called “physically based rendering.” It can do things like replicate the effect of sun rays reflecting off bricks. That level of detail previously wasn’t possible on mobile devices, Qualcomm said.
Games also will run smoother, thanks to Snapdragon 855’s custom algorithms that were designed to reduce dropped frames by over 90 percent. Lower latency improves multiplayer gaming.
For VR, the Snapdragon 855 enables immersive, 8K resolutions at 120 frames per second.
What about 5G?
Next year’s high-end phones — the main devices that will use the Snapdragon 855 — are all about 5G. But 5G actually isn’t integrated onto the Snapdragon 855 itself. Instead, connecting to the new, superfast network requires additional chips from Qualcomm, including the X50 modem.
It’s likely handset makers will release some devices that only use 4G LTE and save the 5G models for their most important, highest-end phones. Qualcomm’s Amon told CNET that by the holiday 2019, every Android handset maker using Snapdragon will offer 5G connectivity for their flagship phones in the US.
If a handset maker opts for just the Snapdragon 855 but no 5G modem, your phone will be able to download data at up to 2 gigabits per second because of the built-in X24 modem. That’s double the previous fastest LTE, letting you do something like download 7GB of Ultra HD video on Netflix in 28 seconds.
If combined with the X50 modem, though, users can expect up to 20 times faster average performance compared to LTE today, Qualcomm said.
Snapdragon 855 also comes packed with the latest Wi-Fi technology, called 802.11ay. It enables low latency and speeds up to 10 Gbps.
The nitty gritty
Time to get more technical. The Snapdragon 855 is built using 7-nanometer process technology, the most advanced technique available today. A key part of semiconductor manufacturing is shrinking the components called transistors — extraordinarily tiny electronic switches that process data for everything from microwave oven clocks to artificial intelligence algorithms running in our phones. The smaller the transistors, the better the battery life and performance.
Apple’s A12 Bionic chip, found in the iPhone XS and XS Max, became the world’s first 7nm processor when it launched in September. Now high-end Android phones too will have 7nm chips.
Also new in the Snapdragon 855 is the Kryo 485 CPU built on Arm’s Cortex Technology. That boosts performance up to 45 percent from last year’s Snapdragon 845. And the new Adreno 640 GPU provides up to 20 percent faster graphics.
Read now: 5G is your next big upgrade: Everything you need to know about the 5G revolution.
Read next: Taking It to Extremes: Mix insane situations — erupting volcanoes, nuclear meltdowns, 30-foot waves — with everyday tech. Here’s what happens.
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