Qualcomm Shows Off Snapdragon 820 Chip Capabilities

Company executives unveil the upcoming SoC, which will offer performance and energy efficiency improvements over the current 810.

smartphone chip

Qualcomm officials have unveiled the company's newest mobile processor, a product they hope will put a strong ending to what has been to this point a difficult year.

At a press event Nov. 10 in New York City, Qualcomm executives officially announced the much-anticipated Snapdragon 820 system-on-a-chip (SoC), which is expected to power many of the high-end smartphones that will hit the market starting next year. Some of these will likely be announced at the upcoming 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January.

There was no announcement of what devices will be powered by the SoC, though the company reportedly showed off some reference systems.

In a series of releases over the past several months, Qualcomm officials have highlighted an array of features that make up the Snapdragon 820, including its Kyro 64-bit CPU, graphics technology, digital signal processor (DSP) and machine learning capabilities in the company's Zeroth platform. Now, the company is ready to talk about what all those features will bring to the SoC, such as twice the performance of the current Snapdragon 810, 40 percent graphics improvement, and three times peak upload speeds plus 33 percent faster download speeds. It also will consume 60 percent less power than the older Snapdragon 801.

The 14-nanometer ARM-based chip also includes Quick Charge 3.0 technology, which the company said will be 38 percent faster in charging smartphones than the current Quick Charge 2.0.

The Snapdragon 820 is an important product for Qualcomm, which had to deal with the fallout of the Snapdragon 810's disappointing performance, tough quarterly financial numbers, cost cutting and layoffs, and pressure from an activist investor to restructure in order to return more money to shareholders.

The year started with reports that Samsung would not use the Snapdragon 810 chip in its Galaxy S6 smartphone due to overheating issues, opting instead for its own Exynos SoC. Other smartphone vendors put the Qualcomm SoC into their devices, but the loss of Samsung was a major blow and one that grabbed the industry's attention. Prior to the Snapdragon 810, Qualcomm had developed custom cores based on ARM's architecture for its processors. However, to accelerate its move to 64-bit capabilities, Qualcomm had used an off-the-shelf ARM CPU design for the Snapdragon 810.

After the issues around the Snapdragon 810 arose, CEO Steve Mollenkopf said Qualcomm would return to a custom core design for the 820, with the result being Kyro, which offers speeds up to 2.2GHz and a FinFET transistor architecture for higher performance. It's integrated with the Adreno 530 GPU and Hexagon 680 DSP to facilitate the heterogeneous computing.

Qualcomm also notes that the Snapdragon 820's modem supports X12 LTE, which is faster than the current X10, with download speeds of up to 600 Mb/s and upload speeds of up to 150 Mb/s. It supports both 802.11ad and 802.11ac 2x2 MU-MIMO (multi-user multiple input, multiple output), which makes WiFi on the SoC two to three times than 802.11ac without MU-MIMO. The chip also supports LTE-U, which enables the device to access both licensed and unlicensed broadband spectrum.

The Snapdragon 820 may already have had a positive impact on Qualcomm, with reports surfacing in October that Samsung my use the SoC in its upcoming Galaxy S7 smartphones that are sold in the United States and China (while using its own Exynos chips for Galaxy S7s sold in other parts of the world).

That would be welcome news for Qualcomm, which saw revenues fall 18 percent year-over-year and income drop 44 percent in the third quarter. That followed a restructuring of the company announced in July that included cutting 15 percent of the workforce in hopes of saving $1.4 billion in annual expenses, a move driven by the continued dominance of Apple and Samsung in the premium smartphone space and pressure from investor Jana Partners, which also wants the company to consider breaking in two.