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Anatomy of the flagship processor of the high-end smartphones of 2020

Announced yesterday, today is the high-end processor Qualcomm has delivered some of its secrets. Called to propel the high-end Android devices of the year 2020, the Snapdragon 865 (SD 865) is the second System on a Chip (SoC, all-in-one chip) from Qualcomm’s 5G generation. As with the Snapdragon 855, it comes with an external modem called X55, a chip compatible with 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G networks.

Produced by TSMC in 7 nm, the SD 865 is the flagship of Qualcomm’s range of mobile processors, the processor that “represents” the brand and showcases its know-how. And the least we can say is that Qualcomm has put the package to ensure its domination …

Spectra 480, a phenomenal visual brain

If Qualcomm went quickly on the CPU – a shame for a “processor”! – the Californian brand, however, has been well-versed on an increasingly key element in the SoC: the image processing processor (ISP for Image Signal Processor). The ISP of this new Snapdragon 865 is the Spectra 480, a visual “brain” whose computing capabilities are simply phenomenal, since Qualcomm claims a power of two billion pixels processed per second (two gigapixels).

A feat made possible by a profound overhaul of how to handle pixels: instead of supporting one pixel per clock cycle – and increase consumption with every attempt to improve that processing speed – the internal machine now calculates 4 per cycle.

For the first time in the world in a consumer device, the Spectra 480 is able to support 8K video in both playback and recording. Four times better defined than the current 4K, the 8K is for the moment limited to expensive professional cameras as it is necessary to integrate computing power to manage it. Video side, this beast also manages the new standard HDR + and can now shoot – world premiere again – slowed video at 960 frames per second in 720p without any time limit. Not to mention the support of 4K120 Hz displays, etc.

This ability to swallow pixels also allows the Spectra 480 to push the limits in photography. Thus, it can control camera modules up to 200 Mpix. Yes, you read correctly: two hundred megapixels. Once considered pure delirium, this super definition of image is soon on our doorstep: in addition to the arrival of the Samsung 108 megapixel sensor in the Xiaomi CC9, Judd Heape, in charge of the development of Spectra, says that 200 Mpix sensors should point the finger at the end of 2020.

Hexagon 698: A powerful AI to do without the cloud

With the photo, one of the elements that enjoys a significant leap in performance is the SoC DSP, a chip called Hexagon 698. This component is both the conductor of the use of different other components – whoever identifies which sub-chip will be best suited for such a calculation – but he is also in charge of calculations related to AI – deep learning, machine learning, etc.

With a computing capacity of 15 trillion operations per second (15 TOPS in jargon), Hexagon is a champion of the execution of algorithms related to AI. It is thus twice as powerful as the Snapdragon 855 Hexagon launched last year (7 TOPS) and five times more efficient than the Snapdragon 845 launched in 2018 (3 TOPS). The impressive speed of the evolution of performances shows that the hardware related to AI is in its infancy.

Such power, what is it for? Well at all, or almost everything: from the transcription and translation in real time of an audio stream (English dialogue transcribed simultaneously in English and Chinese), through the acceleration of graphic effects, the reduction of power consumption compressing the data to be passed on, etc. The field of possibilities of using such a chip seems endless. While fun demonstrations, such as changing a face in real time, entertained the gallery during the conference, the level of performance gain picked up some jaws. A level of performance that Qualcomm wants to facilitate access by now opening access to its neural network (NN): in addition to TensorFlow type frameworks, developers will now be able to program their own mathematical operators in Open CL.

What is interesting in the progression of these performances is that it allows the terminals to do without … the cloud! While it was previously considered unavoidable for some tasks, such as the transition from voice to text, data processing in the cloud has shown its limits: power consumption, bandwidth, latency quite high, problems of confidentiality, etc. By boosting the power of SoCs, you can now run many applications locally and save valuable data processing and power consumption.

Adreno 650, gaming performance that lasts over time

Highlighting the improvements over the previous generation of Adreno – pure graphics power up to + 25% and improved energy efficiency by + 35% – Qualcomm has not played a big role in GPUs. Keith Kressin, vice president of product management and responsible for the Snapdragon roadmap, even said the goal was not to be first on the two-minute benchmarks ” but to be first in continuous performance “. Understand: Manage performance in the most balanced way possible to deliver the highest level of guaranteed performance without killing the battery in two hours.

To do this, Qualcomm has integrated two technologies into its new Adreno: the Game Smoother, which smooths performance to achieve a regular frame rate. And the Adaptive Game Engine, a real-time game analysis system that runs in the background and ensures that the game works at its best.

Here again, the Snapdragon cumulates the world premieres: first to manage 144 Hz screens, so dear to gamers, and first SoC to set up a system for updating GPU drivers. Through a downloadable app in the store of Google Play, the Adreno will be able to receive the latest evolutions of the driver as well as optimizations specific to flagship games (PUBG, Fortnite). The story will tell if the process will take and will be imitated by the rest of the industry, but we cross our fingers: pity, we do not end up tomorrow on smartphone with the same problems of graphics drivers that we sometimes suffer on PC!

X55, external mega modem

If the Snapdragon 855 was also accompanied by an external modem, the latter was only responsible for the 5G, the other standards (4G, 3G, etc.) were supported by the integrated X24 modem. The Snapdragon 865 goes even further by giving the X55 the management of all cellular standards, thus ejecting the modem from the SoC.

Claimed by Qualcomm as ” the best modem we’ve ever created, and therefore the best in the world “(Why be modest!) The X55 has not been integrated in the SoC for reasons of performance, integration time and transistor density.

Asked about this, Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon explained that Qualcomm wanted to “offer the best possible performance” but that ” even with the 7nm engraving, the density level of the modem would have forced us to make a SoC much too big “. Dimensions that would have been the source overheating that forces us to curb performance “. Out of the question for a prestige product, especially for the world champion of modems.

Side integration complexity, the external character of the X55 should not have too much negative impact on the endurance of the battery. The integration of such a complex modem, “ if it turns out to be relevant at one time or another Would be conceivable that “ from 5 nm According to Qualcomm.

A flea, three years of work, ten thousand engineers

We have listed only the most important components of this chip: in addition to this a horde of equipment such as Wi-Fi 6, very low consumption elements to operate the voice assistants by consuming only a milliwatt, security tools that will allow phones to store digital identity documents (driver’s license in the US), etc. A number of functions that makes you dizzy.

Explaining that the main job at Qualcomm is ” manage complexity Christopher Patrick, Vice President of Engineering, kicked off the conference with a bit of detail on what such a development meant. Thus, it has been learned that the development of a SoC like Snapdragon 865 has taken three years to no less than ten thousand engineers.

A development that began in December 2016, at the time of the announcement of the Snapdragon 835. A year later, when the announcement of the Snapdragon 845, the structure of the chip – what we put in, how we the agency – was completed. The year 2017 was devoted to the final definition of the SoC: the engineers designed the various elements, monitored their good design (electricity consumption, etc.) analyzed the use cases and characterized the level of performance to be achieved.

This phase ended at the end of 2018, when the Snapdragon 855 was announced. During 2019, the third year of development, the engineers finalized the design, tested prototypes, etc. Before moving to certifications with operators and partnerships with the rest of the industry (manufacturers, developers, suppliers).

Three years later, the ten thousand project engineers “gave birth” to a chip of just a few square millimeters, more powerful than many computers over five years old. A flea apparently insignificant but whose potential seems gigantic. Who said that mobile processor launches were boring?

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