LAS VEGAS—Qualcomm wants to immerse you in the new Snapdragon 835 processor.
The chip that's going to power most of the leading Android phones this year is designed to grab information from the air at gigabit speeds and turn it into rich virtual and augmented reality experiences, according to several executives at a pre-CES briefing.
"The 835 is going to be one of the key devices that propels the VR use case," said Qualcomm SVP Keith Kressin.
During the day-long briefing, it was clear where Qualcomm thinks mobile technology is going: not into traditional desktop uses, but into VR and AR. All of the components in the Snapdragon 835 seem to be designed for that task: surround sound, eye tracking, a better GPU, depth-perceiving cameras, and very high-speed LTE streaming, for instance.
"Augmented reality is constant use. The vision is that [AR devices] would be on literally all day," Kressin said. "I need much better battery life, I need a better display, I need higher frame rates, I need better audio. All of these requirements are what's driving the next generation of mobile devices."
Commercial devices with the Snapdragon 835 will start to appear in the first half of 2017, Qualcomm said. As for who will make them, "Look at the OEM partners we had on the 820 and 821," Kressin said. That includes pretty much every smartphone company you can think of other than Apple and Huawei.
The hardest thing to understand about the Snapdragon 835, especially if you're thinking from a desktop CPU space, is how much Qualcomm has been prioritizing elements of the system-on-chip other than the CPU.
This has been coming for years, and it can be tricky because it relies on firmware and the Android OS to properly distribute work to non-CPU components of the chip. During the briefing, it was striking how little Qualcomm talked about its Kryo 280 CPU, as compared to other components.
Is that because it isn't truly a custom core? Qualcomm had a weak year in 2015 with a Snapdragon 810 lineup that seemed rushed to market, losing the Samsung Galaxy S6 as a client only to regain the business with the Snapdragon 820 and the Galaxy S7. The 835 is "built on ARM Cortex technology," with four 2.45GHz Cortex-A57 cores and four 1.9GHz Cortex-A53 cores. The danger is that by using ARM's designs rather than the 820's custom cores, Qualcomm's customers will look more closely at other manufacturers using ARM cores, such as Mediatek and the in-house chip divisions at Samsung and Huawei.
Qualcomm tries to counter that by pointing out that this is the first 10nm mobile processor, which will improve efficiency, and also by saying the CPU is "tightly integrated" with other components using the new Symphony system manager, which operates automatically yet can be customized by application developers. This distributes work across the CPU, GPU, DSP, and more exotic components, letting the Snapdragon 835 work better than it would with CPU alone.
"There's some stuff we're working on with Google that we can't talk about, but we have some ways of making this stuff happen under the hood," Kressin said. "We have to make sure that heterogenous scheduling happens automatically, but we also have to support the super-developers" who want more control, he said.
How that will combine with Qualcomm's recent announcement that it will support Windows 10 on mobile PCs, including legacy Win32 apps, is yet to be seen.
The Galaxy Note 7 disaster, which was basically caused by trying to put too much battery in too little space, shows that we still need chipmakers to do their part on battery life.
The Snapdragon 835 consumes 25 percent less power than the 820, according to Qualcomm. That means seven hours of 4K streaming video and two hours of VR gaming on a typical device, the company said. These new uses are really power hungry.
Since Qualcomm can only do so much on power efficiency, it's also introducing Quick Charge 4, which supposedly charges a phone to five hours of use in five minutes and is USB-C power delivery compliant.
Keeping things running also means shifting a lot of work to the Hexagon DSP, probably the least understood part of Qualcomm's chips. Hexagon is basically a low-power CPU that handles a bunch of specialized tasks. Image processing? Some of that's on Hexagon. Motion tracking during VR? Hexagon. Audio? Yep, Hexagon.
"While the GPU is more efficient than the CPU, the DSP is more efficient than the GPU," Kressin said.
The new Adreno 540 graphics chip improves 3D performance by 25 percent over the previous generation, Qualcomm said. But it also enables features like HDR10, which improves colors; foveated rendering, which most clearly renders what you're looking at rather than elements in the periphery of a scene; and low latency, which allows you to move your head smoothly around VR scenes.
With one 32MP or two 16MP cameras running at the same time, the Snapdragon 835 supports various dual-camera functions. One option looks just like the Apple iPhone 7 Plus's cameras, with a regular lens and a zoom lens. Another looks more like the Huawei P9, with a color module and a black-and-white module to improve low light performance and color quality. Phones based on this chip will also record 4K HDR video with electronic image stabilization, Qualcomm says.
Having multiple image sensors on the same surface also gives a device depth perception, Tim Leland, Qualcomm's VP of product management pointed out. "If you want to be able to interact with a VR world, it needs to be able to capture your hands in the VR display," he said.
Qualcomm typically has the most advanced 4G modem technologies in the business. The Snapdragon 835 will feature the X16 modem, which Qualcomm announced earlier this year and will be able to boost LTE to gigabit speeds.
The keys to gigabit LTE are triple 20MHz carrier aggregation with 256-QAM encoding and 4x4 MIMO antennas, said Qualcomm's senior director of marketing, Peter Carson. That's going to be first introduced with a Netgear hotspot in Australia this January, but Sprint and T-Mobile have said they're trying to assemble this set of technologies.
T-Mobile already has 3x carrier aggregation and the other two features in play on the Galaxy S7, but can't hit gigabit speeds because it doesn't have enough spectrum. It may need to fold in LTE over unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum, something the company has said it's exploring. Sprint says it'll be the first to gigabit LTE in the US because it has so much 2600MHz spectrum, and it'll be compatible with the X16 in 2017.
It's called gigabit LTE, but the point is to raise average speeds to a level where new experiences become possible, Carson said. Gigabit LTE networks allow for average speeds of 114Mbps, which lets you stream 4K VR at 120 frames per second and access cloud storage at about the same speed phones access their local flash storage, making storage feel unlimited—as long as you have an unlimited plan, that is.
Other components in the Snapdragon 835 include 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5, and optional 802.11ad, a short-distance, high-speed transfer system Qualcomm has been promoting which hasn't gotten much uptake yet.
We'll try to get some Snapdragon 835 demos, if they're on offer, here at CES.