Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855 promises 5G, enhanced AI, and true 3D biometrics

The mobile platform has been designed for our future 5G networks and spectrum requirements.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

MAUI, HAWAII: At the Qualcomm Snapdragon Tech Summit in Maui, Hawaii, the US chip giant announced the Snapdragon 855 mobile platform, designed to "connect the world with 4G and 5G."

On Tuesday, Qualcomm released a few teasers but little in terms of technical details. Now, a day later, the tech giant has provided us with more.

We knew that in 2019, Android device vendors would begin shipping devices with the 5G-supportive Snapdragon 855 system-on-a-chip (SoC), and at the same time, partner carriers ranging from SingTel to AT&T and China Mobile would be establishing testbeds worldwide for 5G deployment for both sub-6 GHz and mmWave systems.

OnePlus has been confirmed as the first firm to offer the United Kingdom 5G-ready smartphones via a partnership with EE.

The inclusion of the Qualcomm Snapdragon X50 5G modem supports both sub-6 GHz and mmWave frequency, while a built-in Snapdragon X24 LTE modem enables 90 percent of carriers to achieve multi-gigabit LTE.

The SoC also includes an integrated Wi-Fi 6-ready mobile solution, improving power efficiency as well as WPA3 compatibility for enhanced security. The system also introduces 802.11ay-based Wi-Fi technologies, capable of managing speeds of up to 10 Gbps.

At the conference, Durga Malladi, Qualcomm's senior VP of engineering, said these enhancements open up the latest Snapdragon chip to a "range of commercial applications."

The reference design, as shown below, makes use of Qualcomm's X50 modem and QTM052 antenna modules. Companies including Google, HTC, Samsung, LG, and Motorola are all working with Qualcomm on the hardware aspects of 5G technology.


The executive added that the hardware had been designed for maximum compatibility with carriers as part of the global 5G push.

The multi-gigabit SoC utilizes the company's fourth-generation artificial intelligence (AI) engine, which Qualcomm says offers a 2x performance boost in comparison to competing alternatives currently on the market and a 3x performance enhancement in comparison to its predecessors.

The AI engine will be used for everything from enhanced camera features -- including object detection and depth perception -- to augmented reality (AR) applications.

The latest invention in the Snapdragon lineup will also feature the Computer Vision (CV) ISP for improved photography and video capture, which moves image processing to hardware for both a speed boost and reduction in CV power requirements.

Katouzian said the imaging processor is the "world's first' computer-vision ISP," which can recognize "who and what you are capturing."

Judd Heape, senior director of product management at Qualcomm added that the latest addition to the Snapdragon range has been improved for low-light image capture, a triple-lens, 3x zoom setup and 4K HDR recording. Depth sensing at 60fps is also now a possibility, as well as HDR 10+ video capture on mobile.

Qualcomm's continued efforts to improve mobile photography are no surprise, as the 855's predecessor, the Snapdragon 845 -- announced almost a year ago to the day -- focused on this smartphone use case as a priority.

The engine is able to support the Tensorflow Lite, Google's Neural Networks API, and Qualcomm's neural processing SDK. The Qualcomm Math libraries, Open CL, and Hexagon NN libraries are compatible with the engine, which the tech giant says is able to manage over seven trillion operations per second.

Read on: Qualcomm announces the Snapdragon 855 Mobile Platform to usher in our 5G future

When it comes to security beyond WPA3, the SoC will include Qualcomm's 3D Sonic Sensor, an upgrade on today's biometrics which relies on 2D scans that can be spoofed or easily fooled.

According to senior vice president and general manager of mobile at Qualcomm Alex Katouzian, the 3D Sonic Sensor is able to capture a true three-dimensional image of your finger -- including ridges and pores -- by using ultrasound technology rather than light.

Contaminants such as water or oil will not impact the functionality of biometric sensors using Qualcomm's technology, either.

The change has been made in the interest of security and is "the most secure solution on the mobile market today," according to the executive.

Read on: What is 5G? Everything you need to know about the new wireless revolution | Wiring for wireless: 5G and the tower in your backyard | Palo Alto Networks to launch next-gen firewall for 5G networks | On a roof, inside London's 5G mobile trial

The 7nm Snapdragon 855 also utilizes an Adreno 640, Spectre 380, Kryo 485, and Hexagon 690, of which Qualcomm says the latter has been transformed from a "generic" system to one more suitable for AI applications.

According to Qualcomm, users can expect a performance boost of roughly 45 percent in the CPU.

The revised Kryo 485, built on Arm Cortex technology, introduces the "Prime Core," a reshuffle in the core system which includes a dedicated 2.84 GHz high-performance core alongside three 2.42 GHz performance cores and four 1.80 GHz efficiency cores, which include optimized data prefetching for boosted memory efficiency.

In addition, the Adreno GPU offers graphics rendering which is 20 percent faster than its predecessor, alongside Vulkan 1.1 support, high dynamic range (HDR), and physically based rendering (PBR).

The Hexagon 690 is a combination of traditional DSP and AI features. This element of the chip offers a 20 percent performance boost, with image processing improvements and the new addition of Tensor Accelerator, a system dedicated to AI high order computation and multi-dimensional math used in neural networks.

In addition, the number of Vector eXtensions has been doubled from two to four.

Snapdragon Elite Gaming was also introduced at the conference, which is Qualcomm's new program dedicated to next-level gaming experiences, with the overall aim of making you "forget" you are using a handheld console.

Devices based on the Snapdragon 855 mobile platform are expected to become commercially available in the first quarter of 2019. Samsung and AT&T have announced their intentions to introduce 5G-enabled devices in early 2019.

"As operators launch 5G networks in early 2019, consumers will for the first time be able to take advantage of transformative 5G consumer experiences on mobile devices with Snapdragon 855," said Katouzian. "We are proud to share our technology inventions and be among the first to bring mobile 5G to the world."

Disclaimer: Attendance at the conference was sponsored by Qualcomm.

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