Qualcomm unveils Snapdragon 845, claims leap in AI performance

Qualcomm has unveiled its latest flagship SoC, the Snapdragon 845, with claims of improved Extended Reality (XR) and on-device AI performance, and a new Secure Processing Unit (SPU) for ‘vault-like’ security features. TLAs aside, the SoC is being linked to the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S9, and Qualcomm will hope to reinforce its reputation of industry-leading performance, as it battles to fend off Apple’s lawsuits and Broadcom’s hostile takeover attempts.

But those two issues are not the only short-term problems that Qualcomm faces. In the IoT arena, Qualcomm has yet to really carve out a niche for itself – despite attempts to position its processors as ideal for new devices. Cameras, gateways, drones, and smart home devices are all promising new avenues for Qualcomm, but Intel lurks at every corner, and a plethora of other ARM-based chips are lined up to bid on every RFP. Its thrust into the automotive market, via acquiring NXP, has also turned into a bit of a headache.

So as the company continues its IoT transition, the spec-sheet makes the Snapdragon 845 sound like a very impressive bit of kit. Qualcomm claims 64x the HDR capture for its camera, which now supports the full Rec. 2020 spec for UHD video. Its video performance is being sold as ideal for Augmented, Mixed, and Virtual Reality experiences, both from the phone form factor and for powering Head Mounted Displays (HMDs). Qualcomm says the 845 is the first mobile platform to enable room-scale Six Degrees of Freedom (6DoF), for more immersive XR experiences (without being distracted by running into a table or wall).

But the other main focus of the announcement was AI processing. The third-generation of Qualcomm’s AI mobile platform, the developer claims a 3x improvement in overall performance compared to the previous SoC (the 835 – we’re not sure what happened to the 840). The first-gen, which introduced the Neural Processing Engine (NPE – an evolution of Qualcomm’s Zeroth project), was the Snapdragon 820.

For smartphones, this improved performance means better digital assistant performance, better image capture, and better XR experiences, but Qualcomm doesn’t want to limit itself to just chasing handsets. For some time, it has been pushing the Snapdragon family as a platform for network-edge devices, ranging from gateways to drones, which can be used to capture and process IoT data and devices, out in the field.

Edge-processing will be required to reduce the volume of data that needs to be streamed back to a central cloud application – a volume that will generate a rather expensive data bill at the end of a month, potentially negating the entire business case. As such, having the ability to pre-sort or filter that information could prove extremely valuable for a developer, but the key is to have that performance inside a power package that is achievable on something like a drone or robot. This is where Qualcomm’s mobile experience should come to the fore – although Intel is definitely looking to do the same sort of thing.

To this end, the 845 SoC will support Google’s TensorFlow and Facebook’s Caffe machine-learning frameworks (both open source), with the NPE SDK also now supporting TensorFlow Lite and the new Open Neural Network Exchange (ONNX) specification, enabling Caffe2, Microsoft’s Cognitive Toolkit (CNTK), and MxNet. Also supported is Google’s Android Neural Network API.

The heart of the 845 is the Kryo 385 CPU (based on the ARM Cortex-A75), an 8-core unit that houses four heavy-lifting 2.8GHz cores and four smaller 1.6GHz cores for less intensive processes. Qualcomm says the 2.8GHz clock speed is 25% higher than its previous generations, and it has also increased the amount of L3 and system cache – to help increase throughput. The CPU is built using a 10nm Low Power Plus (LPP) FinFET process.

As for the GPU, the 845 uses an Adreno 630, which apparently has a 30% improvement in graphics and video rendering. It also features ‘Adreno Foveation,’ a display output technology that claims to be able to support two 2K displays (2048x1080p) at 120Hz, with low power requirements – which sounds ideal for VR headsets.

Foveation, as the name hints at, tinkers with the Field of View, allocating less rendering power to tiles of the screen that are not in view of the user. The Quick Charge 4 support will prove invaluable here, for topping up those batteries, as they get depleted by the heavy workloads in VR apps – which aren’t going away, even with the addition of Foveation.

The integrated Hexagon 685 DSP is being pitched at AI and imaging tasks, using the Hexagon Vector DSP (HVX) and Qualcomm’s All-Ways Aware sensor hub to make sense of the analog world – as the DSP is responsible for taking inputs from the Analog-to-Digital Converter (ADC) and turning them into something that can be used by the system. For voice and sound applications, core parts of many AI projects, high-performance DSPs are vital.

As for image capture, the Spectra 280 Image Signal Processor (ISP) features active depth sensing, noise reduction, and something called ImMotion (sic) Computational Photography – which helps to improve the clarity in an image’s fine detail when a user zooms in on it, partly by using on-device machine-learning tricks to filter noise and smooth out the details. Qualcomm says the Spectra 280 can capture 16MP UHD (3840x2160p) images at 60fps, with slow motion capture of 720p at 480fps.

The active depth sensing is being pitched at machine-vision systems, but Qualcomm hopes that the advanced camera systems it is providing will be used for things like biometric authentication (iris and facial scanning), as well as for straightforward image capture – for video that might then be subjected to further machine-learning processing, in applications other than taking the perfect selfie or plate of food on a smartphone.

Connectivity is handled by a Snapdragon X20 LTE modem, support LTE Cat 17 (1.2Gbps), License Assisted Access (LAA), CBRS shared spectrum, and DSDV (Dual SIM Dual VoLTE). For WiFi, the SoC houses a 802.11ad diversity module, and has 2×2 802.11ac as its main connection. The system also supports Carrier WiFi (802.11k/r/v), which is a feature that will become more prevalent in marketing, over time. As for Bluetooth, it supports the latest standard, Bluetooth 5, but Qualcomm has added some proprietary ‘enhancements’ for wireless headphone support.

With the recent Windows announcement, it’s worth noting that smartphones will be appearing with the 845 while some flagship laptops house the older 835 – a reversal of reputations also now creeping into Apple’s ecosystem, thanks to the power of its A-Series SoCs and its reluctance to push the envelope with newer Intel CPUs in its laptops.