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Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 deep dive: Everything you need to know

Qualcomm has unveiled its Snapdragon 888 chipset for next-gen flagship smartphones. Here's everything you need to know.
Features
By
August 1, 2021
Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip front and back
Qualcomm

2020 has been a rollercoaster year for processor technology. AMD is claiming the PC crown with Zen 3, while Apple is taking on Intel with Arm-based Macs. Now Qualcomm is hoping for its own game-changing moment with the announcement of its latest mobile application processor, the Snapdragon 888.

Headline chipset features include 25% better CPU performance than last year, a 35% graphics uplift, blazing-fast integrated 5G networking, and revamped AI and image processing capabilities — all wrapped up a tiny package built on the latest 5nm manufacturing process. The Snapdragon 888 also introduces a host of new features for gamers, developers, as well as the security-conscious. There’s a lot of ground to cover here.

Will eight be Qualcomm’s lucky number? Here’s everything you need to know about the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888.

More chips: Qualcomm Snapdragon 750G: More choice for affordable 5G

Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 specs

Snapdragon 888Snapdragon 865Snapdragon 855
CPU Config
Snapdragon 888:
1x 2.84GHz (Cortex-X1)
3x 2.4GHz (Cortex-A78)
4x 1.8GHz (Cortex-A55)
Snapdragon 865:
1x 2.84GHz (Cortex-A77)
3x 2.4GHz (Cortex-A77)
4x 1.8GHz (Cortex-A55)
Snapdragon 855:
1x 2.84GHz (Cortex-A76)
3x 2.42GHz (Cortex -76)
4x 1.8GHz (Cortex-A55)

GPU
Snapdragon 888:
Adreno 660
Snapdragon 865:
Adreno 650
Snapdragon 855:
Adreno 640
DSP
Snapdragon 888:
Hexagon 780
(fused scalar, tensor, and vector)
Snapdragon 865:
Hexagon 698
Snapdragon 855:
Hexagon 690
Process
Snapdragon 888:
5nm
Snapdragon 865:
7nm FinFET
Snapdragon 855:
7nm FinFET
Camera support
Snapdragon 888:
• 200MP single shot
• 84MP single with zero shutter lag
• 64MP+25MP with zero shutter lag
• Triple 24MP with zero shutter lag
• Hybrid AF
• 10-bit HEIF image capture
• HDR video
• multi-frame noise reduction
• Real-time object classification, segmentation, and replacement
Snapdragon 865:
• 200MP single shot
• 64MP with zero shutter lag
• 25MP dual camera with zero shutter lag
• Hybrid AF
• HDR video
• multi-frame noise reduction
• Real-time object classification, segmentation, and replacement
Snapdragon 855:
• 48MP single
• 24MP dual
• Hybrid AF
• HDR video
• Multi-frame noise reduction
• Real-time object classification, segmentation, and replacement
Video capture
Snapdragon 888:
8K @ 30fps
4K UHD @ 120fps
720p @ 960fps
Snapdragon 865:
8K @ 30fps
4K UHD @ 120fps
720p @ 960fps
Snapdragon 855:
4K UHD, HDR @ 60fps
Video playback
Snapdragon 888:
8K
4K HDR up to 120fps
H.265 and VP9 video decoder
360 degree
Snapdragon 865:
8K
4K HDR up to 120fps
H.265 and VP9 video decoder
360 degree
Snapdragon 855:
8K
4K HDR up to 120fps
H.265 and VP9 video decoder
360 degree
Charging
Snapdragon 888:
Quick Charge 5
Snapdragon 865:
Quick Charge 4+
Quick Charge AI
Snapdragon 855:
Quick Charge 4+
Modem
Snapdragon 888:
X60 LTE/5G (integrated)
7500 Mbps down
3000 Mbps up
Snapdragon 865:
X55 LTE/5G (external)
7500 Mbps down
3000 Mbps up
Snapdragon 855:
X24 LTE (integrated)
2000 Mbps down
316 Mbps up
Other networking
Snapdragon 888:
Bluetooth 5.2
Wi-Fi 6E, Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac), 802.11a/b/g/n
Snapdragon 865:
Bluetooth 5.1
Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac), 802.11a/b/g/n
Snapdragon 855:
Bluetooth 5.0
Wi-Fi 6-ready (802.11ax), Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac), 802.11a/b/g/n

CPU and GPU: covering the basics

Let’s begin our run-through with a deeper dive into the architectural changes inside the Snapdragon 888. We’ll start with the CPU and GPU, the cornerstones of day-to-day performance.

As anticipated, Qualcomm is a member of the Arm CXC program, granting it access to this year’s co-developed Cortex-X1 CPU core. The Cortex-X1 is a bigger, more powerful, and power-hungry spin-off from Arm’s roadmap, offering around a 23% further boost over Arm’s latest Cortex-A78. Qualcomm has slotted these CPUs into a three-tier cluster, just like last year. Though, this is the first time Qualcomm has used three different CPU cores in a single chipset design.

Qualcomm’s Kryo 680 CPU cluster is made up of a single powerhouse Cortex-X1 clocked at 2.84GHz with a large 1MB L2 cache. Below that sits three big Cortex-A78 cores with 2.4GHz peak clocks and 512KB of L2 cache each, doubling the cache from last year. Finally, four low power Cortex-A55 cores with 128KB L2 cache hit 1.8GHz. The clock speeds are identical to last year, suggesting conservative performance gains in exchange for better battery life. This points to limited gains for multi-core processing, while the single Cortex-X1 will make a more meaningful difference in scenarios that demand greater single-thread compute power.

Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 Kryo CPU
Qualcomm

The core cluster is outfitted with a large 4MB L3 cache and 3MB system cache, which is also unchanged from the Snapdragon 865. Although the big Cortex-X1 and A78 cores have doubled their L2 caches compared to last year. Qualcomm must have spotted some performance benefit by giving these big core more nearby memory to work with, at the expense of some extra silicon area. The Cortex-A78 is 5% smaller per core than the A77, leaving more room for the extra cache. In culmination, the Snapdragon 888 boasts 25% higher CPU performance and power efficiency. Much of the latter is likely to come from the move to 5nm and the more energy and area efficient Cortex-A78s.

The fine details: Arm Cortex-X1 and Cortex-X78 CPUs explained

Moving over to the Adreno 680 GPU, Qualcomm keeps the inner workings of its graphics silicon close to its chest. But the company is touting a 35% boost to performance, the biggest for generations, while still offering 25% better power efficiency.

Qualcomm’s latest GPU supports sub-pixel rendering as part of the display engine, which can boost the apparent display resolution. Variable-rate shading found in next-gen consoles and PC GPUs has also made its way into the architecture. This can reduce shader rendering requirements by 40% in supported games, for up to a 30% boost to performance. Although it’s likely Qualcomm is folding this into the overall 35% performance claim, so gains may be much more limited for titles that don’t support this feature.

The Adreno 680 also includes new machine learning instructions too for up to 43% faster AI performance. These instructions include 4-input mixed-precision dot product and wave matrix multiple for 16- and 32-bit floating-point numbers. This brings us nicely onto some other big changes in the Snapdragon 888: AI.

5G and AI: some much-needed changes

Machine Learning (AI) processing is a key part of Qualcomm’s heterogeneous approach to modern computing. 2018’s Snapdragon 855 introduced a Tensor accelerator into the AI processing mix. In 2020, the Snapdragon 888 “fuses” the scalar, tensor, and vector processing units inside the Hexagon 780 DSP together with 16x the amount of shared memory.

The net result is seamless workload sharing inside the unit, and up to a 1,000x improvement to hand-off-time moving workloads between the three processor types. In addition, the scalar processor sees a 50% performance improvement while the Tensor has double the compute capacity of the last generation. Combing CPU, GPU, and DSP capabilities, Qualcomm claims a 3x improvement to AI performance per watt and 26TOPs of overall AI compute. That’s a 73% increase from the Snapdragon 865’s 15TOPs and a huge generational increase… at least on paper.

However, we should be cautious about TOPs claims. TOPs don’t tell us anything about the type of workload used to calculate the figure, making comparisons very difficult. In addition, few workloads will max out the Snapdragon 888’s various AI cores all at once, although Qualcomm says it is possible to do so in some scenarios.

Perhaps more importantly, Qualcomm has some new machine learning tools for developers too. The new Qualcomm AI Engine Direct acts as an entry point for Android NN, TensorFlow Lite, and Qualcomm SDKs. This will help developers make the most of the Snapdragon’s capabilities regardless of which popular framework they prefer. Qualcomm’s AI platform also now supports the open-source TVM compiler, enabling developers to program in Python rather than C or assembly. It’s easier than ever to leverage the entire Qualcomm AI engine.

Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 AI Engine
Qualcomm

Another important change with the Snapdragon 888 is the inclusion of an integrated Snapdragon X60 5G modem. Many of the baseline specifications appear similar to the previous generation, including peak mmWave speeds of 7.5Gbps down and 3Gbps up. However, the X60 also introduces sub-6GHz FDD and TDD carrier aggregation, as well as aggregation across sub-6GHz and mmWave bands to help realize those theoretical peak speeds. Carrier aggregation is very important for boosting speeds and capacity, as it allows for data to be sent over low-band, sub-6GHz, and mmWave spectrum at once. There’s also Voice-over-NR support to make calls on future 5G standalone networks, but we’ll have to wait for carrier support on that end.

But perhaps most important of all is the fact that the X60 is integrated into the Snapdragon 888, unlike last year’s Snapdragon 865 that paired with an external X55 modem. Thanks to the increased transistor density of 5nm, Qualcomm can now fit its latest 5G goodies on the same chip as other processing components, without fewer concerns about heat dissipation. Integration means a smaller area footprint and improved power efficiency for longer battery life when using 5G. Costs could also fall as manufacturers won’t have to buy two chips, but Qualcomm would not comment on chipset pricing.

All the other odds and extras

There’s plenty more tucked into the Snapdragon 888 too.

Sticking with networking, the FastConnect 6900 function block enables Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6E, and dual radio Bluetooth 5.2 functionality. This includes support for the latest Bluetooth LE Audio standard. So networking features remain on the very cutting edge of modern standards. There’s also a new AI processing block in Qualcomm’s second-gen sensor hub, designed to offload processing for always-on scenarios. This block runs on less than 1mA of current but is 5x more powerful than the last-gen sensor block. Qualcomm says it sees about an 80% offloading of tasks from the Hexagon AI processor, which should be a boon for battery life.

For gamers, Snapdragon Elite Gaming now includes Qualcomm Game Quick Touch. A feature designed to lower touch response latency, anywhere from 20% with 60fps to 10% faster in 120fps titles. There’s no dev work required here, so gamers will benefit as soon as they get their hands on next-gen handsets.

Camera functionality is set for a range of improvement too. The Spectra 580 ISP transitions from a dual to triple processor setup. This allows for three concurrent processing chains at once, which could be used to capture simultaneous video streams from three cameras or perform real-time processing on three separate image sensors at once. Overall throughput is up from 2 to 2.7 Gigapixels per second for a 35% improvement to processing capabilities.

Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 Triple ISP
Qualcomm

In addition, the Snapdragon 888 now boasts 10-bit HDR image capture using the HEIF file container. This extra color data will ensure your images look their best when viewed on HDR displays. There’s also now 4K computational HDR capture using staggered HDR sensors. We’ve previously seen staggered sensors use simultaneous long, medium, and short exposures to produce great-looking HDR images. Now video can benefit, too. The ISP is also capable of capturing 120 12MP images per second and low light images down to 0.1 lux. There are also new AI algorithms for auto-focus, auto-exposure, and auto-white balance. Overall, expect lots more photo and video flexibility in 2021 smartphones.

Another interesting note is that the Snapdragon 888 is the first Content Authenticity Initiative (CAI) compliant smartphone camera chipset. Essentially, manufacturers can include cryptographically secure metadata to verify the origin of photos and video — handy in a world of increasingly impressive deep fake content floating around the web. Other security initiatives include the introduction of OS Hypervisors borrowed from the desktop computing space. This allows for individual users and apps to run in their own secure virtualized OS space — also handy if you want to keep your sensitive work and personal info separate on the same device. We’ll need to wait and see if handset manufacturers actually implement these extras.

What to expect from Snapdragon 888 smartphones

Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip by phone
Qualcomm

As we’re now into 2021, the a selection of Snapdragon 888 powered smartphones have arrived. The Samsung Galaxy S21 series, OnePlus 9 range, Xiaomi Mi 11, and Asus Rog Phone 5, and others are all sporting the high-end chip.

Our early assumptions about the Snapdragon 888 turned out to be right. More efficient CPU, GPU, and AI processors with an integrated 5G modem, built together on a 5nm manufacturing process is good news for battery life. At the same time, new imaging, machine learning, and security features flesh out the likely capabilities of next-gen phones. Although it’s still more of a gradual evolution than an overnight game-changer.

Benchmarks have been a little more hit and miss, with some devices struggling to sustain their performance gains over last year’s devices. Other reports have suggested that the SoC runs a little on the hot and power hungry side. The prospective gaming gains haven’t quite manifested in every benchmark either. But generally speaking, performance improvements are there to be had. Particularly when it comes to the single-core improvements offered by the powerhouse Arm Cortex-X1 core.

Interestingly, not every high-end smartphone with a Qualcomm chip may end up being powered by the Snapdragon 888. The company has also unveiled its Snapdragon 870, a suped-up version of 2020’s Snapdragon 865 Plus. This chipset is powering more affordable flagship smartphones that don’t require all of Qualcomm’s very latest bells and whistles, such as the Motorola Edge 20 series.

Next: Samsung Galaxy S21 series: Everything you need to know