Qualcomm’s 2021 mid-cycle refresh is here in the form of the Snapdragon 888 Plus. But with phones not expected until later in 2021 and some rather muted performance benefits on offer, it’s perhaps not the most exciting processor release from Qualcomm.
If you missed the announcement, the headline improvements are a Cortex-X1 CPU clock speed boost from 2.84GHz up to 2.995GHz and a 20% boost to the chip’s AI number-crunching capabilities. While obviously very welcome improvements, those aren’t exactly the sort of gains that will have performance enthusiasts chomping at the bit for upcoming handsets.
Qualcomm’s latest launch feels a little familiar. The Snapdragon 870, launched earlier in 2021, only offered incremental benefits over 2020’s Snapdragon 865 Plus as well. Which did leave us wondering whether the chip was more of a rebranding exercise than anything else. Is it simply becoming harder to eke extra performance out of today’s smartphone chips, or is there something more at play?
How does the Snapdragon 888 Plus compare to previous generations?
Qualcomm is no stranger to mid-cycle processor upgrades. The Snapdragon 888 Plus is the third generation in a row to receive the “Plus” treatment, then there was the Snapdragon 821 refresh before that. So how does this year’s model compare to previous improvements?
What’s clear is that the Snapdragon 888 Plus, and Snapdragon 870 for that matter, is a much smaller mid-generation refresh than previous iterations. At least as fast as clock speed boosts go. While a 5% CPU clock speed boost is pretty reasonable, the lack of GPU boost leaves little tangible benefit for consumers. Previous generations offered 10%+ clock speed boosts in the graphics department, which can make all the difference to silky smooth frame rates. If possible, a GPU speed boost would probably have been a more sought-after upgrade, given the growth of high refresh rate displays.
To be fair to Qualcomm, the Snapdragon 888 Plus touts a 20% improvement to its machine learning capabilities, moving from 28 to 32 TOPS. However, TOPS is a single-operation specific metric and it doesn’t give us a tangible feel for how good the chip is at real-world tasks. It’s quite likely that this 20% uplift is a best-case scenario for specific workloads and we have no idea how common they are. Either way, it’s not like the majority of applications require blazing fast machine learning capabilities, so this performance uplift will only be felt in niche use cases.
Snapdragon 888 Plus smartphones are not expected to land in consumer hands until Q3/Q4 2021. By then we'll soon be eyeing up Qualcomm's next-generation chipset.
The bottom line is that consumers will likely struggle to notice any obvious benefits of a move on up to the Snapdragon 888 Plus, especially when compared to previous Plus models. While extracting extra performance is always welcome, I wouldn’t wait for one of these handsets over grabbing a Snapdragon 888 smartphone today. Especially as Snapdragon 888 Plus smartphones are not expected to arrive in consumer hands until Q3/Q4 2021, and by then we’ll soon be eyeing up Qualcomm’s next-generation chipset.
Is performance becoming harder to extract?
Energy constraints permitting, Qualcomm obviously wants to maximize the performance of its chips. That’s the whole point of the Plus iterations, which come about after Qualcomm and its partners optimize the manufacturing process and yields post the initial launch. So why does it seem that performance improvements are becoming increasingly difficult to eke out?
It’s possible that Qualcomm and its partner engineers are simply doing a better job at maximizing performance right off the manufacturing line, leaving less on the table for the Plus model than in previous years. For example, at 2.84GHz the Snapdragon 888’s Cortex-X1 was already pretty close to the core’s 3GHz peak-rated speed in a handset form factor. If you look across the industry, we see similar trends in diminished overclocking potential and maximized performance out of the box. Nvidia’s latest RTX 30 series GPUs — if you can get your hands on one of them — offers limited overclocking potential. At least not without some serious cooling. Likewise, there’s not a lot of headroom left in AMD’s Ryzen 5 series of processors either, particularly in the larger core models.
Not forgetting that the CPU and GPU aren’t the only components onboard modern mobile SoCs. These processors are all packed increasingly tightly together with the move to compact 7nm and 5nm manufacturing nodes and heat dissipation can become an issue. Hence, perhaps, the lack of a GPU boost. Then there’s the global chip shortage, which may also be a contributing factor. Given the current shortages, companies may be settling for chips with more limited power constraints in order to ensure adequate supply. This, in turn, could mean less potential for stable, blazing-fast clock speeds. These speeds simply might be the best that Qualcomm can do with the chips its partners are able to provide at the moment.
2021 is an odd year for SoCs
2021 has been an unprecedented year for processors across the industry. Performance in the mobile and PC spaces has reached new heights, chips are smaller and more efficient than before, yet it’s never been tougher to get your hands on the best technology around.
Perhaps a little of all of the above has culminated in the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 Plus and to some extent the Snapdragon 870 as well. But whatever the situation behind the scenes, the latest chip is a welcome upgrade but not a revelation for smartphone users. In addition, 888 Plus smartphones not expected to land in consumer hands until nearer the end of the year. With plenty of great Snapdragon 888 powered smartphones on the market already, it’s difficult to justify putting off a purchase by a few more months for just a small upgrade to CPU performance.
Not forgetting that eyes will be turning to Qualcomm’s next-gen Snapdragon processor and 2022’s flagship smartphones not long after the first 888 Plus smartphones finally arrive. We expect that processor to offer bigger generational performance and efficiency upgrades, thanks to the latest Arm Cortex-X2, A710, and A510 CPUs as well as a new Adreno GPU onboard.