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The high-end features mid-range phones could get this year

Qualcomm's new Snapdragon 660 and 630 platforms are likely to bring some new features to mid-range smartphones. Here's what to expect.

Published onMay 11, 2017

We’ve seen a number of major flagship releases already this year, and there are still plenty more to come, especially from the more affordable mid-tier. Just in time for their arrival, Qualcomm has unveiled its latest Snapdragon 660 and 630 mobile platforms, which will likely be powering a number of handsets that appear in the second half of the year.

Qualcomm’s latest platforms are packing much more than just processing power improvements though, and therefore give us a pretty good idea about mid-range handset features we may see going forward.

Qualcomm's latest platforms give us a pretty good idea about mid-range handset features coming this year.

Perhaps most importantly, the two platforms share a wide range of features even though one is designed for the super mid-tier and the other is likely to be priced more cost effectively. This means that we could see many of these features appear even in low cost octa-core smartphones, such as the upcoming Moto G6, Xiaomi’s Redmi Note range, and HTC’s Desire series, among other low cost models.

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 630 isn’t targeting the most budget models, but will likely power some very cost efficient mid-tier products later in the year. Bringing faster LTE, the latest fast charging, and powerful image processing capabilities with it.

Despite their differences in processing capabilities, both the Snapdragon 660 and 630 mobile platforms boast Qualcomm’s in house Spectra 160 Image Signal Processor and X12 LTE modem, which offers 600 Mbps peak download, 150 Mbps up-speeds, and 3 x 20MHz carrier aggregation capabilities for LTE-A networks.

Not only does this mean potentially faster data speeds that match last year’s flagship smartphones, but, perhaps more importantly, it also means better carrier aggregation and support for higher quadrature amplitude modulation signals which should improve roaming capabilities at the cell edge. This means a stronger signal and faster speeds while further away from cell towers and less time spent relying on 3G coverage. Mileage will, naturally, vary depending on your network.

Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 and Snapdragon 630 unveiled

As for the Spectra 160 ISP, this upgrade not only continues to support dual camera sensors like Qualcomm’s previous mid-range Snapdragons, but it also supports a wider range of sensor options and can offload more complicated processing tasks from the main CPU clusters. The 14-bit ISP handles up to 24 MP single ISP images with zero shutter lag and can handle 4K video capture at 30fps. Smooth digital zoom and fast autofocus are also supported.

In terms of dual camera options, the Spectra 160 ISP is compatible with Qualcomm’s Clear Sight camera module. Clear Sight features two cameras with different sensors, one color and one black and white to absorb additional light. This technology can improve low light imaging results, offer up superior contrast, and less noise than a single sensor solution. The Snapdragon 660 is capable of supporting two 16 megapixel sensors, while the Snapdragon 630 taps out at two 13 megapixel sensors.

The Snapdragon 660 and 630 offer better camera setups to the mid-range, including 4K video capture at 30fps, smooth digital zoom and fast autofocus.

In the Snapdragon 660, the extra Hexagon 680 DSP with HVX can support higher camera performance still, by handling tasks traditionally handled through the ISP. This can include things like image processing, post processing effects, and even computer vision tasks. Put simply, we’re looking at the possibility of even better camera setups making their way to the mid-range with the introduction of Qualcomm’s latest mobile platforms.

Affordable smartphones already boast impressive dual-camera setups, but higher resolutions and superior processing features could make an appearance this year.

Speaking of computer vision and offloading processing, Qualcomm is also now bringing its machine learning and Snapdragon Neural Processing Engine SDK to the mid-tier with its latest products. This means that “artificial intelligence” applications, such as facial recognition, object detection or smart video stabilization, can run efficiently on handsets powered by these platforms without sucking too much battery.

With virtual assistants now hitting the mainstream and boasting increasingly complex capabilities, support in lower cost hardware means that better features should be available on mid-range smartphones too.

With virtual assistants now hitting the mainstream and boasting increasingly complex capabilities, support in lower cost hardware means that better features should be available on mid-range smartphones too.

Qualcomm’s latest mid-range platforms also come packing a number of other features previously reserved for its flagship models. Quick Charge 4.0 technology promises 20 percent faster charge times and a 30 percent boost to charging efficiency. Just 15 minutes of charging can bring some batteries up to 50 percent, meaning that future mid-range handset owners can feel more confident about using more demanding and battery intensive apps.

The inclusion of Qualcomm’s Aqstic audio codec supports audio file playback up to 192 KHz/24-bit, while also boasting low distortion and high dynamic range. Of course, device manufacturers are going to have to design an appropriate follow-up to the signal chain to maximise this audio performance, but more mid-range handsets this year should be able to support high quality FLAC, DSD, and other audio formats.

Object recognition technologies may only be new in the flagship market, but mid-range devices will quickly see hardware support and optimizations too.

Looking at Qualcomm’s products and beyond, we’re also likely to see a number of mid-range smartphones come sporting Bluetooth 5 technology this year. Support is integrated into the latest mid-tier Snapdragons and it’s also a feature that other manufacturers can add on via additional ICs, if they’re not using an SoC with built-in hardware.

Bluetooth 5 boasts double the connection speed and data range and a big boost to throughput compared with Bluetooth 4.2, which is promising for audio quality and content sharing. The range boost option also mean better connectivity for less demanding use cases and better connectivity to IoT home appliances and the like.

The truth about Bluetooth 5 - Gary explains

Speaking of connectivity, we’re also quite likely to see USB Type-C connectors and faster USB 3.1 speeds continue to permeate mid-range smartphones this year. While the universal connector and faster speeds are handy, the USB Type-C standard also opens the avenue for digital headphones, display sharing, and new power delivery modes to be supported by lower cost smartphones.

In summary…

The latest hardware platform announcements suggest that a wide range of improvements and new technologies are likely heading to mid-range handsets soon. Improvements not only to camera quality but also processing capabilities, better fast charging, wireless connectivity, and even neural network processing capabilities should lend themselves to some entirely new use-cases for the mid-range. Not to mention that more powerful hardware and chips built on smaller, more energy efficient processing nodes will lead to general performance improvements as well.

Best of all, these technologies that were not long ago reserved for high-end flagships will continue to spread into the lower cost mid-tier market. Machine learning capabilities, smarter assistants, and additional extra features in the $300 to $500 price bracket, and likely even lower, is certainly a boon for us consumers.

Of course, we will have to see which technologies manufacturers end up choosing to implement in their upcoming mid-tier smartphones, as nothing is a given. But the hardware is certainly there for some very feature-rich mid-range handsets this year.

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