Qualcomm has announced a new flagship version of its Snapdragon smartphone platform. Snapdragon 855 is significant for two reasons – firstly, this is the platform that will power many of 2019’s flagship phones and secondly, it will power the first commercially-available 5G-capable handsets in early-to-mid 2019.

Let’s explore what this means for your next smartphone.

Will all Snapdragon 855 handsets be 5G?

No, and this is a key point. Not all Snapdragon 855 handsets will be 5G-capable. The previously-announced X50 5G modem is, if you like, an optional extra for manufacturers to include in their handsets and is external to the main 855 chip. Instead, the 855 chip contains a 4G LTE modem (X24) capable of up to 2Gbps.

This makes total sense at this stage of 5G’s development. It’s clearly intended to give manufacturers choice and raises the potential for there to be both 4G and 5G versions of flagship handsets.

We’d expect next year’s Snapdragon 865 (not a huge leap to deduce that nomenclature) to integrate a 5G-capable modem on the chip.

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What’s Snapdragon 855 based on?

Like every other type of mobile phone CPU, Snapdragon is based on core designs from ARM, here the ARM Cortex-A76. But like other people that produce their own chips (Huawei, Apple, Samsung, and others) they take the original design and add their own optimisations, graphics, modem and more.

As we mentioned, Snapdragon 855 is a 7nm chip, like the Huawei Kirin 980 and upcoming Samsung Exynos 9820 that we’ll see in some versions of the Galaxy S10. Last year’s Snapdragon 845 used the 10nm manufacturing process and the smaller process essentially means it can be more power and performance efficient and pack more capabilities into the chip.

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At the heart of 855 are eight Kryo 640 processor cores that, says Qualcomm, represents the biggest leap forward in performance between Snapdragon generations. The cores are clocked at different speeds meaning they can adapt to different types of applications – the key performance core runs at a significant 2.84Ghz.

Qualcomm claims 855 can open apps quicker than apps running on competitor 7nm chips –we think it’s particularly talking about Huawei’s Kirin 980 there.

What phones will definitely use it?

We know that Snapdragon 855 will power a new 2019 flagship from OnePlus coming to EE - not the OnePlus 7 apparently - while there will also be at least one, but probably two phones from Samsung. One of these will surely be a variant of the forthcoming Galaxy S10.

If we were to bet on this, we’d say it will be the US version of the Galaxy S10 – Samsung has long used Snapdragon chipsets for the US variant of its Galaxy S series phones.

Xiaomi, Oppo, Vivo and ZTE have also now confirmed they will be offering 855-based 5G handsets. 

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What phones may use it?

There are several other manufacturers like Google, HTC, Nokia, Motorola, Sony, LG who are strong Snapdragon partners and so we’d expect those manufacturers to come out with Snapdragon 855 handsets.

So if we were to speculate about names, we’d expect the Sony Xperia ZX4, Google Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL, LG G8, Moto Z4 and HTC U13 Plus to feature Snapdragon 855.  

What phones definitely won’t use it?

Apple has never used Snapdragon for the iPhone. Instead, it now produces its own hardware – the Ax series chips, the first of which debuted in the iPad and iPhone 4. Likewise, most Galaxy S series phones are based on Samsung’s Exynos platform while Huawei also makes its own Kirin hardware for its own handsets as well as those from Honor. Again, all are based around ARM-designed CPU cores.

Although it traditionally used Qualcomm modems in its handsets, Apple has now plumped for Intel modems in most of its iPhones for the last year or so due to its long-running legal battles with Qualcomm and it remains to be seen whether Intel will be able to provide a 5G modem for the 2019 iPhone. It seems very unlikely at this point so we believe it is far more likely that there will be a 5G iPhone released in 2020 instead.

Snapdragon 855 photo, video, gaming and graphics

The 855 brings several new capabilities to photo and video capture using the Spectra 380 Image Sensor Processor (ISP). Firstly, there’s the capability for portrait mode (bokeh) in 4K HDR video, while it can also capture video content in HDR10+ - given Samsung is behind the format that might make its debut on the Galaxy S10 (Dolby Vision is also supported).

Qualcomm also talked about High Efficiency File Format (HEIF), supported by 855, that enables devices to save images that are half the file size of existing JPEGs.

The graphics on Snapdragon 855 is provided by Qualcomm’s own Adreno 640 GPU with around a 20 percent performance improvement over the previous generation. Snapdragon Elite Gaming is the name of Qualcomm’s optimisations for improved gaming performance.

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Other notable Snapdragon 855 features

The Hexagon 690 Digital Signal Processor (DSP) is a more powerful processor for AI work and the fourth-generation AI engine is capable of 7 trillion operations per second and offering three times improvement in performance over the previous generation and, claims Qualcomm, twice the AI performance of “7nm smartphone competitors” – it’s particularly referring to Huawei’s Kirin 980 there.

Qualcomm also brought Google on stage to talk about vastly reduced latency using Google Translate because of the DSP performance improvement.

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The Wi-Fi inside the Snapdragon 855 is capable of running on 802.11ax networks, known commercially as Wi-Fi 6 (you’ll see that name start cropping up in different places). 

As with all such hardware, it is backward compatible with older standards. Qualcomm also talked about a new 60 GHz Wi-Fi platform which 855 is compatible with, this promises even greater speeds with compatible networks.

Quick Charge 4+ is also supported for fast charging on compatible handsets as well as Qualcomm's new ultrasonic fingerprint reader tech called 3D Sonic.