Qualcomm's Snapdragon 845 doubles down on cameras and AI

It'll enable 4K HDR video capture, faster neural processing, and, of course, improve performance.

The next-generation mobile processor that you'll most likely find in many of next year's major flagships is here. At its second annual tech summit today, Qualcomm unveiled the Snapdragon 845, which is its latest "premium" mobile CPU. The chipset will retain the same 10nm footprint as its predecessor, but feature revamped architecture that brings about new features like 4K HDR video capture on smartphones and improved AI processing. That's in addition to the typical performance and power-consumption upgrades we see each year. Qualcomm said it's focusing on AI, immersion, security, connectivity and performance with the new chipset.

Immersion basically means the ability to capture and render the world around you at high resolutions and quality for more realistic results. The Snapdragon 845 will feature an Adreno 630 graphics processor and Qualcomm's Spectra 280 image signal processor (ISP) which we previewed earlier this year. The company's graphics lead, Tim Leland, explained that the ISP allows for "Ultra HD premium" video capture at 60 frames per second. Qualcomm believes the Snapdragon 845 will be so good at photography that the phones powered by this chip will score above 100 on DxOMark, but that depends on how each device maker implements the new features.

Video and image processing features

With the Snapdragon 845, Leland says cameras can collect more color volume than before -- a shift from the resolution race that's been the focus of mobile photography in the past few years. The Spectra ISP collects more color data by combining three methods - moving from 8-bit to 10-bit color, expanding its color gamut from Rec 709 to Rec 2020, and increasing luminance (the brightness of an object).

That's a lot of jargon to parse through, but basically, the chip can process more shades of the same color for more depth, recognize a broader spectrum of colors and increased levels of brightness (up to 10,000 nits) for the same hue. That allows for more nuanced images.

Spectra ISP will also bring about improvements to low light footage thanks to new software that enables multi-frame noise reduction by using 60 16-megapixel images per second. Having that much data helps the processor make more informed decisions on what specks in your picture are noise and what are parts of the photo to keep. Snapdragon 845 will also provide "motion compensated temporal filtering" as an image stabilization method, which compares a frame in a video to the frames before and after it to figure out where an object's outline should be.

As for XR (extended reality), Leland said the Snapdragon 845 will enable devices to achieve room-tracking (with 6-DoF and SLAM), which is similar to what HTC's Vive headset can do. Previously, the Snapdragon 835 enabled 6-DoF tracking, so your hands could be detected across pitch, yaw and roll (axes of movement). Now, you can move about a room freely and still be detected within your virtual environment.

Snapdragon 845 will also come with Adreno Foveation, which tracks the viewer's gaze to optimize image rendering for the center of what you're looking at while "blurring out" the surroundings. There will also be natural voice processing improvements for more-realistic simulations.

Artificial intelligence improvements

The new chipset also brings about improvements for AI processing. Let's face it, AI is going to be running our lives in the future, and Qualcomm wants to help accelerate machine learning tasks. On Snapdragon 845, which the company says is its third-generation mobile AI platform (the first being the Snapdragon 820), the focus is on core optimizations. This means the processor will assign tasks to different cores to execute based on the type of power needed.

Developers will also be able to choose which cores to use -- whether it's the Hexagon 685 digital signal processor (DSP), the GPU or the Kryo CPU. With all the changes introduced in the architecture (mostly involving adding support for various computational frameworks), Qualcomm says the Snapdragon 845 executes AI tasks three times faster than its predecessor.

Snapdragon 845 will support a variety of popular AI frameworks like Google's TensorFlow, Facebook's Caffe 2, as well as the newer Open Neural Network Exchange (ONNX). The chip will also enable AI features in photography like video style transfer, artificial bokeh effect with single cameras as well as face recognition and unlock. Digital assistants will apparently get a boost, too, with the potential to become faster and more accurate.


Hackers have gotten so good at exploiting existing security architecture that Qualcomm added a "Secure Processing Unit" to the Snapdragon 845. The SPU has its own processor, random number generator, memory and power island to defend against attacks. "It is its own secure island," Qualcomm's security lead Sy Choudhury explained. This vault provides a third level of security on top of the two existing layers, and is designed to protect biometric information.

This means that processes that use your fingerprint, iris or face authentication data will run in a separate environment from, say, the parts of the chip that render graphics or play music. The SPU will also handle authorizations for payments, transit and SIM cards.

At a demo on a reference device using the 845, a Qualcomm rep used voice authentication (by speaking a passphrase) to log into a chat app and then scanned his iris to approve sending money to a friend within the app. In that example, less-important authentications like the voice recognition can be processed in a trusted environment that is already on existing chips, while the iris verification can be delegated to the SPU. This assignment is up to developers to decide when designing their apps.


While the Snapdragon 835 enabled gigabit LTE, the Snapdragon 845 will feature the company's second-generation gigabit LTE modem, called the X20. It will improve peak and real world speeds over the Snapdragon 835's X16 modem by 20 percent. One of the biggest changes is support for five-carrier aggregation, an increase from four-carrier before, as well as open up access to unlicensed spectrums. With these updates, Qualcomm says the Snapdragon 845 can achieve so-called wireless fiber speeds that enable downloads of two-hour videos in two minutes or less.


Just how much faster is the Snapdragon 845 is over its predecessor? According to Qualcomm, about 25 to 30 percent. The 845 has a similar octa-core architecture to the 835, consisting of four "performance" cores that can handle more taxing tasks but require more power, and four "efficiency" cores that run lighter, shorter tasks while sipping energy. The performance cores can go up to 2.8GHz clock speed, while the efficiency modules can reach 1.8GHz. Overall, the Snapdragon 845 is also consumes 30 percent less power than the 835.

Qualcomm achieved these speed and energy-consumption improvements largely by implementing a system cache on the Kryo CPU (in addition to dedicated memory serving the major cores) so that components like the DSP or the modem can store and access data quickly.

The first devices to pack Snapdragon 845 will arrive in early 2018, so it will be awhile before we get to see what all the new features introduced today will look like in consumer devices. Unfortunately, there weren't many demos showcasing all the new features that Qualcomm teased today, so we'll have to wait till actual phones, laptops or other types of gadgets are released to check them out.