Every year, Qualcomm gives tech media the opportunity to benchmark the newest Snapdragon Reference Device so they have a baseline to compare them to shipping devices that come months later, and what kinds of improvements they can expect over previous Snapdragon platforms.
The Snapdragon 865 is a big deal for a number of reasons, but in terms of straight-up year-over-year benchmark improvements, it's pretty iterative.
While in Hawaii for Qualcomm's Snapdragon Tech Summit, me and my colleagues, Andrew Martonik and Nirave Gondhia spent a couple of hours running a set of very specific benchmarks — AnTuTu, Geekbench 5, GFxBench, Androbench, PCMark, Speedometer, Jetstream, and a couple others — so we could glean a few numbers and figure out that, yes indeed, the Snapdragon 865 is faster than the 855.
But that shouldn't come as a surprise. Here are a few of the results comparing the Snapdragon 865 RD to the 855 from the previous year:
|Benchmark||Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 RD||Snapdragon 865 RD||% difference|
|AnTuTu 7.1.1||Row 0 - Cell 1||Row 0 - Cell 2||Row 0 - Cell 3|
|Geekbench||Row 2 - Cell 1||Row 2 - Cell 2||Row 2 - Cell 3|
|GFXBench 4.0||Row 5 - Cell 1||Row 5 - Cell 2||Row 5 - Cell 3|
|ES 3.1 Manhattan 1080 offscreen||71||88.68||20%|
|ES 2.0 T-Rex 1080 offscreen||163.54||204.85||20%|
Whether the benchmarks are CPU- or GPU-constrained, the Snapdragon 865 performs better than its predecessor across the board. That's a good thing, because it shows that year over year gains in performance are obtained despite not ramping up clock speeds but by optimizations to the CPU and GPU designs themselves. In particular, it's noteworthy that Qualcomm relied on an unmodified ARM Cortex-A77 design for the prime and performance cores versus making changes to the Cortex-A76 cores in last year's platform.
Our colleagues at Anandtech took a much deeper dive into the Snapdragon 865 and here's what they said about the CPU system performance:
In other words, Qualcomm still falls behind Apple's 2017 A11 processor in some respects but is now ahead in others. But there's another narrative that we haven't mentioned: sustained GPU performance. Qualcomm said that while average GPU performance should be around 20-25% better in most workloads, those workloads shouldn't tax the graphics chip the same way as they did in previous generations.
Anandtech once again:
But one area the Snapdragon 865 will likely delight people, especially when it comes to app load times and general snappiness around the OS, is its improved memory latency. Anandtech again:
Poor memory latency is not something that comes up a lot in benchmarking, but Qualcomm made it clear that a lot of work was done to alleviate some of the issues from previous generations, and that's without even supporting LPDDR5 memory.
You can call me AI
One of the main areas of improvement in the chip is how it processes machine learning- and AI-heavy tasks. The Snapdragon 865 claims to have an AI engine twice as powerful as the 855, hitting 15 trillion operations per second. That's an astounding number, for sure, but it doesn't always translate properly in terms of real-world performance, mainly because the use cases for these kinds of apps and operations are kind of limited.
XDA-Developers has a really good overview of how Qualcomm eked out such incredible numbers from its fifth-gen AI engine. I like their conclusion, as it sums up why the AI Engine is important, if not now then into the future:
Why these benchmarks are not the whole story
I don't love benchmarks, which is why this article is in the format it's in. I'll be the first to admit other people do it better and more comprehensively than I do, and I choose to be dubious about how synthetic or even organic benchmarks actually translate to real-world experiences in the smartphone space.
I'll give you an example: the Snapdragon 670 found in the $399 Google Pixel 3a does not translate to demonstrably worse performance than the Snapdragon 855-powered Pixel 4. Mid-range is no longer a dirty word, and Snapdragons in the 600 and 700 series are more than capable of getting the job done for the vast majority of people.
So does that mean the iterative improvements we see in the Snapdragon 865 aren't noteworthy? Of course not — as workloads get more complicated, they move off the CPU and onto the GPU and DSP (AI Engine), these high-end chips will enable more specialized and less generalized tasks. Think heavy computational photography abilities or real-time translation, things that only trickle down to the 600 and 700 series platforms a year or two after they debut on the 800s.
The synthetic benchmark narrative also doesn't touch on many of the other areas in which the Snapdragon 865 excels: 5G, which comes on all devices (for better or worse), and most notably, camera abilities. Those evaluations will have to wait until we get the first smartphones running the Snapdragon 865, likely in late Q1 with the Galaxy S11 series.
Given the warm but muted reception awarded to the Snapdragon 855 this year, the days of massive annual performance bumps between generations is probably over. Instead, it's the stuff on the edge that's most exciting, and I can't wait to take that picture in the coming months.
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Daniel Bader was a former Android Central Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor for iMore and Windows Central.