The Snapdragon 865: The new chip where everything really is new and improved

Snapdragon 865 AI Engine
Snapdragon 865 AI Engine (Image credit: Daniel Bader / Android Central)

Another year means another new version of Qualcomm's high-end Snapdragon mobile chip. It's always a good thing to see and even though it never measures up to Apple's A-series processors in raw computing numbers (and it doesn't need to because raw numbers usually don't mean anything), you know Qualcomm is going to bring its A-game. There will always be a thing or two that turns out to be a significant upgrade from last year's model.

This year, what's a significant upgrade is best described as everything. Qualcomm spent the year fighting in court and staving off buyout attempts and building a chip where everything is newer, better, stronger, and faster.

Qualcomm Snapdragon 865: Top 4 best things (and 1 bad)

The Kryo CPU cores are more powerful, yet use the same arrangement that means the Snapdragon can have good battery life. The GPU is insane and is actually built with a mind for high-end gaming first and foremost. The Camera ISP can shoot 8K video or a 200-megapixel photo. Yes, 200-megapixels. And we haven't even mentioned the new AI capabilities. This thing is for real.

CPU cores and their arrangements aren't exciting to most of us. Qualcomm has used the same basics in its Snapdragon series for a while. You'll find a combination of low power using cores, moderate power using cores and one big honking battery bleeding group that's sickeningly powerful and kicks in when it's needed and sleeping when it's not. This works great and nothing here has changed. What did change in the CPU was a 25% across the board improvement in processing power on a 7-nanometer die so it's not going to kill your battery before lunch unless you are trying to push everything to the limit.

In 2009 the HTC Hero was released with the Qualcomm MSM7200A chip. It was the most powerful phone you could buy. 10 years later and we have super-computer chips going into our next phone.

The New Adreno GPU is a gaming-first hunk of silicon that's not only optimized for desktop-class titles (which you're going to need if you really want to put an ARM CPU in a Windows 10 laptop) but is built so that Qualcomm can work with game developers and optimized the driver and let you download it from the Play Store. That's amazing, and my favorite part of the whole announcement.

More: Qualcomm delivering Adreno 650 GPU updates via the Play Store is a huge deal for Android gaming

The Camera ISP (Image Signal Processor) in current-generation Snapdragon processors is one of the finest available. Companies like Google or Huawei may depend on AI to make great photos, but with the right camera hardware, the Qualcomm Spectra ISP can do a great job, too. And starting in 2020, it can do it in 8K videography, 200-MP photos, incorporate Dolby Vision or HDR10, and a handful of other things that the storage controller will never be able to keep up with and a measly 512GB of storage on the highest-end phones won't be able to hold. But that's not the point — Qualcomm can do it, so now it's time for other companies to step up so it can happen.

Qualcomm Snapdragon 865

Source: Daniel Bader / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Daniel Bader / Android Central)

The X55 modem is going to be in every phone using the Snapdragon 865. That means world-class LTE performance, both Sub-6 and mmWave 5G, and it will be able to use both Stand-Alone and Non-Stand Alone configurations in single or dual SIM modes. The RF stuff doesn't stop there, though.

The Snapdragon 865 also has Wi-Fi 6 with Qualcomm's patented fast connect setup that saves even more battery power when using the right Wi-Fi gear, and a new phase of the aptX codec designed for voice calls that allows super-wideband transfer over Bluetooth so your Bluetooth headphones don't make it sound like you're in a sewer when you make a call.

Imagine if your phone could "hear" the difference when talking to it at home or talking to it in the car. That's contextual awareness.

Finally — as if this isn't quite enough — Qualcomm has ramped up its Hexagon Tensor Accelerator package that's built for AI. It can process at an amazing 15 trillion operations per second, which means if you are a developer who wants to integrate AI into your software, the engine that can do it has enough power. Qualcomm specifically says that real-time translations and a Sensing Hub package that can be contextually aware of its surroundings are part of the 5th generation of its AI engine and I can't wait to see what it can do in the real world.

Most people aren't going to know they have a fancy upgraded chip inside their phone or care about it as long as they can do the things they bought a smartphone for. The new Snapdragon 865 brings that and so much more that the people who can and do care will also be plenty happy with Qualcomm's offering for 2020. I know I can't wait.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.