Opinion: The OnePlus 3 and Other 2016 Devices Stand to Benefit from a Held Up & Held Back Snapdragon 835
At least if raw power is all you care about
The recent wave of reports regarding the fate of Snapdragon 835 devices seem to point at a slight delay in the arrival of Qualcomm’s latest and greatest. Furthermore, we now know a few big devices coming our way at MWC are launching with last year’s Snapdragon 821.
There is nothing wrong with the Snapdragon 821 — in fact, it was big offering from Qualcomm, a great step up from the flawed 810, and ultimately a good option for all kinds of OEMs, many of which accomplished great things in the realms of camera quality, performance and even battery life with this chipset. We’d argue that more options for OEMs to choose from is always a good thing, though, and we are certainly concerned about Qualcomm once holding a generation back again should the Snapdragon 835 arrive too late, on fewer devices or perform worse than expected. These aren’t unfounded concerns, and early figures of the processor’s performance improvements don’t suggest a year-on-year jump as prominent as what we are accustomed to, nor the kind of generational leaps we’d love to have. While 20 to 25 percent faster graphics and CPU performance is nothing to scoff at, the situation becomes a lot tougher for Qualcomm when you factor in the lead that A72-based processors and Apple chipsets already had in the CPU department, as well as the fact that A73 core chipsets and newer Mali GPUs are already being adopted by chipset makers like HiSilicon.
Suggested Reading: A Widening Gap: The A10 Fusion Puts a Chokehold on Qualcomm’s Prospects
Furthermore, these performance improvements are notably lower than what we expected in previous years. With Adreno GPUs, for example (and going by official percentages from Qualcomm), the Snapdragon 805’s Adreno 420 was reported to be 40% faster than preceding GPUs in the Snapdragon 800 and 801. The Adreno 430 in the Snapdragon 810 further boosted speed by 30%, making for a strongpoint of the 810 in spite of the thermal constraints. Finally, the Adreno 530 offers up to 40% better graphics performance over the 810’s GPU — while all of these proportional increases don’t always translate directly into benchmark results, Qualcomm remained at the top of the graphics game on mobile through its steadfast Adreno portfolio.
This year, Qualcomm’s GPU jumps 25%, making for the smallest figure they themselves shared over the years (however, I’d argue many circumventing features/peripherals mentioned below do make up for it). The advances in CPU performance follow a similar pattern, with the latest CPU increase settling for around 25% as well, despite the move to semi-custom cores (unclear whether the base is A72 or A73) and the 30% reduction in area enabled by the jump to 10nm, with area-efficiency greatly contributing to performance and power savings of 40%.
The fact that Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 might come a bit later than usual and that it might not be as big a leap as previous iterations have been, though, bring bittersweet conclusions to current smartphone owners: their devices are slightly more future-proof, as the race for faster processors takes a short rest and picks up at a slower pace. Of course, other companies using non-Qualcomm chipsets will reap the benefit – and either catch up or get further ahead – but most OEMs are currently limited to Qualcomm chipsets for their flagship devices. In other words, their devices will have a couple of extra months before an iteration with a better processor arrives, and that increment won’t be as drastic as they have been in previous years. The HTC U Ultra is selling with a Snapdragon 821 inside it, and there’s reason to believe the LG G6 will as well — we know that devices coming at MWC are not arriving with a Snapdragon 835, or at least not going on sale with one until April (it’s rumored that Sony’s devices will indeed pack a Snapdragon 835, while being announced at MWC). I’ve confirmed with my sources and it does seem that actual production will not start until after March for many of these Snapdragon 835 flagships, with Samsung being first in line. This has the awkward consequence of making companies like HTC and LG essentially launch both of their early 2015 and 2016 with practically the same chipset — in LG’s case, its last 3 flagships in its two biggest lines will have near identical computational ability. If you are an LG V20 owner and Android enthusiast, however, you have less of a reason to upgrade and thus little reason to fret! (While I wouldn’t normally expect a V line owner to specifically go after a G line device, given the traditional differences between both, with a larger screen on the G6 both lineups could be converging very much like the Galaxy Edge and Note devices ended up satisfying a very similar set of users.)
While the Snapdragon 821 fell behind in terms of raw CPU prowess, it kept a healthy lead in GPU performance through the sheer strength of the Andreo 530, a department which Qualcomm has yet to fully surrender to other chipset makers in the Android space, even with ARM’s Bifrost architecture in the excellent Mali G71. If we compare the transition from 2015 to 2016, we find that many users actually had a reason to actively go out of their way and upgrade, given the thermal constraints and efficiency limitations of the Snapdragon 810, which ultimately impacted every device it resided in (some less than others, such as the still-excellent Nexus 6P) with worse performance, particularly frustrating sustained performance, uncomfortable heat and in some cases, disappointing battery life. There is much less of a reason to upgrade to a device running a 2017 Qualcomm chipset than there was for 2015 flagship owners in 2016, that’s for sure. So if you bought a new phone in early or mid 2016 in particular, you do see a sort of additional time window to your bleeding-edge status, especially if your choice was a Q1 or Q2 HTC or LG device. The phone I believe benefits the most from this, though, is the OnePlus 3 (and to a similar extent, the OnePlus 3T).
2017 Flagship Killer? No, but closer
OnePlus has made noise with its “Never Settle” slogan since its inception, and one could argue that the OnePlus One was fully deserving of such marketing — it did pack tremendous specs for its time, at a much cheaper price than the competition. Back then, affordable flagships were just starting to emerge and to gain notoriety in the West. OnePlus managed to ride that wave and deliver a solid, affordable and powerful package that many developers and XDA users still love to this day. It’s surprising and telling how many OnePlus One users still roam our forums, how development lasted through multiple releases, and how well the phone holds up today. The OnePlus 2 was a different story, however — it was one of the worst exponents of the Snapdragon 810, with inconsistent performance, throttling and artificial workarounds that remind us of current practices. It laughably proved its own marketing slogan wrong, as the “2016 flagship killer” struggled to offer a better experience than 2014 phones.
The OnePlus 3 fixed that, and it not only offered a similar processing package to other phones of 2016, it actually arguably beat most of them by not skimping on any component and intelligently using software for an extra advantage. The OnePlus 3 came out with the Snapdragon 820 and 6GB of DDR4 RAM, whereas every other flagship from well-known manufacturers still opted for 4GB of RAM. Sure, at the time of release there was no point in having that much RAM, but software updates did give OnePlus 3 owners better RAM management, and you can still get the most out of it down the road by modifying the software. It’s a small thing, but certainly a specification that OnePlus can claim it had over 2016 flagships, and still has even over early 2017 flagships (at least the HTC U Ultra, which opted for 4GB of RAM).
Moreover, the phone still uses a combination of UFS 2.0 with F2FS on the newer builds of OxygenOS, increasing read and write speeds and impacting real-world performance in the form of better app and game-opening speeds. This is worth pointing out because not all 2016 flagships have this kind of powerful storage, and few of those that do are set up on F2FS. We’ve detailed just how big of a difference this is, and how it ties with other decisions OnePlus made into delivering an extremely speedy phone with the OnePlus 3 and OnePlus 3T.
With the Snapdragon 835 being in the situation it’s in, the OnePlus 3 (and 3T) look even more attractive on paper, and ironically enough, even more worthy of the slogans OnePlus has used to market its previous phones. While we can all agree that the OnePlus 2’s use of “2016 flagship killer” as an advertising catch-phrase was ridiculous and completely unfounded, the OnePlus 3’s processing package is made even more futureproof by the circumstances of the mobile silicon market. It topped benchmark charts at the time of release and it demonstrably outperforms most other phones in real-world scenarios — and this is running OxygenOS as OnePlus intended, instead of all the options that XDA users are accustomed to through mods, custom kernels and ROMs, governor tweaks, and much more.
In this sense, the OnePlus 3 is extremely future-proof, and the non-T variant in particular stands out as a device that sold for not only half the price of 2016 flagships, but also of many 2017 flagships while still offering the same performance, or a delta that’s smaller than years prior (once 835 flagships roll out). All 2016 phones stand to benefit from the current situation regarding smartphone processors, but the one that has the most going for it in terms of the best processing package for the longest time and for the least amount of money is, in my opinion, the original OnePlus 3.
Final Editor’s Note: I personally believe that the Snapdragon 835 is a healthy upgrade over the Snapdragon 820 and 821, and that the quality of the chipset cannot and should not be measured merely over the performance improvements announced by the chipset maker or revealed by benchmarks. Qualcomm’s chipsets in particular offer a ton of features that don’t make it into charts and spreadsheets, from the Qualcomm-enabled TouchBoost and its app opening speed tweaks to the many peripherals and useful functionality that come with the Hexagon DSP, their Aqstic codec, Quick Charge, and now support for TensorFlow for on-chip machine learning support, VR optimizations, Q-Sync and more. The 835 is also designed with power efficiency in mind, focusing on using the low-power cores for up to 80 percent of normal smartphone workloads. When it comes to raw performance and benchmark scores, though, I don’t expect the 835 to blow anyone away, and I wouldn’t be surprised given how little Qualcomm focused on performance in both the pre-briefing session and the launch event. We’ll take an integral look at the Snapdragon 835 when we can get our hands on actual devices, putting them through our performance analysis, and we’ll go beyond benchmarks to analyze and quantify its additional benefits as well.