MWC 2017: How the Snapdragon 835’s Absence Stole the Show

MWC 2017: How the Snapdragon 835’s Absence Stole the Show

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Qualcomm has made a name for itself in the smartphone industry: being the most reputable Android SoC provider for years now, Qualcomm has a sort of hold on the mobile device market few outside of Apple can lay claim to.

It is no wonder either. Qualcomm chips are powering mobile devices at almost every price range, wearables of all sorts and tablets just to name a few — and they are usually stable, fast, efficient chips, and certainly some of the few that work just as well on CDMA networks as GSM, thanks in large part to their patent portfolio. Qualcomm also has a fairly predictable release cycle; Q1 brings the newest series of chip while Q3/Q4 usually sees the unveiling of a slightly-beefed-up model. This year though, new Qualcomm processors were noticeably absent from the very MWC week where we are usually introduced to a number of flagships flaunting the new silicon, and as a whole it left MWC feeling vaguely empty. Sure, we got to see the new Huawei P10 and LG G6, but the only Snapdragon 835 device on display was the 2017 Sony Xperia phone,which by their own admission is not shipping for months. Rumors have the Samsung Galaxy S8, the first 835 device to ship, going through delays pushing its release back to almost May, well later than the February/March launches we have been accustomed to.

Of course, not everyone can afford a top tier flagship device, so does it even matter that we aren’t seeing a flagship Qualcomm device until mid-Q2? Based on Android version market share it is obvious that much of the market does not even run phones powered by the latest and greatest chipset. However, the innovation and technological advancements made possible by these higher-cost chips trickles down through the product line to benefit lower cost mid-range and bargain bin processors — traditionally in the long term, but recently, those changes have been making it “downstream” really fast. Take for instance the Snapdragon 625 processor. The 625 is by all intents and purposes a solid mid-range processor. However, we are seeing this year old processor launching in the brand new flagship from Blackberry and from all hands-on accounts, it runs extremely well. The 625 is also renowned for powering the much admired Moto Z Play providing acceptable performance while delivering exceptional battery life.

A few years ago, a mid-range processor would simply not have been able to power a premium smartphone experience. Nowadays, Qualcomm’s mid-rangers like the 625 and 626 offer respectable performance and battery life for cheap, in part because they are built differently than the Kyro chipsets and feature ARM cores in a big.LITTLE setup. They also come built in the newer and smaller process sizes, featuring good core setups, and they now offer support for dual cameras, 4K recording, QuickCharge, excellent modems for fast internet speeds, and more.

Blackberry isn’t the only OEM shipping flagship devices with older processors, as LG’s latest flagship and HTC’s U Ultra each run the Snapdragon 821, the same processor that launched with the now 7 month old Google Pixel and later in the  OnePlus 3T… but also a derivative of the Snapdragon 820 that these companies launched on multiple other phones last year. While spec hungry users may immediately discredit the choice of older processors in these phones, the fact is that they still deliver top tier performance and should not be discredited simply due to it not sporting the greater number, core count or benchmark score, especially when this new generation’s year-on-year gains are some of the lowest. In fact it should be noted that in many respects the software matters more than the hardware alone when dealing with still fairly new chips.

If the early Geekbench 4 numbers from the Galaxy S8 are valid or legitimate (a rather big if, we reckon) , they show it edging out the OnePlus 3T by single digits in single-core performance, within a similar margin featured by the lowest and highest of Snapdragon 820/821 scores Multi-Core shows a different side of the coin due to fact that the 835 is an octa-core compared to the quad-core 821. This does align with Qualcomm’s statements regarding the performance increase of the 835, which at a mere 25% for CPU performance, is one of the lowest year-on-year gains we’ve seen from the company.

However, there are some trade-offs. While the Snapdragon 821 supports BT4.1 the new 835 supports the newest standard for Bluetooth 5.0. Likewise the 835 runs the newest LTE modems capable of running faster on the networks running the newest technology, and the 10nm process size eanbles the chip to run more efficiently while delivering greater performance, even if it is just a little compared to previous years. There are many improvements surrounding the chipset’s features and peripherals – QuickCharge, DSP, ISP, VR and machine-learning optimizations, and so on — but even today, most of these (excluding Quick Charge) aren’t features consumers actively evaluate when considering a new purchase  

Tiny chip, small delay, big consequences

Tiny chip, small delay, big consequences

Qualcomm faces a larger problem as well. It comes as little surprise to us who have been following these devices for years that Qualcomm seems to be slowing down in terms of raw performance. Lately, mainstream Qualcomm processors have been falling behind competitors like Samsung’s Exynos and Huawei’s Kirin processors on the CPU side, not only because of the tremendous gains of newer ARM cores but also given Samsung began employing its custom M1 architecture. It’s also likely that the Mali-G71 MP-20 coming with the next Exynos chipset will finally dethrone the Adreno line, if reported performance increase percentages hold up. While Qualcomm holds an advantage in terms of the total SoC package with innovations in AR & VR, camera ISP, multi-microphone processing and more, its competitors are outperforming it in other, more forward-facing areas — at least for the benchmark geeks and other value-minded or strictly numbers-based consumers. Qualcomm also has to deal with its anti-competitive lawsuit placed upon it from Apple which could stand to completely undermine its (sometimes anti-competitive) efforts to dominate markets where CDMA is prevalent due to their experience and expansive patents. Finally, while Qualcomm offers an excellent mainstream product to sell to OEMs en masse, some large names in the industry are increasingly opting for trying their luck at developing at least some custom chipsets, including Xiaomi and very likely even Google in the near future.

Despite Qualcomm’s latest and greatest offerings being absent from the show, they still cast their shadow over the week with the Samsung’s Galaxy S8 event announcement drawing more attention than LG’s hardware launch and even Blackberry’s 625 powered KEYOne, which actually received multiple awards during the week. However, Huawei strangely drew a lot of attention to its newest P10 device that has bloggers from all over the world tripping over themselves for coverage – even primarily US-based writers, a market the P10 will not officially come to (though bloggers did get copious amounts of review units). Samsung even used the event week to announce its newest series 9 chip, a processor we may see in certain Galaxy S8 models and almost certainly Note 8 models. Apple, Samsung, Huawei and now Xiaomi are all producing their own silicon and are all some of the largest OEM’s in the world. Qualcomm is a major player in the market oftentimes leading the mainstream charge towards new innovations and technologies. What they do, the rest of the market typically follows; but if this MWC shows us anything it’s that even if they aren’t the star of the show, the show will go on and competition is good for everyone.

Were you hoping to learn more about upcoming Snapdragon 835 devices? Let us know in the comments!