Opinion: The 810 Held Back a Generation with Deliberate Apologism & Damage Control
It’s been a little over a week since I received a OnePlus 2 unit for review, and with it, I finally got enough time to truly test the Snapdragon 810 and get it through its paces. It’s been an eye-opening experience, and it made me reconsider a few things I want to discuss.
If we go a few months back, we’ll remember the plethora of coverage this chipset had due to its infamous heat problems and the throttling mechanisms put in place to mitigate them.
It all started with the rumors about Samsung using their in-house Exynos instead of the 810, which ended up being true. The G Flex 2 was the first phone with the Snapdragon 810, and its performance left a lot to be desired, something which was blamed on “unfinished software”. The M9 then came around, and reports from the stage floor demos at MWC said benchmarks gave out error messages of overheating. This, and the reports that followed, were also classified as faults of unfinished software. The real M9 came, and apart from its benchmark-cheating “high-performance mode”, it under-delivered in performance as well.
This happened again with the Mi Note Pro, which also saw complaints about heat despite the application of various thermal patents. The Xperia Z4/Z3+ got hot too, so hot that Japanese carrier NTT Docomo put warning signs at retail stores. This just kept happening and happening, but when review time came, the issues were quickly brushed off under the premise that performance was still acceptable.
But that was then, and the Snapdragon 810 is not a relevant hot topic anymore, because in one way or another, the case was closed with the final verdict: it is a faulty chip indeed, and a compromise. However, the Snapdragon 810 is still being featured in many devices and is rumored to come in highly-anticipated releases such as the Huawei Nexus. Was this actually a big deal, and why?
Between a Chip and a Hot Place
Now that I’ve had an extensive hands-on with the OnePlus 2 and its Snapdragon 810 – the alleged v2.1 variant, downclocked to 1.8GHz – I see that all of the complaints and the diss was justified. The device does indeed get hot, being able to reach 44 degrees Celsius in a 10-minute gaming session. It also does throttle, and sometimes very aggressively. Both the heat and the performance issues are ultimately noticeable in the real world through the senses. The top of the device can get uncomfortably warm, and the framerate of games can get choppy.
Having unpredictable performance on a hardware level is something no enthusiast wants
The chipset’s theoretical performance is still up there with the best chipsets, something easily seen in benchmarks and most cases of real-world performance. However, it is simply not stable. Once it crosses the throttling threshold, performance is compromised for the rest of your run, and up until you finish exhausting the processor and leave the device alone to rest for a minute. This instability is what’s most worrying and what cost so many of this year’s flagships (and their manufacturers) reputation and sales. And rightfully so, because there are a number of issues that come from such a slip.
First of all, the Snapdragon 810’s listed frequency of 2GHz varies among OEMs, and some like OnePlus decided to simply downclock the chipset to 1.8GHz. Others like HTC used a trickier system, in which the phone rarely uses the 2GHz ( except on“high-performance” mode for benchmarks) and during actual usage, the frequency is capped at 1.6GHz. This results in misleading specification sheets and marketing claims, something that we criticized Qualcomm for as well. The more-unstable performance limits the future-proofing of these devices — while phones with the Snapdragon 800, 801 and 805 have stable, acceptable and in some cases impressive performance years and months after their release, the 810’s instabilities make for a more unpredictable future in terms of the results of official support and its ability to handle upcoming software efficiently. Having unpredictable performance on a hardware level is something no enthusiast wants.
The latest Snapdragon generation may very well be a single slip in Qualcomm’s chipset career, and the transition to radically different internal design and architecture (in part due to the 64-bit rush) surely played a major role in said slip. Qualcomm had delayed the Snapdragon 805 before, giving us the 801 instead (which many didn’t like considering it wasn’t a big step forward). But the 810 felt rushed, and came just months after the very, very efficient and beloved 805, which barely showed up in the mainstream as only Samsung and Motorola adopted it. When you factor in the throttling issues, the 805 can actually deliver a more pleasant experience in various use-cases.
Damage Control & Non-issues
But this leads me to the underlying issue behind all of this: while the criticism against Qualcomm was clear on internet communities and in the actual market, it was rather unclear in the blogosphere. There was always an overwhelming amount of evidence that the processor had issues, yet in many instances these were written off as “non-issues” under the card that they had no significant impact in the real-world. But they do, and they did for many consumers and for Qualcomm itself. Cue damage control.
“The Snapdragon 810 does bring constraints in physical phones, despite their original MDP/T model showing little of this in the past. The chipset in the M9 had its most powerful cluster’s frequency capped by 25%, and this had an impact on the peak performance that would give the phone extra longevity. HTC continued to cheat on benchmarks by boosting the frequency, despite that the ability to do so outside of the cheat code is virtually impossible without lower-level tweaking. The M9’s specification sheet will list the 2GHz maximum frequency, regardless of it never being attainable in real-world usage. HTC had also sent test and demo units that behaved differently than final consumer units, which added to the disinformation. Despite the misleading specification sheet, the downgrade in performance, the reduced longevity and the cheating going on behind the scenes, many claim that there is no issue. ”
Since the 810 drama started, Qualcomm has been in full defense mode. At many device announcements and launch events, including HTC’s, LG’s and OnePlus’, Qualcomm representatives showed up to promise great performance out of these chipsets, completely omitting the complaint storm, fears, and general buzz going on in the real world. Their marketing team went as far as dismissing these as manufactured half-trues, which we rebutted. With every device release, the blogosphere underplayed the impact it can have on the phone. Mind you, it shouldn’t be overplayed either, but it should be appropriately noted. Just like it’s common to read Note5 reviews, articles and commentaries ignoring the many, many issues behind TouchWiz’s performance flaws (which go beyond the well-known multitasking issues), it’s rare to see reviews that list the 810’s flaws accordingly and objectively.
To me, this is unfair, because not only does it mislead consumers into a purchase, but it also undermines the outstanding achievements of the rest of the competition. Simply put, the Exynos 7420 smokes the Snapdragon 810, and other chipsets offered me and others at XDA outstanding performance as well. The Atom Z3850 is perhaps the most pleasant surprise I’ve had in awhile, because of how speedy and efficient it was and how little throttling and heat it saw. These two particular chipsets pushed the envelope for the other two silicon giants. Samsung’s long-game played out, and their previously-quiet Exynos finally shined and leaped forward. Intel is finally getting its name out there as well, and with more processors coming up, they might prove to be a force to be reckoned with.
Fool Me Once…
The apologism on these issues meant that Qualcomm could get away with offering a sub-par processor. The Snapdragon 805, so easily forgotten, should have been a way around the 810. Instead, manufacturers opted (or perhaps had to opt) for the 808, which has a weaker GPU. Even then, I personally think the 808 is a better choice than the 810 — consistency in performance is very important on smartphones. It allows for more secure future proofing and a generally pleasant experience. Android phones have had the potential to be fast and not skip frames for a while, but what plagued earlier handsets was inconsistency in performance from software. Project Butter, Project Svelte and TRIM all helped to create a consistent Android UX that generally doesn’t decide to stutter its way through a task out of nowhere and variably skip frames in the simplest of scrolls for no apparent reason. Having that kind of unpredictability – however small – in the very hardware is a big turn off, especially since it is triggered by factors outside of our control. Yet that, and other many real issues, were brushed off as insignificant.
Now, it’s clear that enthusiasts voted with their wallet, and a general trend of 810 avoidance is clear in most comment fields of articles that touch on the subject. The 810 cost many flagships a chance to shine through and it produced a playing field that has never been so uneven in terms of resulting flagship performance. It also held back a whole generation from achieving a significant step forward in not just power and speed, but also efficiency and reliability. It led to misleading marketing and confusion of all sorts through all kind of publications. Now that the 820 is coming, we hope that it can redeem this mess. But if it doesn’t, there should be no holding back, no excuses nor apologisms. No “unfinished software” claims nor lies about revisions. In the long run, it only hurts consumers and the very community we cherish.