Arguably the most important smartphone announcement of 2016 (a three-way tie with the iPhone 7 and the Galaxy S7, and oh boy the ad campaigns are going to be fun because the numbers match) went down this week, with Qualcomm detailing in full their new top-line system on chip, the Snapdragon 820. The announcement carries slightly less weight now that both of the aforementioned United States smartphone behemoths are going with their own chipsets (unless Samsung pulls a 180), but it’s still something we can expect to see on most other high-end Android phones. And, because Qualcomm chipsets are the brains of smartphones, what Qualcomm can accomplish in large part determines the feature set of all of those phones. So, what will smartphones do differently in 2016? Not much, but they’ll do a lot of things better.
Better Battery Life
When it comes to chipset refreshes, lowering power consumption is as important as boosting power — after all, if battery life isn’t the top user complaint about smartphones, it has to be up there. The Snapdragon 820 uses 30 percent less power than last year’s 810, which hopefully should result in battery life gains. But, that could be easily squandered by improved cameras and unnecessarily high-resolution displays — just one reason why all flagship smartphones aren’t created equal.
Better Quick Charging
Qualcomm is advertising ‘all-day battery life,’ but that’s a refrain we’ve been hearing across device categories for what seems like ages now (ages in tech industry years, anyway). So, if battery life is going to be a continual thorn in our sides, what better way to fix the problem than by charging that battery up so fast that bad battery lives matter less? Quick Charge 3.0 will allow smartphone batteries to go from zero to 80 percent in as fast as 35 minutes, and it can be implemented in most wall chargers and charging cables, including USB, Micro USB, and the new USB Type-C. Again, those numbers will vary by smartphone, but it looks like as long as you aren’t going camping with your phone, a dead battery isn’t going to be as much of a bummer as it used to be.
Better Photos and Video in Low-Light Conditions
This is another drum that’s been beaten loudly during smartphone promos but fails to live up to hype. We still reach for our high-powered cameras in low-light conditions, as smartphone pictures tend to suffer from graininess. The 820 improves this by making up for deficiencies in cameras — instead of sampling light from one area and exposing the picture accordingly, 820-powered phones will be able to better adaptively brighten and darken underexposed and overexposed areas, while cutting down on that dreaded graininess in underexposed areas. It’s something that would normally require the granular controls of a high-end DSLR or mirrorless camera, but it’s being done (or at least approximated) automatically.
With X12 LTE, the 820 is capable of 600 Mbps download speeds (and 150 up) compared to 450 Mbps on the 810. But, curb your enthusiasm — actual download speeds will depend on your carrier. More exciting is the addition of LTE-U — this will allow smartphones to connect to unlicensed cell towers, which in practice will include small-scale towers carriers will build out in population-dense areas. Meanwhile, 802.11ac MU-MIMO Wi-Fi will triple throughput speeds, improving Wi-Fi calling quality and performance in crowded areas. Meanwhile, 802.11ad will return as a high-powered short-range standard that will eventually make local wireless streaming of 4k video possible.
Better Virtual Reality
The new Adreno 530 GPU will improve graphics performance all around, but the 40 percent jump in power and 40 percent decrease in power consumption should help virtual reality move past its awkward teenage phase, although something tells me it won’t quite make it to adulthood in 2016. Still, it’s an important and expected step forward, and should encourage the production of smartphone-powered VR rigs like Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR.
Qualcomm managed this in two intriguing ways — first off, built-in malware protection. Smart Protect will compensate for malware scanners being unable to identify new threats without updates by using machine learning to recognize and detect malware as it’s being created. Over time, the 820 will know about new threats before any security researchers can do so — if all goes well. Qualcomm also has improved security by enhancing fingerprint scanning technology to where fingerprints can be scanned through glass, plastic, and metal — fingerprint scanners might become invisible, included in casings or displays. Not necessarily making the phone more secure, granted, but it should be nice for aesthetics.
This is stating the obvious, but let’s put Qualcomm’s numbers on it anyway. Qualcomm has made a custom processor for the 820, putting in a quad-core Kryo CPU that should be twice as fast and twice as efficient as the Krait CPU on the 810. We’re not sure if that will fix the problem the 810 had with overheating (with a name like Kryo, I’m sure Qualcomm really wants to drive home that it does), but we’ll know soon enough once the 2016 smartphones start rolling in.