The Snapdragon 888 is the most powerful mobile system on a chip from Qualcomm for 2021. First announced in December 2020 and first appearing on Xiaomi Mi 11 smartphone, this flagship integrated chip consists of a central processing unit based on the ARM architecture, a dedicated Adreno graphics processing unit, and advanced communication hardware to include Long-Term Evolution or LTE and fifth-generation or 5G mobile connectivity, support for Wi-Fi 6E and Wi-Fi 6, and Bluetooth 5.2.
Pros of Snapdragon 888: Notable Features and Advantages
Built Using the 5 Nanometer Manufacturing Processes
Several designers and manufacturers of processors are building their capabilities in deploying the 5nm manufacturing process node beginning in 2020. Apple announced its first 5nm processor in 2020 with the A14 processor that powers the iPhone 12 lineup of smartphone devices, and further in with the introduction of the Apple M1 chips for Mac in 2020 and iPad Pro in 2021.
Other examples include the Exynos 1080 from Samsung and the HiSilicon Kirin 9000 from the Huawei-owned HiSilicon. Companies such as Intel and AMD are expected to unveil their own 5nm chips in the future. Nevertheless, the introduction of Snapdragon 888 marks the entry of Qualcomm to the 5-nanometer territory.
The 5nm manufacturing process has numerous advantages. For starters, although the “five-nanometer” terminology does not indicate specific physical features of the transistors such as gate length or metal pitch, it is indicative of improvements in semiconductor fabrication in terms of increased transistor density, better performance, and reduced power consumption.
One of the advantages of chips based on the 5nm manufacturing process centers on better performance and smaller footprint due to increased transistor density. Fundamentally, chips with denser transistors are faster and more efficient. The 5-nanometer process is superior to the 7-nanometer and 10-nanometer processes.
Primary Cortex-X1 and 3 Cortext-A78 and 4 Cortex-A55 Cores
The 888 is also the first to feature the high-end Cortex-X1 core design from ARM on the primary core of its CPU. This core has several performance boosts. For example, it has a 30 percent higher peak performance than the previous Cortex-A77, and it is about 23 percent faster than the equally new Cortex-A78. The Cortex-X1 is essentially about performance.
Qualcomm designed the 888 CPU by making the Cortex-X1 the high-performer core and including three Cortex-A78 cores for performance efficiency. Note that the A78 uses 15 percent less space than the A77. When compared further, it can provide 20 percent more processing power while consuming the same amount of power.
The Cortex-X1 is the more powerful core running at 2.84 GHz. But this performance comes at the cost of power. The inclusion of three Cortex-A78 cores running at 2.4GHz each resolves the power consumption issue of the 888. The Cortex-A78 consumes 50 percent less power for the same processing performance than the previous Cortex-A77 core design.
For better power efficiency, Qualcomm also included four Cortex-A55 cores running at 1.8GHz each. These cores will kick in for less demanding tasks to conserve power. For more demanding tasks such as gaming, the Cortex-A78 and Cortex-X1 cores will kick in. The three-level core architecture of the entire CPU is undeniably one of the advantages of the Snapdragon 888.
Comes with Adreno 660 GPU for Better Graphics Processing
The Qualcomm Adreno 660 is another highlight of the Snapdragon 888. This new GPU aims to offer a 35 percent increase in performance compared to the previous Adreno 650. There is also a stated power efficiency improvement of up to 20 percent that comes from the 5nm manufacturing process of the entire 888 system on a chip.
Designed for high-performance gaming, this GPU enables high frame rate gaming of 144fps and low latency gaming. It also has a Variable Rate Shading, a rendering technique based on the found in GPUs from AMD and Nvidia, that allows shaders to work on two to four pixels per at a time, thus reducing shader rendering requirements by 40 percent in supporter game titles.
Adreno 660 also supports the Game Quick Touch feature that can reduce touch latency by 20 percent. While this feature is most effective on games that run on 60 frames per second, it can work at up to 120fps game settings. Other features include support for 10-bit HDR and subpixel rendering, as well as Mura compensation for OLED display calibration.
Specific Artificial Intelligence Capabilities and Features
The 6th generation Qualcomm AI Engine hardware found in the 888 comprises the Adreno 660 GPU, a dedicated Hexagon Vector Processor, and the Kryo CPU. Artificial intelligence capability via machine learning has been an integral part of the design philosophy of Qualcomm and thus, represents another key feature and advantage of the Snapdragon 888.
In fact, it is worth highlighting the fact that the introduction of this SoC is part of the attempt to make artificial intelligence processing a key capability and feature of Android devices, thus competing with the Neural Engine of Apple, a dedicated AI processor that powers some of the features of iPhone and iPad devices.
A Tensor accelerator was included in the AI processing hardware of the Snapdragon 865. However, the 888 fuses the scalar, tensor, and vector processing units inside the Hexagon 780 DSP. The result is a seamless task-sharing inside the chip, as well as an up to 1000 times improvement to hand-off-time moving workloads between the three processor types.
Based on Tera Operations Per Seconds or TOPS figures, the AI Engine of 888 has 26 TOPS, the highest number for a mobile AI processor. Note that Snapdragon 865 runs at 15 TOPS while the A14 Bionic and the Apple M1 have 16 TOPS. Of course, TOPS figures are not the sole indicator of performance because of the variance across different hardware.
The improved AI hardware of the 888 enables and supports key functionalities. These include better task management and delegation using the different cores of the CPU, better image signal processing for improved photo and video capture performance and quality, and better virtual reality and augmented reality capabilities.
Qualcomm has also collaborated with Hugging Face, a provider of natural language processing solutions. This partnership has been embedded in the design of its 6th-generation AI Engine for the 888. Results include better autocomplete suggestions, improved responsiveness of voice assistant applications, and faster and more accurate language translation.
Support for Sub-6 and mmWave 5G Aggregate Technologies
The chip has an integrated Snapdragon X60 5G Modem-RF System that not only comes with LTE connectivity but also with support for both Sub-6 and mmWave 5G technologies. Note that mid-level devices from 2020 and earlier can only run on LTE and 3G networks while several mid-level 5G devices introduced in 2021 only support Sub-6 5G.
It is worth mentioning that the mmWave 5G technology provides superior network performance compared to the Sub-6 5G technology. However, it has notable limitations to include limited range and availability, as well as an energy-hungry requirement. Sub-6 networks are suitable for longer transmission and better power efficiency.
Nevertheless, smartphones and tablet devices built with the 888 chips can run not only on LTE networks but also on the two technological implementations of 5G technology. This is important to ensure that these devices can access the best and latest network available in a particular area, as well as to future-proof them for the further roll-out of 5G base stations.
Another specific feature of the X60 hardware and thus, by extension, another advantage of Snapdragon 888 is its mmWave-sub6 aggregation, extensive carrier aggregation, and dynamic spectrum sharing. These features provide devices with network operator flexibility by allowing them to seamlessly connect to the most optimal 5G network available.
The X60 hardware is also designed for the 5nm manufacturing process. Hence, it has a considerably smaller footprint than the previous radio modems from Qualcomm, such as the X55 and X24, while also enabling lower power consumption.
Other Noteworthy Features of Snapdragon 888
Having a triple image signal processor via the Spectra 580 is another critical feature of the Snapdragon 888 because it allows the simultaneous processing of three separate camera streams. A specific use case example of these features includes a smoother transition from the primary camera to a dedicated ultrawide camera or the telephoto camera.
Another use case example is triple concurrence, which allows video capture from three different cameras at the same time at 4K HDR quality. Note that the Spectra 580 is the first Qualcomm Spectra with a triple ISP. However, more than the underlying ISP technology, it enables 35 percent faster operation to support a 2.7 Gigapixels per second capture.
Spectra 580 ISP also supports staged HDR image sensors, which can dramatically enhance HDR video quality by capturing three versions of moving images based on long, medium, and short exposures. It can also capture photos and videos in 10-bit color depth, capture 4K HDR video in the HLG and HDR10 formats, and AI-based autofocus and autoexposure.
Aside from support for Sub-6 and mmWave 5G connectivity, the 888 also includes the most latest wireless communication technologies. These include WiFi-6E, Wi-Fi 6, and Wi-Fi 5 for equipped devices to connect to the most latest Wi-Fi routers, as well as dual-radio Bluetooth 5.2 and support for Bluetooth LE Audio standard.
Extensive Selection of Android Devices and Availability
Remember that the Snapdragon 888 is a flagship high-performance mobile SoC. Top manufacturers have equipped their flagship smartphones with this chip. Examples include the Galaxy S21 series from Samsung, the Asus Zenfone 8 series, Asus ROG Phone 5 series, Vivo X60 Pro Plus, Xiaomi Mi 11 series, and OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro.
The aforesaid devices have been marketed on the higher-end of the price tier. However, it is important to highlight that it is possible to use the 888 chip in lesser expensive smartphones. Realme GT 5G is the best example, with a retail price starting at USD 450 during its introduction and the Vivo iQOO 7 Legend with a starting price of USD 540.
More devices with cheaper price points and equipped with the 888 chip are expected to come out in the market. Xiaomi and its POCO subsidiary will soon be releasing mid-range 888 smartphones. Over the next years, this SoC will be used in future mid-ranger phones with the arrival of newer Snapdragon chips.
Cons of Snapdragon 888: Critical Issues and Limitations
Real-World Performance and Other Issues
Some of the aforesaid features and benefits or advantages of the Snapdragon 888 are considerably theoretical and real-world performance might vary due to different factors to include hardware implementation from the side of device manufacturers, the underlying operating systems, and the overall hardware capabilities of a particular device.
A comparison between the performance of Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G and Realme GT 5G is a good case in point. Benchmarks scores and reviews have revealed some advantages of the cheaper Realme device over the flagship and more expensive Galaxy phone. However, when it comes to camera performance, the Galaxy captures better photos and videos.
The Asus ROG Phone 5 also outperforms both Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra 5G and Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra based on benchmark scores from AnTuTu, GeekBench, and GFXBench. Of course, the ROG smartphones from Asus are designed and built with high-performance gaming in mind, thus its hardware components and software are highly optimized.
Fundamentally, the 888 chip does not guarantee uniformity across different devices. Performance varies across these devices and depending on the implementation of the manufacturers. Based on the examples above, several devices are designed and built for a particular purpose or unique selling proposition, albeit with some caveats.
The Superiority of the A14 Bionic Chip and Apple M1
Without a doubt, the Snapdragon 888 is the most powerful mobile SoC of Qualcomm. It is also the most preferred chip by manufacturers compared to MediaTek, especially for their flagship and high-range smartphone and tablet devices. However, considering the presence of other mobile chips in the market, it is not the most powerful.
Results of some benchmarks and reviews showed that the Apple A14 Bionic Chip found in the iPhone 12 series performs better than the 888, especially when it comes to single-core scenarios, as well as specific graphics processing performance. Note that the A14 has a single-core GeekBench 5 score of 1573 compared to the 1107 score of the 888.
The Apple M1 found in the 2021 iPad Pro is also a powerhouse chips. However, it is important to note that the M1 is designed for high-performing tablets and laptops while the 888 is primarily a mobile chip. Furthermore, the seeming superiority of iPhones and iPads over several flag-ship Android smartphones and tablet computers comes from the commendable solid hardware-software integration of iOS and iPadOS devices.
In some situations, the Snapdragon 888 performs better, especially when a flagship Android device is pitted against the mid-positioned iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini. It also has a better CPU performance score compared with the Kirin 9000, although this chip from HiSilicon scores better in graphic processing and AI capabilities in some benchmark tests.
Snapdragon 888 Remains a Power-Hungry Chip
Another noteworthy disadvantage of the Snapdragon 888 is that it still consumes a considerable amount of power despite energy efficiency improvements. Reviews have revealed that the Kirin 9000 is more efficient. Of course, it is important to take note of the fact that flagship chips with high processing capabilities will consume a considerable amount of energy. Even the Kirin 9000 and the A14 are relatively power-hungry chips.
But this drawback means that devices featuring the 888 chip will need to have batteries with a larger capacity, which essentially drives up the overall manufacturing cost and end-user price point. Devices with large-capacity batteries also require compatibility with fast or quick charging technologies to make them practical for day-to-day use.
The fact remains that lesser powerful chips found in mid-range to entry-level devices can last long in a single battery charge. Remember that this is an unavoidable trade-off: better processing capabilities at the expense of power efficiency; or power efficiency at the expense of processing performance and advanced hardware capabilities.
It is also worth mentioning that when used for resource-intensive tasks, such as playing high-end mobile games, the Snapdragon 888 will generate a considerable level of heat. Devices equipped with this chips need to have suitable heat management technology under the hood to avoid thermal throttling and the possibility of overheating, as well as hardware damages due to overheating.
In a Nutshell: The Pros and Cons of Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
While it has some disadvantages or drawbacks, the performance difference across different 888 devices, as well as with other devices equipped with other powerful chips, remain negligible for the average users. Nevertheless, the Snapdragon 888 is undeniably one of the most powerful mobile chips for 2021 alongside the Apple A14 Bionic chip and HiSilicon Kirin 9000.