Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820 could yield big camera gains

The new 'Specter' image processor will capture sharper images in low light, the company says

Diagram of Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820

Diagram of Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820

Qualcomm has teased out some more details about its upcoming Snapdragon 820 processor, including a refreshed GPU and an image processing unit that could lead to big improvements in smartphone cameras.

The 820 is Qualcomm's next mobile chip for the high end of the market, due to appear in products in the first half of next year. It's aimed mainly at smartphones, tablets, and virtual reality headsets.

It's an important chip for Qualcomm, whose current Snapdragon 810 was dropped earlier this year by one of its biggest customers. Qualcomm never named the customer but it was widely understood to be Samsung, which went with an in-house processor for its Galaxy S6 smartphone.

Qualcomm first discussed the 820 at Mobile World Congress earlier this year, revealing plans for a new 64-bit CPU core dubbed Kryo. On Wednesday, at the Siggraph graphics conference in Los Angeles, it described the visual computing components to be integrated alongside the CPU.

Among them is a new GPU called the Adreno 530, based on a new graphics architecture that will be used with other Snapdragon processors as well. Qualcomm says the 530 provides a performance boost of up to 40 percent compared to the Adreno 430, while using 40 percent less power. The figures are based on its own internal tests using popular graphics benchmarks.

"We did a lot of innovation at the hardware level to minimize the amount of current the GPU draws from the battery," said Tim Leland, the vice president in charge of Snapdragon's visual compute products.

Gamers should see faster, more responsive graphics, especially on high resolution displays, and people browsing the web or watching video should also notice improvements, he said. The 820 has a new display engine that can play 4K video when a device is plugged into a TV's HDMI 2.0 port. The chip will even stream 4K content wirelessly, according to Qualcomm.

The Adreno 530 was also designed with forward-looking apps like VR in mind, Leland said. It will be able to render high-res video from stereoscopic cameras in real time, and combine it with data from motion sensors to display immersive worlds within VR headsets.

Just as interesting as the GPU is the new image signal processor, or ISP, which takes data from the camera and processes it to produce the image. ISPs are becoming more important as devices get thinner, leaving less room for the camera, and Qualcomm has given its image processor its own brand for the first time -- Spectra.

The Spectra chip in the 820 will allow smartphones to capture images and video without blur in lower light conditions, according to Qualcomm. It will generate more natural skin tones and capture a wider range of lights and darks, the company says.

The chip will be able to control two rear-facing cameras (in addition to the selfie camera on the front), allowing those cameras to focus more quickly. They'll be able to grab 25-megapixel images at 30 frames per second with no shutter lag, according to Qualcomm. Dual cameras can also capture multiple focal depths simultaneously, meaning an app could let you change which part of a scene is in focus after a picture is taken, a bit like a Lytro camera does.

The GPU and the ISP are just two components that will be integrated in the Snapdragon 820. Qualcomm is likely to give more details about the CPU and discuss other components, like the modem and the DSP, as it looks to crank up the hype around the 820 before its launch next year.

While the current Snapdragon 810 missed out on the Galaxy S6, it's still used in numerous devices today, including the LG Flex2, HTC One M9, Xiaomi MiNote Pro, and Sony's Xperia Z4 tablet.

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James's e-mail address is james_niccolai@idg.com

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