Qualcomm puts silicon brain in flagship Snapdragon 820 chip

The Snapdragon 820 chips will be for premium mobile devices, and test units will ship in the second half

Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 slide

Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 slide

Qualcomm wants to help future mobile devices learn about their users, by putting cognitive computing capabilities into its next mobile microprocessor, the Snapdragon 820.

The chip will provide mobile devices with some brain-like learning capabilities by incorporating features from Qualcomm's Zeroth platform. Mobile devices built with the Snapdragon 820 will be able to learn about users over time, picking up human activity patterns and anticipating actions.

Putting the machine learning features on the chip, rather than in the cloud, will make mobile devices more personal and more useful than they are today, said Derek Aberle, president of Qualcomm, in a news conference at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on Monday.

Devices will be able to learn more about users and their habits by associating and analyzing information collected through voice, sound, video and images. The initial use cases will be basic, but will grow over time, Aberle said.

In an on-stage demonstration, a camera in a mobile device with Zeroth features was able to identify users and attach name tags to them on the fly. It's much like attaching name tags to pictures in Facebook, but in this case it was happening automatically -- and locally.

Qualcomm already has over thirty applications in mind for its Zeroth technology, some of which will be on display at its booth at MWC, and expects the potential uses to become more complex over time, as devices learn more about their users. For example, a smartphone could help make buying decisions and redirect users to the closest shop based on location information.

Beyond mobile devices, the Snapdragon 820 chip could go into cars, robots, virtual reality headsets and other products, ultimately helping drones and robots move around without human intervention. Qualcomm is investing heavily in computer vision, and the experimental Zeroth chip has already been used in a robot that can make navigation decisions to avoid obstacles.

Qualcomm is targeting the Snapdragon 820 chip at premium devices. It will succeed the existing 64-bit Snapdragon 810, which has not been adopted as widely as Qualcomm had hoped. Samsung reportedly dropped it from the Samsung Galaxy S6 due to overheating issues, replacing it with its homegrown Exynos chip. But HTC used the 810 in its HTC One M9 smartphone, announced Sunday at Mobile World Congress.

The Snapdragon 820 processor will also be Qualcomm's first to use its homegrown ARM-based chip architecture called Kryo, which has been in the works for a few years. The architecture had been delayed, and for recent processors Qualcomm had to adopt off-the-shelf Cortex-A57 and A53 64-bit processor designs from ARM, which are also used by many other mobile chip makers.

Qualcomm is also applying the Kryo architecture to a server chip it has in the works.

Test units of the Snapdragon 820 will start shipping in the second half of this year. Qualcomm did not say when devices containing it will go on sale.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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