Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 is tasked with slowly, but surely, improving Android flagships

The company's successor to the Snapdragon 888 isn't a fundamental overhaul, but it's a notable improvement and a step in the direction of a major shakeup in its chip lineup.

Don’t let the new branding fool you: Qualcomm isn’t shaking things up in a major way with the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1. Announced during the company’s Snapdragon Summit in Hawaii, the new processor will make its way into every major Android flagship in 2022. However, in the grand scheme of things, it’s more an incremental upgrade to this year’s Snapdragon 888 than a complete overhaul of what a flagship Snapdragon smartphone chipset is.

That’s fine, by the way. Qualcomm has had a grip on the smartphone industry for a long time, with only two companies sticking it to the company with their own chips in a meaningful way (sorry, Samsung). It seems that Qualcomm is willing to make small but notable improvements to its highest-end processor like it always has, and that only means a better experience for everyone who buys a device with it inside.

That being said, while Qualcomm continues to slowly evolve its processors into beefier versions of themselves, the world waits for the company to make its first serious play at competing with the likes of Apple and its A- and M-series ARM-based chipsets. The Cupertino company has been making headlines with its incredible methods of handling power consumption and performance per watt. The Snapdragon 8 Gen 1, despite its new name, isn’t too different compared to the 888, and there’s no fundamental change in the way it handles any of that. It looks like Qualcomm is taking things a bit easier this release cycle, likely while it continues developing a fundamentally different processor.

Until that day comes, we’ll have new chips that follow Qualcomm’s updated branding, making it easier to identify which processors are the most powerful and whether they’re “the new one” or not.

This year’s “new one” looks pretty interesting. Qualcomm says the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 is built on a 4nm process compared to the 5nm process the 888 is based on. It uses ARM’s new ARMv9 architecture with an eight-core Kryo CPU consisting of a primary 3.0GHz Cortex-X2 core, three 2.5GHz Cortex-A710 performance cores, and four 1.8GHz Cortex-A510 cores. Altogether, Qualcomm says the chip will perform up to 20 percent faster than the Snapdragon 888 while also offering 30 percent better efficiency.

Graphics should also see a boost thanks to a new Adreno GPU, although Qualcomm didn’t give it a name beyond “Adreno GPU.” It’s up to 30 percent better than the Adreno 660 GPU, while also being 25 percent more efficient. There’s also a new Adreno Frame Motion Engine that will improve the efficiency of the frame rate of games, cutting in half the power consumed with normal frame rates and maintaining the same power draw at twice the frame rate. Audiokinetic technology is also being introduced for more immersive sound.

5G has been a big player in Qualcomm’s product development for a few years now, and the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 takes things up another notch. The chip comes with the new X65 modem which offers standard sub-6GHz and mmWave connectivity along with support for the latest 3GPP Release 16 spec. The chip will also be compatible with 10Gbps speeds, if you can find them.

Qualcomm is also including Wi-Fi 6 and 6E for faster connectivity, as well as Bluetooth 5.2.

Photography is also seeing improvements thanks to the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1. Qualcomm is placing all of its camera improvements under a new “Snapdragon Sight” brand name which, for this release, includes an 18-bit ISP (up from 14 bits), increased memory bandwidth at 3.2 gigapixels/second, and 4,096 times more camera data at a given time. This means that the chip will let you record video at 108MP and 30 frames per second or in 8K HDR while taking 64MP photographs at the same time. You’ll also be able to power three 36MP cameras simultaneously at 30 frames per second, which means you should see far less lag when switching between cameras on devices based on the 8 Gen 1.

A unique trick the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 enables is an always-on camera, allowing a sensor like the selfie camera to be active all the time to detect when you put your phone down or someone looks over your shoulder and turn the screen off for privacy. Obviously, having a camera turned on all the time is a bit scary, but Qualcomm says any images or video it captures will be stored locally in its secure enclave. You’ll be able to disable the feature if you want.

In addition, Qualcomm is supporting improved auto-exposure, focusing, face detection, bokeh, and ultra-wide camera support with the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1. Overall, it looks like this will be a fun generation of Snapdragon chips for manufacturers to play with.

Qualcomm’s seventh-generation AI Engine offers improved performance for AI-related tasks on the 8 Gen 1, which is about four times faster than what was in the Snapdragon 88 and up to 1.7 times more efficient. The company is also improving security thanks to a new Trust Management Engine and support for the new Android Ready SE standard.

If you’re unfamiliar, the Android Ready SE standard is Google’s new requirement system that will allow manufacturers to build in support for adding access tokens to smartphones. Things like digital car keys, driver’s licenses, e-money wallets, and more are required to support the standard if they want to see the light of day on Android, and the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 will be the first processor to support the initiative.

Rounding things off, the new chip has Qualcomm’s Seeing Hub built in which has been improved. It has a better shot at guessing the way you’re holding your phone to optimize antennas, while the new Leica Leitz Look mode can emulate Leica camera effects in your photos. The new Hugging Face feature can also help to group and prioritize your notifications, while the new Sonde Health can analyze your wellbeing and even help detect symptoms of COVID-19 (a feature that seems to only be conceptual at the moment).

The Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 seems like a solid upgrade over the Snapdragon 888, and it’s an important first step in Qualcomm’s plans for the next decade. It’s also the first flagship processor to be released under Cristiano Amon, the company’s new CEO who took over this past June. Amon has expressed his interest in further development of more powerful chip designs, so expect those efforts to manifest into consumer products in the near future.

For now, we have the incremental Snapdragon 898 8 Gen 1, which will start appearing in phones in early 2022.