Meet the Qualcomm Snapdragon 660, the platform that will take AI and dual-cameras mainstream

Qualcomm today announced the launch of its latest “high-end” mobile platforms, the 660 and the 630. These platform bring a number of firsts to this category, redefining the capabilities of smartphones in that class.

In conversation with Mr Kedar Kondap, Vice President, Product Management, Qualcomm Technologies, we learnt that Qualcomm is seeing “pretty good traction” in the high-end smartphone space.

As Qualcomm defines it, the market is split into four tiers: The low-end, mid-range, high-end, and premium tiers. Each of these tiers is serviced by Qualcomm’s 200, 400, 600 and 800 platforms respectively.

To put things in perspective, the 400-series platform is usually found in the sub-Rs 20,000 category, the 600-series in the Rs 15,000 - Rs 30,000 range and the 800-series in the Rs 50,000+ flagship smartphone range. These aren’t hard and fast rules of course, exceptions like OnePlus and Xiaomi do buck the trend, but these are exceptions, after all.

The Snapdragon 660 and 630 platforms are very similar in most respects. As Kondap explains, the 660 is for devices with a 2K display (usually 2560x1440), while the 630 is for devices with a Full HD display (1920x1080), though the latter can support a higher resolution.

These platforms aim to bring flagship features like support for dual-cameras, better image processing, always-on technology, machine learning support and more to a more mainstream platform.

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Here’s everything that we learned about the 630 and 660.

Processors

Both platforms feature an 8-core CPU running in the now standard big.LITTLE configuration. This involves 4 cores tuned for performance and another 4 cores tuned for efficiency. Power management protocols will distribute computing loads to these sets of cores based on needs. General usage might never need the high-performance cluster, whereas heavy loads like gaming might trigger it.

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In the case of the 630, Qualcomm is using 8 Cortex A53 cores licensed from ARM. In the case of the 660, you get 8 Kryo 260 cores. Just like their bigger brothers in the Snapdragon 835, the Kryo 260 cores are a semi-custom Qualcomm design.

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As Kondap explains, the 660 is designed to be a platform that drives a 2K display, so everything about the platform is customised to ensure this can happen. This could mean higher RAM bandwidth and more.

Graphical grunt

The graphics horsepower is provided by Qualcomm’s Adreno 508 and 512 GPUs (graphics processing unit). These new graphics chips, says, Kondap, can enhance performance over the preceding  platform by as much as 30 percent.

Better connectivity

Interestingly, the 600-series platform is getting a proper Snapdragon x12 LTE modem. This means upload and download speeds of around 600 Mbps and 150 Mbps respectively.

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For the first time ever, the platform also gets 2x2 Wi-Fi support for higher speeds and better connectivity.

Bluetooth 5.0, which is currently only available on the Samsung Galaxy S8, makes an appearance here as well.

Dual cameras for everyone

The Spectra ISP (Image Singal Processor) makes its way into the 600-series platform. Kondap says that this ISP can handle dual-cameras, including monochrome+RGB type sensors as well as support for dual-cameras with varying optical focal lengths (as on the iPhone 7 Plus or LG G6), depth-of-field enhancements and more.

All of this optimisation, including colour correction, etc., will apparently happen at the hardware level. In fact, Kondap tells us that using Hexagon Advanced Vector Extensions (AVX) – more on this later – the camera is in effect, using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) tools to improve the speed, reliability and accuracy of these features. He believes that with these features, Qualcomm will be able to offer almost the same level of performance in the 600 series as Qualcomm is offering in the 800 series today.

The camera also supports Electronic Image Stabilisation, and it’s now been bumped to version 3.0. EIS 3.0 is more advanced because it apparently time-stamps preview frames with gyro data (data from the motion sensors). This will enable the image processor to stabilise the image even more effectively.

4K video encoding and decoding will be natively supported.

Essentially, Qualcomm has developed a platform that brings all the goodness of the dual-camera setup and powerful EIS to a lower segment of the market. We’ve seen phones from Vivo, Micromax and Huawei bring dual-cameras to the budget and mid-range end of the market, but with the 600 series, this might become the norm rather than the exception.

Hexagon DSP with Hexagon AVX: AI for all

To put it more simply, the Hexagon DSP is a Digital Signal Processor (i.e. processes signals from multiple sensors, etc.). The Hexagon AVX refers to Hexagon-branded instruction sets for more advanced computation.

AVX is particularly notable because suddenly, you get to leverage the strength of ML for a number of tasks. Always-On technology integrated by Qualcomm means that data from sensors like voice recognition or motion detectors don’t necessarily wake up the whole device. If you remember Apple’s Motion co-processor, this is very similar.

As Kondap explains, Always-On Technology means that your phone’s battery will last longer. If you’re say, jogging and need to count your steps, this technology won’t wake up your phone, but instead, log the information in a lower power state.

The 630 supports the Hexagon DSP but not AVX.

Battery: Even faster charging and even more battery life

Battery life is a function of processing, says Kondap. With all the improvements in the 660, Kondap claims that the average user will get around 2 hours more battery life from their phone than from the previous generation 653 platform.

These new platforms also support QuickCharge 4.0 (QC 4.0), giving 5 hours of battery life from a 5 minute charge. This is compatible with QC 2.0 and 3.0 as well.

Basically, Qualcomm is telling us that you’re getting a faster, more effective platform that also offers you more battery life.

A bunch of other features

There are a bunch of other features included as well. For example, Kondap states that the 660 and 630 are pin and socket compatible, making it easier for manufactures to scale up and build a variety of devices.

The platform is more than just a chipset because it incorporates so many features, like the ISP, DSP, RF chips (for handling radio signals), etc. and all of this is intelligently managed.

You get features like Aqstic for audio, which not only provides support for high-resolution audio, but also brings higher amplification where needed, dedicated codecs for handling voice commands and more.

There are also a number of hardware-level security features, like like malware protection, support for secure authentication, etc.

As Kondap says, hardware is extremely critical for security.

So when do we get our hands on them?

The Snapdragon 660 platform is available right now and devices will start shipping in Q2 2017. The Snapdragon 630 platform will be made available in May and devices are expected in Q3.

Disclaimer: This correspondent was invited by Qualcomm to attend the event in Singapore. Qualcomm was responsible for the flights, accommodation and other related expenditure.


Published Date: May 09, 2017 08:02 am | Updated Date: May 09, 2017 08:02 am