Qualcomm is the market leader in smartphone processors today — as of mid-2019, the chipset manufacturer held 40 percent of the market in terms of smartphone processors. With such a market position, Qualcomm has considerable market pressure to innovate its chipsets, and make them offer more. This is particularly applicable in the non-flagship segments, with more emphasis on the budget and mainstream sections of the industry.
Naturally, such demand leads to processors from the lower end of the market featuring more new age abilities, such as supporting multi-camera setups, increased artificial intelligence capabilities and more. How, then, does it manage to ensure that the lines between each smartphone processor segment is not too blurred, and it still retains clear demarcation between categories to scale its chipsets? In other words, is the performance gap still clear enough between a mid-range and a premium processor?
In order to understand this, it is important to look at specific sections of the market, says Kedar Kondap, vice president of product management at Qualcomm. “One clear example is gaming — everyone wants a gaming platform today, that too at a price that suits their needs. We are looking to provide the best performance and usage experience, without looking at what the benchmark says. The same applies for the camera, and even AI — the flagship Snapdragon 865’s AI performance is pegged at 15 TOPS, while in the Snapdragon 765, performance is pegged at 5 TOPS. This is why the lines often seem to blur, but the chipset abilities are still clearly scaled,” he says.
This means that it has become more important for Qualcomm to look at specific fields to decide exactly what volume of innovation is warranted by each price slab of the smartphone industry. In many ways, it is this that can help keep the world’s smartphone market moving beyond the saturation point, and have consumers keep wanting to upgrade their devices, no matter what the price point is. The idea, at the end of the day, is to provide performance from its chipsets that is “sufficient”.
As Kondap elucidates, “For our products, we often work with game engine designers to understand the kind of stuff they are working on for the next two or three years. This is important because we need to offer the performance in order to deliver their desired experience, within that time frame.
“Today, most games offer hierarchical graphics abilities to match the performance of a phone, to offer an optimal experience. To enable this, we provide our Adreno tools to the engine designers, for them to test and work on. This helps us prepare for graphics performance abilities for the future. Going forward, demands will progress from HDR, to 10-bit, to billion-colour shade rendering, in order to make things more complicated in each tier. Our goal is to keep matching the demand.”
Moving beyond gaming, categories such as voice detection and even app-specific demands from the mainstream sections are helping Qualcomm determine what each segment needs. One such example is in AI abilities. “India is one of the leaders with 72 percent of its compatible devices featured activated voice features. When a keyword is spoken, the voice engine first attempts to authenticate the voice, which needs a lot of background AI processing in order to work,” says Kondap.
It is this that necessitates the presence of a dedicated AI engine, even in a budget smartphone processor such as the Snapdragon 460. Launched recently, the Snapdragon 460 comes with Qualcomm’s 3rd generation AI engine, the Hexagon co-processor and the Snapdragon 340 image processor. This is a far cry from older budget processors in the Snapdragon 4xx lineup, which almost offered a barebone smartphone experience.
Kondap further takes the example of Snapchat to explain how Qualcomm scales its budget processors. He states, “Portraits (in Snapchat) are segmented to identify foregrounds and backgrounds, and even faces. Then comes in the video engines, to process the live information. Following this, the augmented avatars, lenses and stickers are taken up and rendered alongside a video. The number of aspects involved here include the GPU, the vector extensions and the background CPU threads, and the software algorithms need to also be sophisticated to understand which core needs to be activated in order to use the least amount of power.”
As Kondap ascertains, it is this that has made it necessary for today’s budget smartphones to feature much more powerful abilities than what the market was at, about three years ago. It is because of these features that Qualcomm is today looking at usage trends more closely than ever, in order to build its chipsets. He says, “Naturally, the latest features always debut with our flagship chipsets. The features from last year’s flagship chipset still trickles down to this year’s sub-flagship chipset that sits one tier below.”
“There isn’t always a clear demarcation of capabilities, which is why today, the trickling down of features often depends a lot on the use cases,” Kondap adds.