Smartphone processor technology took another leap forward this June when Qualcomm and Google teamed up to make augmented reality available on smartphones using the Snapdragon 652 SoC Snapdragon 820 chip. The Snapdragon 820, used on cutting-edge devices such as the Samsung Galaxy S7, is already the most powerful chip on the market, with 15 percent higher speed and lower consumption than its predecessor.
With the addition of augmented reality, the Snapdragon takes another step forward to hint at the future direction of smartphone technology. As smartphone processors continue to advance in sophistication, here’s a look back at how they got to be where they are today, along with a preview of things to come.
The world’s first smartphone, although it wasn’t called that, was the IBM Simon Personal Communicator, which debuted at the 1992 COMDEX computer expo under the code name “Angler.” The Simon combined mobile phone and personal digital assistant capability, allowing it to be used for phone calls, faxes, emails and cellular paging. Powering these features was a Vadem 16 MHz, 16-bit, x86-compatible CPU. Simon sold 50,000 units between 1994 and 1995.
In 1996, Nokia introduced the 9000 Communicator, which became the direct ancestor of the smartphone. Like Simon, the Communicator had phone, email and fax features, but it also added word processing, spreadsheets and internet browsing capability. The Communicator ran on its own operating system, GEOS, the predecessor of the Symbian OS. It used an Intel 386 CPU that ran at 33 MHz.
As smartphones gained popularity with enterprise users and then consumers, competition increased, pushing manufacturers to scale up their processing power. The introduction of larger screens with touch screen capability accelerated the need for speed. By 2007, the average smartphone was using a 620 MHz CPU. The first iPhones, introduced that January, ran on a 620 MHz Samsung ARM processor that was underclocked to 412 MHz.
System on a Chip Processors
The next major step forward came in 2008, when Qualcomm introduced the first System on a Chip (SoC) processor. The QSC7230 processor series, the ancestor of today’s Snapdragon, took the innovative step of placing all the components of a computer on a single chip instead of a traditional motherboard. This enabled more processing power to be fit into a smartphone device without crowding out battery space. The result was more powerful, longer-running smartphones than ever before. A 600 MHz chip could now power functions such as Bluetooth, FM radio, GPS and third-party operating systems and cameras.
The Snapdragon 820 represents the current cutting edge of smartphone chip technology. It uses the new 64-bit Kryo CPU for twice the performance and efficiency of the Snapdragon 810 CPU, which used a different architecture than Qualcomm’s own Krait custom core. The Kryo is part of Qualcomm’s Zeroth cognitive computing platform, designed to more closely emulate the processing of the human brain. With X12 LTE, the Snapdragon is three times faster with 33 percent faster peak download speeds than X10 LTE, featuring downloads of up to 600 Mbps and uplinks of 150 Mpbs.
Snapdragon also uses the Qualcomm Adreno 530 GPU for a 40 percent improvement in graphics performance, computing capabilities and power usage compared to its Adreno 430 predecessor. For photos, Snapdragon uses the 14-bit Qualcomm Spectra Image Signal Processor, enabling smartphone cameras to capture up to 25 megapixels with no shutter lag. With Snapdragon’s new augmented reality capability added onto these features, the next advance in smartphone processor technology has a high hurdle to clear.