Final Thoughts

Today’s preview focused solely on the performance metrics of the new chipset, which only cover a very small subset of the new features that the chip will be bringing to devices next year. A lot of the talking-points of the new SoC such as 5G connectivity, or the new camera and media capabilities, are aspects for which we’ll have to wait on commercial devices.

For what we’ve been able to test today, the Snapdragon 865 seems very solid. The new Cortex-A77 CPU does bring larger IPC improvements to the table, and thanks to the Snapdragon 865’s improved memory subsystem, the chip has been able to showcase healthy performance increases. I did find it odd that the web benchmarks didn’t quite perform as well as I had expected – I don’t know if the new microarchitecture just doesn’t improve these workloads as much, or if it might have been a software issue on the QRD865 phone; we’ll have to wait for commercial devices to have a clearer picture of the situation. System performance of the new chip certainly shouldn’t be disappointing, and even on a conservative baseline configuration, 2020 flagships should see an increase in responsiveness compared to the Snapdragon 855.

AI performance of the new chip is also improved – although our limited benchmark suite here isn’t able to fully expose the hardware improvements that the S865 brings with it. It’s likely that first-party camera applications will be the first real workloads that will be able to showcase the new capabilities of the chip.

On the GPU side, the improvements are also quite solid, but I just have a feeling that the narrative here isn’t quite the same anymore for Qualcomm, as Apple’s the elephant in the room now here as well. During the launch of the chipset the company was quite eager to promote that its sustained performance is better than the competition. While we weren’t able to test this aspect of the Snapdragon 865 on the QRD865 due to time constraints, the simple fact is that the chip’s peak performance remains inferior to Apple’s sustained performance, with the fruit company essentially dominating an area where previously Qualcomm was king. In this regard, I hope Qualcomm is able to catch up in the future, as the differences here are seemingly getting bigger each year.

Overall, the Snapdragon 865 seems like a very well-balanced chip and I have no doubt it’ll serve as a very competitive foundation for 2020 flagships. Qualcomm’s strengths lie in the fact that they’re able to deliver a complete solution with 5G connectivity – we do however hope that in the future the company will be able to offer more solid performance upgrades; the competition out there is getting tough.

GPU Performance & Power
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  • rpg1966 - Monday, December 16, 2019 - link

    How is Apple so far ahead in some/many respects, given that Arm is dedicated to designing these microarchitectures? Reply
  • eastcoast_pete - Monday, December 16, 2019 - link

    In addition to spending $$$ on R&D, Apple can optimize (tailor, really) its SoCs 100% to its OS and vice versa. Also, not sure if anybody has figures just how much the (internal) costs of Apple's SoCs are compared to what Samsung, Xiaomi etc. pay QC for their flagship SoCs. Would be interesting to know how much this boils down to costs. Reply
  • jospoortvliet - Monday, December 16, 2019 - link

    I think cody I'd the big factor. Qualcomm and arm keep chips small for cost reasons. Apple throws transistors at the problem and cares little... Reply
  • s.yu - Monday, December 16, 2019 - link

    I like the approach of throwing transistors :) Reply
  • generalako - Monday, December 16, 2019 - link

    Can we stop with these excuses? What cost reasons? Whose stopping them from making two architectures then, letting OEMs decide which to use -- if Apple does it, why not them? Samsung aiming at large cores with their failed M4 clearly points towards a desire/intention to have larger cores that are more performant. Let's not make the assumption that there's no need here--there clearly is.

    Furthermore, where is the excuse in ARM still being on the A55 for the third straight year? Or Qualcomm being on their GPU architecture for 3 straight years, with so incremental GPU improvements the past two years that they not only let Apple both match and vastly surpass them, but are even getting matched by Mali?

    There's simply no excuse for the laziness going on. ARM's architecture is actually impressive, with still big year-on-year IPC gains (whereas Apple has actually stagnated here the past two years). But abandoning any work on efficiency cores is inexcusable. As is the fact that none of the OEMs has done anything to deal with this problem.
    Reply
  • Retycint - Monday, December 16, 2019 - link

    Probably because ARM designs for general use - mobiles, tablets, TVs, cars etc, whereas Apple designs specifically for their devices. So naturally Apple is able to devote more resources and time to optimize for their platform, and also design cores/chips specific to their use (phone or tablet).

    But then again I'm an outsider, so the reality could be entirely different
    Reply
  • generalako - Monday, December 16, 2019 - link

    TIL using the same A55 architecture is "for general use" /s

    If ARM had actually done their job and released efficiency cores more often, like Apple does every year, we'd have far more performant and efficient smartphones today across the spectrum. Flagship phones would benefit in idle use (including standby), and also in assigning far more resource-mild works to these cores than they do today.

    But mid-range and low-end phones would benefit a huge amount here, with efficiency cores performing close to performance cores (often 1-2 older gen clocked substantially lower). That would also be cheaper, as it would make cluster of 2 performance cores not as necessary--fitting right in with your logic of making cheap designs for general use.
    Reply
  • quadrivial - Monday, December 16, 2019 - link

    There's a few reasons.

    Apple seems to have started before arm did. They launched their design just 2 years or so after the announcement of a64 while arm needed the usual 4-5 years for a new design. I don't believe apples designers are that much better than normal (I think they handed them the ISA and threatened to buy out MIPS if they didn't). Arm has never recovered that lead time.

    That said, PA Semi had a bunch of great designers who has already done a lot of work with low power designs (mostly POWER designs if I recall correctly).

    Another factor is a32 support. It's a much more complex design and doesn't do performance, power consumption, or die area any favors. Apple has ecosystem control, so they just dropped the complex parts and just did a64. This also drastically reduces time to design any particular part of the core and less time to verify everything meaning more time optimizing vs teams trying to do both at once.

    Finally, Apple has a vested interest in getting faster as fast as possible. Arm and the mobile market want gradual performance updates to encourage upgrades. Even if they could design an iPhone killer today, I don't think they would. There's already enough trouble with people believing their phones are fast enough as is.

    Apple isn't designing these chips for phones though. They make them for their pro tablets. The performance push is even more important for laptops though. The current chip is close to x86 in mobile performance. Their upcoming 5nm designs should be right at x86 performance for consumer applications while using a fraction of the power. They're already including a harvested mobile chip in every laptop for their T2. Getting rid of Intel on their MacBook air would do two things. It would improve profits per unit by a hundred dollars or so (that's almost 10% of low end models). It also threatens Intel to get them better deals on higher end models.

    We may see arm move in a similar direction, but they can't get away with mandating their users and developers change architectures. Their early attempts with things like the surface or server chips (a57 was mostly for servers with a72 being the more mobile-focused design) fell flat. As a result, they seem to be taking a conservative approach that eliminates risk to their core market.

    The success or failure of the 8cx will probably be extremely impactful on future arm designs. If it achieves success, then focusing on shipping powerful, 64-bit only chip designs seems much more likely. I like my Pixelbook, but I'd be willing to try an 8cx if the price and features were right (that includes support for Linux containers).
    Reply
  • Raqia - Monday, December 16, 2019 - link

    Nice post! You're right, it really does seem like Apple's own implementations defined the ARM v8.x spec given how soon after ARM's release their chips dropped. ARM is also crimped by the need to address server markets so their chips have a more complex cache and uncore hierarchies than Apple's and generally smaller caches with lower single threaded performance. Their customers' area budgets are also more limited compared to Apple who doesn't generally integrate a modem into their SoC designs. Reply
  • aliasfox - Monday, December 16, 2019 - link

    I would also add that Qualcomm only makes a dozen or so dollars per chip, whereas Apple makes hundreds of dollars per newest generation iPhone and iPad Pro. Qualcomm's business model just puts them at a disadvantage in this case - they have to make a chip that's not only competitive in performance, but at a low enough cost that a) they can make money selling it, and b) handset vendors can make money using it. Apple doesn't really have to worry about that because for all intents and purposes, their chip division is a part of their mobile division.

    I wonder if it's in the cards for Apple to ever include both an Intel processor as well as a full fledged mobile chip in the future, working in the same way as integrated/discrete graphics - the system would primarily run on the A13x, with the Intel chip firing up for Intel-binary apps as needed.
    Reply

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