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Qualcomm announces top-of-the-line Snapdragon 821 mobile processor

Qualcomm has absorbed more and more of the mobile hardware market over the years with its Snapdragon systems-on-a-chip (SoC), having vanquished competitors like TI. Last year was an uncharacteristic miss for the company as the Snapdragon 810 was constantly dogged by overheating issues. Matters improved with the release of the Snapdragon 820, and now it’s looking to strengthen its position with the 821. It’s basically a faster version of the 820.

The jump in performance between the 810 and 820 was significant, but the release of the 821 is mostly incremental; the similar model numbers are a dead giveaway. Qualcomm is one of the few companies that designs its own ARM-compatible CPU cores, but it did not have a new 64-bit version of its core ready for the 810. That’s why there was such a marked difference between the 810 and 820. The 810 was an octa-core chip with four ARM Cortex A57 cores and four Cortex-A53 cores.

The move to the 820 included the first use of Qualcomm’s Kryo CPU cores. There were only four of them in the 820, but the variable clock speed allowed them to take on the same work of eight cores in the 810 without as much heat generation. The Kryo cores are 64-bit and based on Samsung’s FinFET 14nm manufacturing process — this is true of the cores in the 820 and the new Snapdragon 821.

The main difference between the 820 and 821 is the clock speed of the components. The 821 CPU cores top out at 2.4GHz, which is about 10% faster than the 820. The Adreno 530 GPU has also gotten a speed bump from 624MHz to 650MHz. Just like desktop chips, Qualcomm’s SoCs go through a binning process. Some chips won’t be as capable as others, so they will be locked to a slower frequency and sold cheaper. Pushing Kryo to 2.4GHz probably indicates that Qualcomm has been able to improve the architecture on the 14nm process.

Qualcomm Snapdragon, inside an exploded smartphoneQualcomm is careful to point out it is not retiring the Snapdragon 820 — there will still be plenty of phones running that chip in the coming months (they might actually be “binned” 821s). It takes time for new hardware to make its way into the design process. The real world difference in performance will probably be minimal anyway.

Qualcomm has been fending off increasing pressure from smaller chip makers like Huawei’s HiSilicon and MediaTek. The poor performance of the 810 and late arrival of the Kryo core left the company vulnerable. Qualcomm’s stock has lost about a quarter of its value since early 2015 when the first Snapdragon 810 complaints were appearing. The 820 has been a success so far, and the 821 will likely build on that. It remains to be seen if Qualcomm can remain king of mobile chipsets, though.

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