A new smartphone chipset might not sound like a big deal in its own right, but when it’s Qualcomm’s next flagship chip it matters. The Snapdragon 865 is here, and it tells us what to expect from 2020’s flagship phones: more 5G, more AI, more gaming, and most excitingly more megapixels.
The 865 has a lot that’s new, but on paper it’s the camera side that feels like the most exciting development, with the new Spectra 480 image signal processor (ISP) driving two gigapixel per second processing speeds.
That’s the sort of number that’s pretty meaningless without context, so here’s the context: 865-powered phones will be able to take up to 200-megapixel photos. That’s almost double the capabilities of the biggest sensor on the market right now, the 108Mp whopper from Samsung that’s currently in just one phone, the Xiaomi Mi Note 10.
Still, in 2019 alone we’ve jumped from 48Mp, right through 64Mp and straight onto 108Mp, so with Qualcomm now delivering the necessary processing power it seems likely that sensor hardware won’t be far behind.
We’re usually the first to point out that more megapixels don’t always deliver better shots, especially since historically the approach to squeezing more pixels in has been to make each one smaller.
Smaller pixels mean less light is captured though, and the game-changer in Samsung’s 108Mp sensor was to adopt a larger 1/1.33-inch format, meaning it could deliver the detail you get from more pixels without the loss in light and tone from making those pixels smaller.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying: don’t get your hopes up just yet. Samsung’s sensor is part of a small but growing trend for larger sensors - Huawei took the same approach with the 1/1.55-inch sensor in this year’s Mate 30 Pro - but 200 megapixels won’t mean much if manufacturers reverse the trend and go back into squeezing smaller pixels into the same sensors.
Update: Qualcomm's Judd Heape has confirmed that 200Mp image sensors are in development by unnamed manufacturers, claiming that they would appear next year and would be "only supported by Snapdragon 865," though it will still be a while before we know sensor specifics.
Beyond imaging, the 865’s headline specs are about what you’d expect. The new Kryo 585 CPU and Adreno 650 GPU are supposedly 25% faster than last year’s, the 5th generation AI engine has twice as much power, and on the gaming side there’ll be updateable GPU drivers along with support for 144Hz refresh rates - a respectable jump up from the 120Hz seen in the Asus ROG Phone 2 and Razer Phone 2.
It’ll probably be another two or three months before we see the first 865 phones in the flesh - expect them to pop up at MWC in February - but Xiaomi has already confirmed that the Mi 10 will use the new chip, while both Oppo and Motorola have teased 865 flagships for early 2020 too. Just don’t expect any of them to break past the 108Mp barrier just yet.