Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 review (hands-on): Full detail, specifications and benchmark results

Qualcomm’s latest processor is its fastest yet, and could extend your battery life

17 Dec 2015

The world of the smartphone processor is a fairly one-dimensional one, especially when it comes to the hardware found in flagship phones. Each year, manufacturers usually have a choice of one top-end processor, and it’s normally a chip manufactured produced by Qualcomm. For 2016, that component is set to be the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820.

Officially unveiled in November, Qualcomm will be hoping the Snapdragon 820 both sets new standards in the mobile processor space, and overcomes the problems that have dogged its predecessor. Since its inception, the Snapdragon 810 has been plagued by overheating problems, with several phones employing the chip running uncomfortably hot – affecting both performance and battery life.

Qualcomm 820 review: What’s new?

Qualcomm’s solution to this has been to revert to its own CPU designs. So, instead of using off-the-shelf ARM Cortex A53 and A57 CPUs, as the 810 did, the Snapdragon 820 debuts the company’s shiny new 2.2GHz quad-core 64-bit Kryo CPU and superfast Adreno 530 GPU.

Qualcomm’s claims are as eyebrow-raisingly positive as always, but there’s a renewed emphasis on efficiency as much as raw performance this time around, with the new chip built using the same 14nm manufacturing process as Samsung’s latest Exynos processors.

For the Kryo CPU, Qualcomm is promising “up to 2X performance” and “2X power efficiency”. For the Adreno 530 – the part critical for graphics-heavy gaming – it’s touting a 40% performance and power efficiency bump.

There are also performance and efficiency improvements elsewhere, though. The new X12 4G modem component gets a 33% performance, and a 20% efficiency boost, and there are improvements to the Hexagon 680 DSP and Spectra ISP parts, used for audio and image processing respectively.

On the connectivity front, the Snapdragon 820 also builds in support for MU-MIMO 802.11ac Wi-Fi and the upcoming 802.11ad protocol, although the latter standard is a long way from being ratified and appearing in your home wireless router.

Overall, Qualcomm is claiming the new SoC will consume 30% less power than the 810. How much impact will this have on battery life? Alas, not as much as you might think. What it does mean is that 2016’s smartphones won't last 30% longer than 2015’s, and that’s because the SoC isn’t the only power-hungry component inside a smartphone. With significant power draw coming from other components, notably the screen, storage and camera, battery life is likely to improve, but not by a huge amount.

Qualcomm 820 review: Early benchmarks

So how do the claims stack up in the benchmarks? We won’t have a real-world view on this until the first smartphones with the Snapdragon 820 chip inside appear in the first half of 2016, but Qualcomm did give us the chance to run some benchmarks on a development handset.

Equipped with a 6.2in, 2,560 x 1,600 resolution display, 3GB of LPDDR4 RAM and 64GB of UFS storage, the development hardware is designed to show the chipset off at its best – although, sadly, you’ll never be able to buy one.

Here are the results of the benchmarks we were able to run. I’ve compared the figures with a couple of Snapdragon 810-powered handsets and Samsung’s Exynos 7420-powered Galaxy S6 to give you a flavour of how it stacks up against current flagships.

Snapdragon 820

Samsung Galaxy
S6 (Exynos 7420)

OnePlus Two
(Snapdragon 810)

Sony Xperia Z5
(Snapdragon 810)

GFXBench GL 3.0 Manhattan Onscreen

26fps
(2,560 x 1,600)

15fps
(2,560 x 1,440)

23fps
(1,920 x 1,080)

27fps
(1,920 x 1,080)

GFXBench GL 3.0 Manhattan Offscreen (1080p)

46fps

23fps

25fps

26fps

Geekbench 3 Single

2,356

1,427

1,210

1,236

Geekbench 3 Multi

5,450

4,501

4,744

3,943

The Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 is quicker than its predecessor, which is exactly what I expected. The margin of the advantage, however, is what catches the eye. In fact, the Snapdragon 820 is an order of magnitude quicker in every single test than the Snapdragon 810.

In the 1080p offscreen Manhattan test, it achieves double the frame rate of the OnePlus Two, in the single-core Geekbench test the score is 95% higher and, in the multi-core test, it’s 15% higher. The Snapdragon 820 is also significantly quicker than the Exynos 7420 chip inside the Samsung Galaxy S6, which is itself faster the Snapdragon 810.

Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 review: Verdict

The Snapdragon 820 is clearly a monster of a mobile processor – you only have to look at the test results table to see that. However, the key to its success may not be its raw speed, but the amount of headroom that such performance delivers.

With the performance level of most top-end smartphones already more than enough for most software and games, it’s the efficiency – or the ability to run the chip at a slower clockspeed for the same performance level – that could prove the most interesting.

Coupled with the move from a 20nm manufacturing process to the more efficient 14nm one, and the picture for smartphone battery life could look significantly different in 2016 than in 2015. I’ve got my fingers crossed.

See also: Your guide to the very best smartphones of 2015/16.

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