Qualcomm unveils new Snapdragon 855 chip with 5G at its heart

Qualcomm’s flagship chip supports in-screen fingerprint scanners, 5G and AI-powered processing

Jake Stones
6 Dec 2018
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Qualcomm has unveiled its next-generation Snapdragon 855 chip to help power the flagship phones of 2019. Announced during its third tech summit in Hawaii, the Snapdragon 855 is capable of some impressive feats, including real-time bokeh effects and 5G capabilities. Qualcomm also used its Hawaii summit to showcase the tech behind an improved under-screen fingerprint reader.

The biggest announcement was, clearly, that of the Snapdragon 855 system on chip. It’s the first mobile chipset on the market to have 5G capabilities, meaning that - once infrastructure arrives - the flagships of 2019 will be capable of leveraging these superfast networks.

Earlier this year Intel unveiled its 5G-enabled chips for modems and other companies like Huawei have been looking to use the superfast mobile internet protocol for a while. However, Qualcomm has managed to pip others to the post by including it as part of the Snapdragon 855.

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Qualcomm also claims that the Snapdragon 855 has a new fourth-gen “AI Engine”. This supposedly gives the 855 3x performance improvement over the 845. Qualcomm also claims that the Snapdragon 855 is twice as fast as its rivals, alluding to the A12 Bionic found in Apple’s latest iPhones such as the iPhone Xs, iPhone XR and the iPhone X and the Kirin 980 found in the Huawei Mate 20 Pro.  

Qualcomm’s chipset is unlikely to make it into handsets prior to March 2019, so there’s a little bit of time to wait as most phones at MWC will utilise the 855. What’s more, if you’re a Samsung customer in the UK then you’ll likely only see Samsung’s Exynos variant grace its phones. For the Sony, Google, LG and OnePlus fans, expect the Snapdragon to be in the next flagship models from these companies, namely the Sony Experia XZ4, the LG G8 and the OnePlus 7 respectively.

Qualcomm’s other innovation comes in the form of an under-screen fingerprint reader. These readers aren’t anything new. Both the OnePlus 6T and Huawei Mate 20 Pro feature one, alongside a smattering of other devices released this year. They’re not perfect though. They require you to press down harder than usual on the screen, and if you have wet or greasy fingers then you’d best just grab a napkin instead of trying at all.

This is because most readers use a scanned image of your thumb or fingerprint as a means of unlocking. As soon as you alter the angle, fail to press hard enough or just have something obstructing a clear shot, you run the risk of not getting into your smartphone.

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Qualcomm claims to have come up with a solution to this problem with its “3D Sonic Sensor”. As the name implies, it works using sound waves to produce a scan of your fingerprint through the screen. These sound waves make a 3D scan of your fingerprint and therefore it doesn’t matter if you have wet or greasy fingers, nor if you don’t place your thumb perfectly on the screen. In fact, it doesn’t even need to be on the screen as, in theory, it could work on the rear of the device so long as the sound waves could break through the surface to scan your thumb.

Unfortunately, it seems that the 3D Sonic Sensor is more a proof of concept for now as Qualcomm is still yet to announce any hardware partners for the product.