Massive ISP Upgrades

I’ve been hearing for some time now that 2022 flagships will have massive camera upgrades, and the new features of the next-gen SoCs being described by MediaTek and now also Qualcomm explain why that is.

The new ISP of the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 falls under a new marketing name – “Snapdragon Sight”, and includes large improvements of the capabilities of the IP blocks within the image processing chain.

The big flagship feature being advertised is the fact that the new ISP is now capable of 18-bits of color depth per channel, up from the previous generation 14-bit ISP. While mobile image sensors nowadays still are barely 12-bit native in terms of their ADCs, the ushering of new HDR techniques such as staggered HDR capture, where exposures are immediately subsequent to each other on the sensor’s readout, means that new phones now are able to capture images a lot faster, recombining them into higher bit-depth results. Particularly here, the new 18-bit ISP pipeline now allows for three exposure HDR stacking off these new sensors.

The increased bit-depth should allow for an increase of 4 stops in dynamic range (or 2^4 = 16x the range), which greatly helps with very contrasting environments and challenging lighting situations. This is quite beyond any other camera solution right now, and being able to have this implemented in such a hardware fashion sort of blurs the line between traditional image capture techniques and the more software-defined computational photography methods of the last few years.

Indeed, the new ISP architecture seems to be very much a way to implement many of the existing computational photography techniques into fixed-function blocks: there’s a new neural-net controlled 3AA (auto-exposure, auto-focus, auto-white-balance) and face detection block, which sounds eerily similar to Google’s HDRnet implementations.

Night mode is also said to be vastly improved through a new multi-frame noise reduction and image stacking block, being able to now stack and align up to 30 images, and achieve also much finer detail this generation. Qualcomm here claims up to 5x better night mode shots.

Further improvements include a new distortion correction block that’s able to now also correct for chromatic aberrations, and a hardware video Bokeh engine, being able to operate at up to 4K video recording. Think of it as the same as the new Cinematic mode on the new A15 iPhones, but not only limited to 1080p.

Qualcomm notes that all the AI/ML/neural network features on the ISP are actually run and accelerated on the ISP itself, meaning that it is not offloaded onto the Hexagon dedicated ML processing blocks or the GPU.

Just as a note- Qualcomm’s 3.2Gigapixel/s throughput metric here seems low compared to the Dimensity 9000’s 9Gpixel/s, it’s possible that the companies are advertising very different metrics, with MediaTek advertising the throughput of lower-bit depth pixels coming from the image sensors per frame, while Qualcomm quoting the full bit depth pixel processing within the ISP itself.

In terms of video encoders and decoders, the new chip allows for 8K HDR recording now, but otherwise is seemingly on par with the Snapdragon 888 media blocks. Unfortunately, this also means no AV1 decoding this year yet again. Qualcomm isn’t part of the Alliance for Open Media consortium and instead is backing VVC/H.266 and EVC, however with AV1 being actively pushed by Google and YouTube, and seeing large adoptions such as by Netflix, it’s becoming questionable for Qualcomm to still not support the format in 2022 devices.

AI Performance - Iterative, but solid

Last year’s Hexagon IP block was a very large change for the Snapdragon 888. At the time, Qualcomm moved on from a more segregated DSP/AI architecture to a single more fused-together block being able to operate on scalar, vector, and tensor operations at the same time. This year’s iteration is an improvement of that larger change. Qualcomm notes that amongst many changes, they’ve doubled up on the shared memory of the block, allowing for greater performance for larger ML models (which are growing at a very fast pace).

Qualcomm didn’t note any TOPS figures this time around, instead stating we’re seeing 2x the tensor throughput performance, and smaller increases for scalar and vector processing. They do quote a day-1 to day-1 performance increase of 4x when compared to the Snapdragon 888, via a combination of both hardware and software improvements, but of course that figure is smaller when comparing both platforms on an equal software footing.

Power efficiency for AI workloads is said to be 70% better this generation, which is actually more significant, and should help with more demanding sustained ML workloads.

X65 Modem Integrated

In terms of connectivity, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 is quite straightforward, as it integrates the X65 modem IP that Qualcomm had already announced as a discrete model earlier this year.

The improvements here are the fact that it’s a 3GPP Release 16 compatible modem, including new features such as uplink carrier aggregation. Other improvements are 300MHz of Sub-6 bandwidth on 3 100MHz carriers, and an increase of the mmWave bandwidth from 800 MHz to 1000MHz, allowing a new peak theoretical downlink speeds of 10Gbps.

Introduction & Specifications - CPU & GPU Conclusion & First Impressions
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  • mode_13h - Friday, December 3, 2021 - link

    They should get him to recruit his replacement, before letting him go!

    BTW, his twitter profile says he's in Luxembourg? I always sorta wondered. Wow.
  • GeoffreyA - Saturday, December 4, 2021 - link

    That's a good idea.
  • mode_13h - Sunday, December 5, 2021 - link

    At the very least, I hope he trains any future reviewer in his test tools & methodologies.
  • GeoffreyA - Monday, December 6, 2021 - link

    I wonder if Anandtech has found anybody as yet. This will be a blow to the site's mobile coverage.
  • mode_13h - Tuesday, December 7, 2021 - link

    Yeah, I noticed the same thing.
  • Arbie - Thursday, December 2, 2021 - link

    Charlie at SemiAccurate has a very different view on this; worth a read and not paywalled.
  • Kangal - Thursday, December 2, 2021 - link

    That was a fun read. I forgot that site existed.
    Even Google Search buries them.
  • mode_13h - Friday, December 3, 2021 - link

    IMO, it's their own fault. I hate the way they tease on the public side of the paywall, especially when the subscriptions are so expensive that only a few investors and industry insiders would bother to pay it.

    The other thing they should do is make the older articles free. Especially when Charlie references them in his gloats about being right, which were pretty much the only free articles they had at the last time I stopped checking. It hurts his own case, if you cannot go back and actually read the article to see what he had said.

    The thing that bugs me most about Charlie is that he's not good at keeping a level of detachment. He lets his opinions color his reporting, too much. I don't mind the he has opinions and that he's vocal about them, but he does his readers a disservice when he's not clear about the facts he's gathered vs. his interpretation and projections. And I don't trust him to report facts that run counter to his opinions. It just reads almost like a semiconductor industry tabloid, rather than a credible resource.

    Yet, in spite of all that, I'd still probably kick him $10/year to read the stuff. Maybe that's what he needs: a tiered subscription, where the top tier gets articles as they're published, the next tier gets them after 30 days, the bottom tier gets them after 90 days, and they're free after 180 days or a year.
  • yankeeDDL - Saturday, December 4, 2021 - link

    I completely agree on the peak-performance/consumption remarks.
    I think that with Snapdragons being so far behind the Bionic (I'd say easily 1-2 generations in terms of performance) it is no wonder that vendors look to ... cheat the benchmarks. Already today it is a sore sight looking at the 888 vs the A15 and A14, and that is with the 888 in "furnace" mode.

    I don't understand how we can be at a point where a market leader like Qualcomm is simply unable to come anywhere in the neighborhood of what a single team at Apple can do. It's quite amazing actually. So until they get their acts together and create some architecture that can at least compete side-bi-side, without going nuclear, with Apple, this issue won't go away.
  • yeeeeman - Sunday, December 5, 2021 - link

    When do we get a performance preview?

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