Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 gives a big push to camera prowess, and I’m excited about it

Qualcomm introduced the Snapdragon 888 – its latest flagship processor – a day ago, but didn’t share details about the performance gains and the new features it brings to the table. Today, the company finally has revealed the numbers, and they are a lot to process (ha!). To start, Snapdragon 888 makes the jump to the 5nm process, you get faster cores, a better graphics engine, an integrated 5G modem this time around, and a massive boost to imaging capabilities. We are going to focus on the last bit here i.e. camera enhancements. But before we do that, let’s take a quick glance at its key specifications:

Qualcomm Snapdragon 880
  • Based on the 5nm process.
  • Qualcomm Kryo 680 CPU based on ARM Cortex-X1 core. It promises up to 25% performance boost and higher efficiency.
  • Adreno 660 GPU that offers a 35% graphics performance uptick.
  • 6th-Gen Qualcomm AI Engine with Hexagon 780 processor that offers 3x improvement in performance per watt output.
  • Snapdragon X60 5G Modem-RF System.
  • Support for QHD+ panels at 144Hz refresh rate.
  • Qualcomm Quick Charge 5
  • Second generation Qualcomm Sensing Hub

What’s the whole fuss about camera upgrades?

At the heart of all the imaging capability upgrades offered by the Snapdragon 888 SoC is the Qualcomm Spectra 580 image signal processor that now has triple 14-bit CV-ISPs. It takes over the reins from the Qualcomm Spectra 480 image signal processor on the Snapdragon 865 that had dual 14-bit CV ISPs. This new triple CV-ISP design drastically upgrades how Qualcomm’s latest SoC handles multi-camera systems on smartphones, especially triple rear camera setups.

The key advantage of this triple ISP design is achieving triple camera concurrency. As the name suggests, the chip can now handle three different data streams from three separate image sensors at the same time. So essentially, all three rear cameras (primary + ultra-wide + telephoto) cameras can record videos simultaneously. And that too, in 4K HDR format. We are unsure how OEMs will implement it, but one possibility is that users will be able capture a scene with three different lenses and then save (or share) the view they like best -the standard crop, a magnified view or a wider scene.

Simultaneous 4K HDR video capture by all three cameras

And just like videos, the triple ISPs will also let smartphone cameras shoot three images of 28MP size at the same time, one from each sensor. Another advantage of the triple ISP design is that switching between the primary, ultra-wide and telephoto lens will be almost instantaneous. In a dual ISP setup, the chip has to guess if users will now switch to the telephoto lens or they zoom out by reverting to the primary camera. The triple ISP system runs all three cameras simultaneously and speeds up the switching process.

Qualcomm also claims to have made some improvements at the architectural level for the new Spectra 580 ISP that can crunch an astonishing 2.7 Gigapixels of image data per second, compared to the 2 Gigapixel per second output of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 SoC. Thanks to that data crunching enhancement, the chipset will allow smartphones to capture up to 120 shots of 12MP each in a second. A hundred and twenty photos of 12MP each with burst mode!

Qualcomm hasn’t provided further details how this will be executed, but the technique of stacking multiple frames to produce a final image that is brighter and richer in details is something many Android devices already do. But with more frames and extra computing power at their disposal, low-light photography will receive a major boost, theoretically speaking.

Burst capture at 120fps for 12MP stills is very promising

The chipmaker is also touting what it calls staggered HDR that will dramatically boost the dynamic range of images. Again, thanks to the triple ISP approach, three images with different exposure range and details in different regions of a scene are captured simultaneously and merged to create a single image with a much better dynamic range. The technique itself is not new, but the Snapdragon 888 adds 4K HDR with computational HDR capability to the mix.

Another major feature is that Snapdragon 888-powered smartphones can not only capture 4K videos at 120fps, but can also play them natively. This will put the high-refresh-rate 120Hz panels on smartphones to good use. However, it is unclear if the chip can also handle editing such videos, something that the likes of iPhone 12 Pro allow with Dolby Vision HDR videos. The upgraded camera capabilities also include 10-bit HDR HEIF photo capture and 4K HDR video capture with portrait mode. The latter is something I am particularly excited to test out on the 2021 Android flagships.

Capture and play 4K HDR videos natively

Qualcomm has deployed AI to handle autofocus, auto-exposure, and automatic white balance adjustment with its latest chip. The company is relying on new Saliency Auto Focus and Auto Exposure engines to make of this new approach that promises to enhance image accuracy. We are also assured of improved low-light performance, with Qualcomm claiming that the smartphones powered by its latest silicon can even capture images in dark surroundings with an illuminance as low as 0.1 lux.

It would be too early to pass a verdict without testing out the camera performance of Snapdragon 888-powered phones, since it also depends how well OEMs tune the camera sensors and their algorithms. But with Qualcomm providing a solid foundation with its latest silicon, I am optimistic. It is quite evident that Qualcomm has finally decided to create something that can truly take advantage of multi-camera setups on modern Android flagships.

Qualcomm stepped up, now it’s up to OEMs

With enhanced processing firepower at disposal courtesy of the Snapdragon 888 and increased push to computational photography techniques, Qualcomm has done its part to take our smartphone camera experience to the next level. The first wave of Snapdragon 888 flagships will appear in the next couple of months, and I can’t wait to see if Android devices can finally play catch up to what Apple has been doing lately and usher us into a new era of what smartphone cameras can do.

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