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Qualcomm: a behind the scenes tour

Recently, we were given an opportunity to tour the Qualcomm labs in San Diego, probably the most important manufacturer of Android processors in the world today. We learned some exciting details about the innovations that are packed into the Snapdragon 835, and also got to examine some important core aspects of chip development at Qualcomm.

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Benchmarks tests are not a good indicator, and Qualcomm chips are platforms, not processors. These were the first two statements we were presented with when we visited the Qualcomm headquarters in San Diego. To demonstrate exactly what they meant, the chip developer showed us some of their research labs.

At each stage of this tour through the Qualcomm Headquarters, we learned about individual development goals using the technologies shown there.

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More battery life without a bigger battery

In the first lab, we were able to witness two tests. The first test was with Snapdragon 820 chip released in 2016 and the Snapdragon 835. Both chips were connected with cables to a Monsoon power monitor. The Qualcomm Laboratory Manager, Johnny John, explained that the monitors would measure the performance of both systems and the amount of battery they were using. 

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Laboratory Manager, Johnny John, demonstrates the reduced power consumption. / © AndroidPIT

Both systems were then subjected to a rigorous stress test, which we got to see in detail. The first was a virtual reality demo. The device with the 2016 processor pulls 1 amp from the battery, whereas the device with the Snapdragon 835 chipset only needed 680 milliamps at 3.7 volts. In simpler terms, Snapdragon 835 used 32 percent less power. By the way, smartphones, which would normally be able to withstand about three hours of VR gaming after charging the battery, could now last up to four hours.

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VR gaming test. / © AndroidPIT

The second stress test was video recording in UHD. With 970 instead of 1,300 mAh, the Snapdragon 835 was a quarter smaller. Here comes the big savings from the optimized video system. Qualcomm has been working with video engines for several Snapdragon generations, which process multimedia formats more efficiently than the CPU.

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The Snapdragon 835 is much smaller than the 820. / © AndroidPIT

These examples of energy savings may be simply be the result of the new production process of 10 instead of 14 nanometers, though John does not want to admit it. A comparative sampling of a Snapdragon 820 in 10 nm or a Snapdragon 835 in 14 nm has never been done, he told us. This will be the only way to find out how much these savings are really due to Qualcomm's optimization.

VR gaming without cables or accessories

As the benchmarks have already shown, Qualcomm has developed a very powerful chipset. On the one hand, this was to enable new VR and AR applications, and on the other hand to conquer the new desktop version of Windows as a new software platform.

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Leap Motion allows you to walk in virtual space. / © AndroidPIT

The measurably higher gaming performance should provide even less lag in VR applications. The aforementioned increase in efficiency, in turn, enhances the VR experience. 

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And now, thanks to Leap Motion technology, you can (finally!) go for a walk in the virtual world, as the position of your VR headmount can be tracked in the room. The Lead Product Manager for the Graphics Department, Micah Knapp, gave us a demonstration of this new technology. One especially practical feature: Leap Motion eliminates the need for an elaborate design with additional laser beams, just as we've seen with the HTC Vive.

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Qualcomm VR tracks your hands with the right cameras. / © AndroidPIT

Another demonstration showed that the Snapdragon 835 can recognize your hands with the naked eye, i.e. the camera in the headmount, and then transmits them to the virtual world in real time. In the demo this was almost flawless, so I am already trying to get in early with this technology. Qualcomm develops these technologies with a number of partners, as was explained to us by Hiren Bhinde, Senior Product Manager (VR / AR). Once Qualcomm has started with the mass production of the chip, company will certainly be moving in this direction.

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A comparison of several generations of the Adreno GPU. / © AndroidPIT

Windows PCs with Snapdragon are on the move

We could also soon see Qualcomm gaming fun with Windows computers. The Snapdragon 835 was prepared for DirectX 12, and a Snapdragon-powered Windows laptop is expected to be released sometime this year. While the work performance has already been well-optimized thanks to their experience with the Windows Phone devices from Nokia, desktop gaming will be a new challenge. Qualcomm will have to continually optimize the Windows driver if new Steam titles are to run smoothly and, most importantly, without display errors.

Stable videos without an optical stabilizer

The Electronic Image Stabilizer (EIS) from Qualcomm has already made its way into the Google Pixel. The technology takes the natural trembling of your hands or outstretched arm out of the recording, even though the lens itself is not embedded in a movable structure such as an optical image stabilizer. This provides savings both in terms of memory space and production costs. How does it work?

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Spectra Product Manager, Mike Mangan, demonstrates stabilization without EIS. / © AndroidPIT

As the name suggests the EIS is located in the electronics, so in the Qualcomm processor. This is played by the camera sensor for picture that is a bit too big. So if you take a UHD video, which should have 3,840 x 2,160 pixels at the end, the sensor records a few pixels at the edges of the original. At the same time, the sensors in the smartphone feel the tremors of your hand.

The motion data and further data in the image itself are then used by the electronics. A rectangle resolved in UHD then dances as part of the raw recording. The result is a stabilized video. You can get a better idea on how effective this technology is in this video.

This technology can scale to UHD at 30 frames per second. Theoretically, higher image rates are also possible at lower resolutions, as assured by Mike Mangan, Product Manager at the Spectra Camera Lab. And because EIS is in the mobile platform, not the camera, such a smartphone can also stabilize the selfie camera.

HiFi audio with or without jack plug

In the end, audio is always analog. From a loudspeaker or headphones, waves from the ones and zeros of the audio stream will be heard again. Audio files can also check whether there are inaccuracies in the conversion from digital to analog.

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We could switch directly from the Qualcomm DAC to the amplifier and compare the sound. / © AndroidPIT

The design, with specific reference to the headset, should have shown that there was no audible difference between an expensive professional amplifier and the Qualcomm DAC. I didn't really notice a difference, but I was more interested in a question: "What do we want with a DAC if the analog jack will be abolished soon?"

Ricardo Bernall, Senior Engineer in the Audio Department, told us that Qualcomm, as a member of the USB Implementers Forum, was in the process of developing a Type-C connection. If all the members agree, this mean a looping of the analog audio signal. After this you would only need a mechanical adapter, which would allow you to plug into a Type-C connection. The D / A conversion is then continued in the device and not in the adapter or headset.

Artificial Intelligence without the internet

Did you know that the Google Photos app can automatically tag your photos? Try it: Look for "car" and then it will show you all the pictures with a car, and so on. Google feeds the data you've entered to its headquarters, and then feeds its algorithm with the data. The next update of the app will provide better results, but only because our pictures or metadata had been able to make their way to Google.

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AI can detect objects in passing. / © AndroidPIT

Qualcomm is promising to make this functionality available offline. We first saw this technology at MWC 2015, though some things have changed. For instance, it no longer goes by the name "Zeroth." The Snapdragon 835, for example, is to be equipped with data that supports such applications. Over time the system can be trained so this neural network can be improved further and is more accurate. Qualcomm had made this possible both by means of the tagging of photos in real-time as well as via hotword detection. The latter was directly compared with a non-optimized speech recognition, the recognition rate of which was around one-third below that of the cognitive engine.

Security without supervision

Qualcomm has a retina scanner, which enables you to unlock your smartphone or complete a mobile payment just as we've seen with the fingerprint sensor. In a quick test, the scan could be completed even through prism glasses with approximately one diopter to scan. The scan is carried out with an infrared camera with four megapixels and is probably able to work in the dark. The sensor can distinguish real eyes from high quality photographs of the same eyes. However Sapna Hegde, the Product Manager responsible for the Iris Scanner, didn't provide much in the way of details on how this is done. 

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Qualcomm both uses and protects your Iris. / © AndroidPIT

The authorities are also not able to reach this biometrics feature or apps, the employees assure us. They are stored in an area of ​​the mobile platform, which is inaccessible even to the system kernel. So the authentication works like this: When unlocking your smartphone, you look at the infrared camera. This gives the image to the Qualcomm chip. This compares it with the secret stored image and if necessary only passes the "Okay, the picture is identical". Additional signatures can also tell the app that the confirmation has actually been made by your device, so it is not a copy.

Summing up

Qualcomm seems to listen to its customers, as well as the device manufacturers. Not only that, many of the technologies they are developing resolve problems that might never have occurred to us. Of course, Qualcomm is only one company. There are other manufacturers that offer similar solutions, many of which are either more useful or less costly.

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All of these technologies are protected by Qualcomm. / © AndroidPIT

Huawei is one such company. They are making similar and, in some cases, much better progress in areas such as image processing, voice quality, or connectivity. On the other hand, you might want more diversity. Focusing on a few companies that can afford to do this research is hindering the free, non-cycle-driven development of new technologies. That said, it was a great place to visit, and provided a fantastic "behind-the-scenes" look at Qualcomm. 

Which tech innovation are you most excited about at the moment? What are you hoping to see in the coming months and years ahead? Let us know in the comments below. 

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  • The 835 supporting Windows is interesting. I don't care about consumer use, will this let companies replace Intel for Windows workload more cost effectively in the data center? This could be huge.

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