Meet the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1, the latest flagship mobile chipset from Qualcomm.

Announced at this year’s Snapdragon Tech Summit in Hawaii, the 8 Gen 1 is the first in a new line of high-end 8-series smartphone platforms, as well as Qualcomm’s first chip to adopt a 4nm manufacturing process and this year’s new Armv9 architecture.

Don’t let those firsts throw you off though; despite the new name this is not so much a radical reinvention as the natural next step on from last year’s Snapdragon 888 – and its overclocked 888+ successor. Like that chip, it’s expected to power the latest generation of premium smartphones, though we’re still waiting to find out exactly which phones that will be.

At the heart of the 8 Gen 1 is a new Kryo CPU – no longer given its own unique numbering or model number, the first of a few signs that Qualcomm no longer wants fans to focus so much on individual specs.

Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 diagram

The new Kryo is led by a Cortex X-2 core clocked at 2.995GHz, supported by three Cortex-A710 performance cores at 2.5GHz and a quartet of A510 efficiency cores at 1.8GHz. Qualcomm says it delivers up to 20% faster performance than last year's chip, combined with 30% less power consumption.

That’s the exact same setup as the CPU in the recently announced MediaTek Dimensity 9000, which is in fact clocked slightly faster across its cores, though it remains to be seen how the two chipsets compare in actual usage.

The CPU is backed up by a new Adreno GPU – also left un-numbered – which apparently offers 30% faster graphics rendering in tandem with 25% better power efficiency. Qualcomm says it can drive displays at up to 144Hz refresh rate at a QHD+ resolution – an interesting counterpoint to its MediaTek rival, which can hit 180Hz but only at a lower FHD+ resolution.

Specs nerds may appreciate one other area where the Dimensity has the edge – support for the new LPDDR5X RAM standard – though one suspects the average smartphone buyer won’t notice or care that this caps out at LPDDR5 instead.

Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chip

For its part, Qualcomm is more focussed on the new platform’s AI and camera chops. The former is an especially key battleground in the wake of Google revealing its in-house Tensor chip, which powers the recent Pixel 6 series and has a firm focus on machine learning.

The 7th generation AI Engine boasts an enhanced sensor array and double the memory among other enhancements, resulting in what the company claims is four times faster AI processing. Qualcomm suggests this can power novel use cases like unlocking your phone without even touching it thanks to an always-on image signal processor (ISP), but the bigger test may be the improved natural language processing – a key strength of Google’s Tensor chip in the new Pixels.

The enhanced AI performance dovetails with another enhanced 18-bit ISP to drive improved photography and video. Capable of processing up to 3.2 gigapixels per second, the headline spec this unlocks is 8K HDR video recording at 30 frames per second – though with existing 8K capture yet to take on in a major way, this may still be a niche prospect.

Updated night mode capabilities that allow the simultaneous capture of 30 images may make a more immediate impact on the average user, as will an updated ability to recognise and focus on faces.

The most novel use case that Qualcomm has shown off is the ability to take real-time panoramic shots. The 8 Gen 1 is capable of stitching together the output of two overlapping camera lenses to produce a panoramic wide-angle that runs live in the camera viewfinder – going up to 140 degrees in the demo I saw, well above a typical ultrawide lens and without the typical edge distortion. Qualcomm reps even hinted that this tech is on the way in an actual phone sometime soon, so it’s not just hypothetical.

Naturally 5G is once again supported, with an integrated Snapdragon X65 modem delivering both mmWave and sub-6GHz connections in both standalone and non-standalone. Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E are both once again supported, as is Bluetooth 5.2 – with the latter enhanced by new support for CD-quality lossless audio and some new Bluetooth LE Audio tricks that should help save your headphone battery.

Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 reference design

As mentioned above, we’re still missing the biggest piece of the puzzle: the phones that will run on the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1. Qualcomm says it expects the first devices to launch this year, with Motorola and Xiaomi expected to be among the first, including the anticipated Xiaomi 12. Looking to 2022, it’s also likely to appear in the Samsung Galaxy S22 and OnePlus 10 among others.

All of these remain officially unconfirmed though, and for the first time this year there’s some doubt in the form of reinvigorated competition from MediaTek.

While last year’s Dimensity 1200 never felt like a true rival to the Snapdragon 888, on paper the Dimensity 9000 is more than a match for the 8 Gen 1, and the two have delivered similar performance in early leaked benchmarks.

CPU benchmarks are only one aspect of the quality of a smartphone chip, and it remains to be seen how close these two platforms really are. But if Qualcomm’s move away from spouting specs is any indication, the company may know that it no longer stands head and shoulders above the competition here, and may be more reliant on Snapdragon’s sheer brand power than ever before.

We speculate about the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1's potential in our weekly podcast Fast Charge, which you can watch below: