Snapdragon 888 unveiled — meet the Galaxy S21 chip ready to fight iPhone 12

Snapdragon 888
(Image credit: Qualcomm)

If you're planning on getting a new Android phone in 2021, such as the Samsung Galaxy S21, expect to hear a lot about the Snapdragon 888. Qualcomm's latest mobile platform was briefly previewed today (Dec. 1) during the company's annual tech summit, and it figures to power most of the leading Android devices that come out in the next year.

"This is our most advanced platform ever, and the technologies built into it are simply awesome," said Alex Alex Katouzian, Qualcomm's senior vice president and general manager, mobile, compute, and infrastructure.

We'll hear more about the Snapdragon 888 in the coming days, but Qualcomm's already talked up a few details about its new mobile system-on-chip.

Besides 5G, Qualcomm touted three other major components of the Snapdragon 888 system-on-chip — artificial intelligence, mobile gaming and photography. The new chipset features Qualcomm's 6th Generation AI engine powered by a new Hexagon engine that should deliver both improved performance and power efficiency when tapping into AI features. Qualcomm says the new Hexagon engine is capable of performing 26 tera operations per second.

In terms of everyday use, AI engine improvements mean your camera will focus faster when it's time to take a picture, so you'll miss fewer once-in-a-lifetime shots. Improved AI can also help your phone better understand your behavior throughout the day, anticipating the apps and features you need to access ahead of time.

As for gaming, Qualcomm says the new chip will improve the performance of the Adreno GPU by 35%. Just as important, the Snapdragon 888 includes the latest iteration of Snapdragon Elite Gaming, which aims to deliver console-style gaming experiences to mobile. Among the improvements hinted at here include ultra smooth gaming, HDR quality graphics and other desktop-class capabilities for mobile games on Snapdragon 888-powered devices.

Mobile photography should also get a boost from Snapdragon 888, thanks to the updated Spectra ISP included with the chipset. This version of the Spectra ISP is faster, capturing photos and videos at 2.7 gigapixels per second. That's a burst of  120 photos at 12MP resolution. Qualcomm says that's a 35% improvement over the ISP on the Snapdragon 865, the system-on-chip that powered this year's phones.

While Qualcomm never announces specific phones that will be using its new processors, phone makers including Motorola, OnePlus, Xiaomi and ZTE say that they'll include the Snapdragon 888 in upcoming handsets.

That list doesn't include Samsung, but the phone make is usually one of the first to add the Qualcomm's leading chipset in its flagship phones, at least in the U.S. With the Samsung Galaxy S21 expected to debut in early 2021 — possibly as soon as January — we could see the Snapdragon 888 powering a major smartphone sooner rather than later.

Qualcomm's Snapdragon 888 announcement today was only a teaser of the mobile processing platform's capabilities and what it's bringing to next year's phones. The chip maker plans to reveal more detailed information about the chipset tomorrow (Dec. 2) in the second day of its tech summit, and we'll report on what we hear at that time.

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.