Qualcomm's announcement earlier this summer that it would team up with Asus to make the not exactly evocatively named Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders caused a lot of head-scratching in the mobile world. Qualcomm certainly knows its way around mobile chipsets, the thinking went, but what's the point of building your own handset, when plenty of the best Android phones already showcase Qualcomm silicon?
Now that we've gotten our hands on the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders — really, they couldn't come up with a snappier name? — Qualcomm's reasoning is a little clearer. Qualcomm wants to show off everything its chips can do — not just performance and graphics, but in capturing photos, providing stellar audio and keeping you connected. There are Qualcomm technologies involving gaming and charging to highlight, too.
And that's what Qualcomm's Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders is meant to do — give us a phone that puts many of the chip maker's innovations front and center in a smartphone. In this Smartphone for Snapdragon for Insiders hands-on, we'll see how close Qualcomm comes to delivering on that objective.
Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders price and availability
Starting price: $1,499
Screen size: 6.78-inch AMOLED (2248 x 1080; 144Hz)
CPU: Snapdragon 888
Rear cameras: 64MP main (f/1.8), 12MP ultrawide (f/2.2), 8MP telephoto with 3x optical zoom
Front camera: 24MP
Battery size: 4,000 mAh
Charging speed: Qualcomm QuickCharge 5.0
Size: 6.8 x 3 x 0.38 inches
Weight: 7.4 ounces
The Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders costs $1,499. If that price makes you gulp, it's because Qualcomm's phone is one of the most expensive available, topped only by the $1,799 Galaxy Z Fold 3 Samsung introduced this month. The Galaxy S21 Ultra, the most expensive option in Samsung's Galaxy S21 flagship lineup, costs $300 less than the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders.
Of course, that $1,499 buys you more than just a phone. Qualcomm includes a pair of MW08SI wireless earbuds with active noise cancellation from Master & Dynamic, a charging case for those earbuds, a custom rubber bumper to protect the phone and charging cables plus a 65W charger for your phone. That latter accessory is more than Galaxy S21 and iPhone 12 owners can expect.
You can only order the phone if you're a member of Qualcomm's Snapdragon Insider program, which in addition to giving you the chance to buy $1,500 handsets also delivers behind the scenes information about Qualcomm's various mobile initiatives. The Insider program is free to join.
As of this writing, Qualcomm says carrier certification is still in progress with U.S. wireless providers, so it's unclear with networks will welcome the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders, though 5G support for the phone is quite extensive, as we'll see below.
Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders design and display
Unlike the reference designs Qualcomm builds to let people test out its chipsets, the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders has a decidedly more polished form that doesn't look out of place among other Android handsets. That's likely because Qualcomm tapped Asus to build its phone, and the result is a decent-looking handset with rounded edges, a midnight blue matte finish and red accents.
The back of the phone features a Snapdragon logo that lights up when the phone comes to life or when you launch a new app. Above that is a thumbprint scanner for unlocking the phone. The scanner lacks any sort of cutout or guide to help you place your finger, so if you're staring at the front of the phone, it may prove hard to unlock it by tapping around. I found the sensor pretty hit or miss, though thankfully, you can also enable face unlocking as well.
The other noteworthy design flourish on the back of the phone is the rear camera array, featuring three lenses arranged in a vertical strip. The rectangular array juts out pretty far, so that it's impossible to set the Qualcomm phone on its back without resting on the array. On the bright side, the array is so large that the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders doesn't rock back and forth.
I can't pretend to be in love with the look of the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders. It's functional enough, but a bit on the heavy side at 7.4 ounces. The iPhone 11 Pro Max I use every day actually outweighs that, at 7.9 ounces, but the weight feels more evenly distributed in Apple's device.
The trend in higher-end phones these days is to ramp up the refresh rate on the screen for smoother scrolling and more immersive experiences. Many flagship phones like the Galaxy S21 series opt for 120Hz as the maximum refresh rate. The Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders does that one better by going with 144Hz on its 6.8-inch OLED panel, a refresh rate typically found on gaming phones.
I found I had to crank up the brightness on the screen to enjoy its colors, but once I did, the bright pinks and vibrant look of Girls5Eva streaming on Peacock looked just as accurate on the Qualcomm phone's screen as the warm 1970s film stock of The Godfather.
Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders performance and gaming
Then again, you're not picking up the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders for its design or display. You're interested in this phone because you want to experience Qualcomm's top mobile features. And the Snapdragon 888 system-on-chip that powers the device helps put those front and center.
If you keep tabs on the latest Android phones, you're well aware of what the Snapdragon 888 can do. It's the fastest chipset yet for Android phones, though it lags behind the pace set by Apple's A14 Bionic chip. That trend continues with the Smartphone for Snapdragon insiders, at least based on our testing.
Across multiple runs of Geekbench 5, the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders posted single-core and multicore scores of 1,125 and 3,697, respectively. That's ahead of the Galaxy S21 Ultra (1,123/3,440) and in line with the OnePlus 9 Pro (1,126/3,685), two other Android flagships that rely on the Snapdragon 888. The iPhone 12 Pro Max trounces its Android competition with single and multicore scores of 1,603 and 4,111, respectively.
The story's the same when we tested graphics. Like the OnePlus 9 Pro and Galaxy S21 Ultra, the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders tallied a little more than 34 frames per second on 3DMark's Wild Life test. That's about what you'd expect from the best Android phones, though it trails the iPhone's result.
It's worth focusing on graphics performance, and not just because the Adreno 660 GPU on the Snapdragon 888 chipset promises a 35% boost in graphics performance over the last generation of Qualcomm 8 series silicon. Qualcomm has also made gaming one of the pillar features on the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders, including Snapdragon Elite Gaming features designed to bring a console-like experience to mobile devices.
That means features like Variable Rate Shading, which not only boosts gaming performance but also offers better resolution and higher frame rates while consuming less power. The phone also supports Qualcomm's Game Quick Touch technology that boosts responsiveness on games by up to 20%.
I have no way of verifying whether that helped with the games I played on the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders. But whether I was turbo-boosting my way past the competition in Asphalt 9: Legends or blasting at the competition in PUBG Mobile, I didn't notice any graphical lags and the controls did what I expected them to do when I pressed the on-screen buttons. If there's one area where the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders definitely delivers, it's in supporting demanding games, making this one of the best gaming phones, if you're willing to put up with its high price.
Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders camera
Just as important as the gaming experience to Qualcomm is what you can do with the cameras on the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders. To that end, Qualcomm has opted for a setup that mirrors what you'd expect from a top-of-the-line camera phone. A 64MP Sony IMX686 sensor provides the main camera, with 12MP ultrawide and 8MP telephoto lenses joining that shooter on the back of the phone. The telephoto lens is capable of a 3x zoom.
It's not just the optics on the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders that matter, though, with the software also having a few notable features. The device uses a Spectra 580 triple ISP that aims to produce stellar shots no matter the lightning conditions. In particular, Qualcomm calls out the phone's prowess with low-light shots and the bokeh effect produced in its portrait images. The ISP also teams with the phone AI Engine to lock on on what you're shooting and keep it in focus.
Despite the considerable effort Qualcomm puts into both camera hardware and smarts, the results were mixed when I compared photos taken by the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders with those from an iPhone 12, one of the best camera phones we've tested in the last year.
When shooting an apple growing on the tree in my backyard, the Qualcomm phone did an excellent job balancing the afternoon sunlight to create a colorful shot that highlights the strips of red streaking across the apple. The iPhone 12 photo is probably the more accurate of the two, but the Qualcomm shot is more pleasing to the eye.
Moving inside to a restaurant at night, a plate of lasagna doesn't show up as well in the photo from the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders. That shot is darker than I like and the decorative splatters of olive oil are lost on the plate. Everything about the iPhone 12 shot — the tomato sauce, the herbs dotting the top of the lasagna — looks more vibrant.
Qualcomm's pride in its low-light photos is justified when I tried out the phone's night mode, in this backyard scene lit only by a string of green LED lights overhead. I think the Qualcomm phone did a better job of balancing the green lighting of the scene, as the iPhone gets a little too aggressive in trying to brighten the image. That said, in the iPhone shot, you can detect some of the colors of the stuffed animals, whereas everything's the same shade of green in the Qualcomm photo.
I was less impressed by how the Qualcomm phone handled portrait shots. It gets the color of my face right, though my features look a little bit sharper in the iPhone 12 portrait shot, especially when you zoom in. The major difference here is the background blur — not only does the iPhone 12 offer a more artistic blur, it does a better job of figuring out where I end and the background begins. If you look closely on the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders photo, the wisps of beard on the left side of the shot have disappeared into the background blur.
To test out the telephoto and ultrawide lenses, I switched to an iPhone 11 Pro Max for comparison shots, since it has a dedicated telephoto lens like the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders. Despite the fact that the iPhone 11 Pro Max is nearly two years old and that its telephoto lens tops out at 2x, it gets the better of Qualcomm's phones in both comparisons.
Neither zoom shot is particularly good — the Oakland skyline is fuzzy in both photos — but there's also fuzziness in the foreground of the Qualcomm photo. Even worse, while it was an overcast day when I took these photos, the iPhone 11 Pro Max manages to find some blue in the sky. Everything in the Qualcomm shot looks gray and muted.
That continues when we switch to a wide angle view of the same shot. The Qualcomm photo is better than the telephoto one — like the iPhone 11 Pro Max, it manages to capture the reflection of the boats on the water. But again the sky is washed out and lacks the blue hue of the iPhone shot.
By far, though, the most disappointing images from the Smartphone for Snapdragon insiders comes the device's 24MP selfie cam. The photo produced by that camera seems to have struggled with focus and color, making my skin look blotchy and blurred. That's not an issue with the iPhone 12 shot, where my skin is at least the right color.
Not everyone shares my opinion about the lackluster performance of the Qualcomm's phone cameras. As this Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders hands-on is being published, camera experts DXOMark is giving the phone a high score for its cameras, rating it No. 1 among U.S. camera phones. Of course, DXOMark has the advantage of testing the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders with a software update that wasn't available to me. That software update, coming later this month, improves camera tuning, autofocus, texture and noise performance and night shot quality. Hopefully, it addresses the issues I ran into; we'll revisit this hands-on if it does.
Besides still images, the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders offers both 8K and 4K video capture, with the latter shot at either 60 or 30 fps. (8K video is only available at 30 fps.) The video footage I shot looks smooth and free of shake. I was less impressed with an auto-tracking feature that keeps the camera focused in on a subject of your choosing, even as they move around; I ran into problems with focus and auto-zooms that I'm hoping to see corrected when the promised camera software update arrives.
Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders audio
The camera experience isn't the only incomplete one I came across while using the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders. Qualcomm has also placed an emphasis on audio, with support for Snapdragon Sound. This new technology from the chip maker is supposed to deliver 24-bit 96kHz music streaming as well as support for super wideband voice to improve your sound on phone calls. To power that audio experience, the phone ships with Master & Dynamic's MW08SI wireless earbuds, which feature active noise cancellation.
Unfortunately, the review unit supplied by Qualcomm featured pre-production earbuds that weren't enabled to support Snapdragon Sound. That means no high-resolution music streaming or super wideband voice — not for me anyhow. There was an over-the-air software update for the MW08SI earbuds meant to address some minor bugs, but repeated attempts to download it proved fruitless.
So I can only address the experience I had with the earbuds and the dual speakers on the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders, features which were very incomplete at this point. At least the earbuds deliver strong bass, with the drumline that opens Imagine Dragon's "Monster" rumbling in my ears. Higher tones sounded a bit more muted to my ear, though, with the Girls5Eva song "Space Boys" sounding a lot cleaner when I listened using a pair of AirPods connected to an iPhone 11 Pro Max. Perhaps the software update for the MW08SI earbuds will straighten that out, once I get it to download.
Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders 5G and Wi-Fi connectivity
The final marquee feature in Qualcomm's smartphone is one that people may not appreciate right now, especially if they're sticking close to home. But as 5G networks continue to expand, you'll find the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders boasts extensive 5G options — "comprehensive support" for both sub-6GHz and millimeter wave-based bands, Qualcomm says. The X60 modem on the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders should deliver top speeds, too.
At least, that's the theory. I haven't been in any hurry to upgrade to a 5G phone myself and so I don't have any 5G sim available to take the phone out for a spin. (Even if I did, I'm not sure how much faster download speeds would be over LTE at this stage in 5G's development.) I hope to be able to test out 5G performance on this phone shortly.
Closer to home, the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders also supports Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E, the latter of which adds support for 6GHz wireless spectrum. Both flavors of Wi-Fi 6 should speed up your connectivity — at least if you've upgraded to a Wi-Fi 6 router that's capable of delivering this improved performance to any compatible devices on your home network.
Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders battery and charging
The Smartphone for Snapdragon insiders supports Qualcomm's QuickCharge 5 technology, which promises super-fast charging. According to Qualcomm, 30 minutes of charging should get an uncharged phone to 70%, while you can expect the phone to be fully charged after 52 minutes or so.
That wasn't quite what I experienced when I plugged a drained Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders into the included 65-watt charger and started a stopwatch. After half-an-hour, the phone hit 46% — off Qualcomm's promised pace — though after an hour, the phone was essentially charged at 96%. Later in my testing, the battery indicator dipped below 20%, and in the time it took me to shower, dress and comb my hair, the phone was fully charged. That's fast enough for me.
But it's not the fastest charging phone. That honor goes to the OnePlus 9 Pro, which also supports 65W wired charging, and can go from drained to fully charged in a little more than 30 minutes. (There's a reason we gave the OnePlus phone a Tom's Guide 2021 award.) The OnePlus 9 Pro supports 50W wireless charging, too — you can't wirelessly charge the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders at all.
A 4,000 mAh battery keeps the Smartphone for Snapdragon insiders powered up. While we haven't run a formal Tom's Guide battery test on this device — in that test, we set phones to surf the web over cellular until they run out of power — I'd expect all-day power from this phone. I generally got around a day-and-a-half of standard phone use from the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders before I had to plug in, so this is a phone that seemingly makes the most out of its battery life.
Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders outlook
Likely, any question you had about whether to buy the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders was answered the moment I mentioned how much it costs — something about a $1,500 price tag triggers the sound of wallets around the country snapping shut. Indeed, Qualcomm clearly does not anticipate this phone selling like hotcakes, reserving it for members of its Snapdragon Insider program instead of putting it out for wider release.
So why put out the phone when you know it's only going to land in the hands of a limited number of people? I think it's because Qualcomm wants to show us what's possible — what kind of experiences its silicon can power when a phone maker throws all restraint out the window and pushes a flagship Snapdragon system-on-chip to its limits. In this sense, the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders does put Qualcomm's best foot tentatively forward.
But not completely forward, as the need for software updates to fine-tune the camera and sound experiences give the impression that this phone remains a work in progress. For that reason, we're holding off on a final verdict and rating for the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders.
We can say that even if these promised updates do significantly improve the phone, the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders won't be for everyone — the price tag assures that. But if future updates can improve the features found in this device, it bodes well for future Android phones that turn to Snapdragon to deliver these kinds of experiences — ideally in more affordable packages.