For the smartphone industry, 2023 will be much better than 2022, which was terrible in terms of declining sales and a plateau-hitting smartphone evolution. While the world is in a tougher place financially due to the economic downturn, 2023 will be great because the competition between Apple and Android original equipment manufacturers is about to become tighter than it was in the last five years.
Apple’s vertically integrated business model has allowed it to create unique, differentiated, reliable, and performant products, especially phones, tablets, and laptops. The technology giant designs its own processors, unlike most Android manufacturers. Apple’s A-series processors — since the launch of the A7 system-on-chip in the iPhone 5S in 2013 — have been at least two generations faster than what Qualcomm, MediaTek, or Samsung have come up with. That year, Apple became the first ARM chipset maker to provide 64-bit computing on a smartphone.
This year is different because Qualcomm has tangibly closed the gap with Apple. In these columns, I have argued that Apple was rather conservative with the iPhone 14 where it used the same processor as the iPhone 13 — A15 bionic. On iPhone 14 Pro, the A16 Bionic was an incremental jump in the central processing unit (CPU) performance, but the model bore a very lethargic improvement on the graphics.
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How Qualcomm made gains
A combination of Apple’s missteps in 2022 and Qualcomm’s exceptional new processor called the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 is now allowing the likes of Samsung and OnePlus to close the performance gap with the iPhone. Apple’s A16 bionic chip barely retains its performance advantage in CPU performance. In the last five years, this gap was generational. While the A16 bionic chip is still fabricated on an older 5nm node, it is to Qualcomm’s advantage that its new chipset utilises Taiwan Semiconductor’s (TSMC) new 4nm node.
Even bigger gains are observed on the graphics side. The new Adreno graphics processing unit (GPU) on the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 is significantly faster. Qualcomm claims it is superior to the one on the latest iPhone. I wrote in my previous column on the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra’s ability to support “ray tracing”. It is a technique in which game developers can design graphics that simulate light bouncing off objects in reality. Although this technology has been present in high-end desktop GPUs since 2013, and even surfaced on video game consoles in 2020 with the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra became the first smartphone to support it.
In March 2021, Qualcomm acquired CPU and technology design company NUVIA, which was founded by ex-Apple employees who worked on the groundbreaking M-series of processors for the Mac. While Qualcomm is having licencing issues with ARM to bring NUVIA technology to its products, Apple has reportedly seen some talent drain and its focus on developing processors for Macs has taken away the attention from the iPhone.
Apple was also reportedly developing ray tracing on the A16 Bionic, but issues in the development forced the California-based giant to pare back its plans. Meanwhile, Qualcomm has created a custom version of the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor for Samsung that runs faster and better without reliability and performance issues.
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Taking on Apple
I have been testing the Samsung Galaxy S23 series and the OnePlus 11 for the last couple of weeks, and Qualcomm’s work seems to have paid off. With the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 at the heart of these phones, OnePlus and Samsung are now challenging Apple on pure performance. The OnePlus 11 was announced earlier this week and will potentially prove to be one of the best-selling premium smartphones this year.
OnePlus got ahead of itself and started overcharging for its products in 2019. But the OnePlus 11 represents a back-to-basics approach. It is a no-nonsense phone that provides exceptional performance in day-to-day use, has good battery life coupled with 100-watt charging technology, and combines very usable cameras that work well in low light for both videos and stills. Its price, ranging from Rs 56,999 to Rs 61,999, makes it attractive at a time when smartphone prices are skyrocketing due to rampant inflation and supply chain challenges across the world. The Galaxy S23 series is the poster child for the rise in smartphone costs. It now starts at Rs 79,999 and goes up to Rs 1,54,999 for the S23 Ultra.
But in the case of the S23 Ultra, you’re talking about the absolute best of mobile computing. Clean and elegant software, with the most pristine screen on a mobile phone supporting a fluid stylus that Samsung calls the ‘S-Pen’ — all in a device that feels as fast as the OnePlus or the latest iPhones. But there is more: A camera system that reeks of computational wizardry, the absolute benchmark for still photos. Samsung’s cameras were already excellent, but the S23 Ultra’s 200-megapixel camera system is propelled by the custom Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor. The smartphone takes stunningly realistic portrait shots, excellent photos in nighttime with depth with natural yet vibrant colours, and a zoom camera that has no parallel.
For professionals, it can shoot 50-megapixel uncompressed photos and has an astrophotography mode that takes magical shots of the night sky, revealing the galactic core. It also has the best video camera on Android as it can shoot 8K resolution video at a staggering 30 frames per second. While doing all this, the S23 Ultra can provide excellent battery life that rivals the iPhone 14 Plus — all due to the efficiency of the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor. This phone easily lasts a day with heavy usage. The diminutive S23, with its 6.1-inch screen, provides a blend of excellent performance and can last a day on a single charge. That has not happened for compact phones in a while. That’s why Samsung India saw a record 1,40,000 pre-orders for the Galaxy S23 series within the first 24 hours of opening pre-bookings.
The Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 represents a new day for Android smartphones. And we haven’t even seen the Vivo X90 Pro and the Xiaomi 13 Pro, which are expected to be launched in the next 30 days. Those phones could further push the envelope in mobile photography. All this progress will result in the rebuttal by Apple and Google and their crack silicon teams that would make things juicier for consumers and watchers of mobile technology.
Sahil Mohan Gupta is the Technology Editor at Acko Drive. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)