Back in November, chipmaker Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) announced its next-generation high-end processor known as the Snapdragon 805. This particular chip offers significantly improved performance over prior-generation Snapdragon 800/801 processors, but at the same time doesn't feature an integrated cellular modem. More interestingly, the chip was slated to hit devices during the first half of 2014, but not a single design has been formally announced using this processor. What gives?
Tons of performance, but will that fit in a phone?
The name of the game these days is integration, and many smartphone vendors prefer to have products with integrated cellular modems than without. While Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) uses separate cellular basebands because it doesn't (yet?) have an internal effort, and while Samsung (NASDAQOTH:SSNLF) will use discrete basebands in phones with its own applications processors, the majority of smartphones out there have integrated these features for cost/power efficiency reasons.
The Snapdragon 805 beefs up the graphics capabilities over Snapdragon 800/801 substantially, along with delivering other improvements across the chip. However, this processor is built on the same TSMC (NYSE:TSM) 28-nanometer HPm manufacturing technology as the 800/801, suggesting there was not the thermal/area budget to support a next-generation modem. Furthermore, the modem Qualcomm seems to want to pair with this platform is the 20-nanometer MDM9x35, which clearly could not be built on the same die as the actual SOC.
The question, then, is whether this platform is even suitable for a phone.
Probably, but this really looks like a tablet chip
Even Qualcomm's integrated and relatively less powerful Snapdragon 800 experienced some pretty hard-core thermal throttling after extended use in compute-heavy applications in AnandTech's testing. The Snapdragon 805 is said to have higher CPU clock speeds and a dramatically faster graphics block. While Qualcomm's architects likely found options to improve performance in a power-efficient way, there is no "magic" here -- higher performance on the same manufacturing technology means more power consumption.
Given that the Snapdragon 800/801 seemed to stretch the limits of what could be put into a phone on the 28 HPm process, the 805 is unlikely to find its way into anything but large smartphones (over 5 inches), and even then may experience significant throttling. This chip really looks better suited for 7-inch and larger tablets where the chip can have greater thermal headroom. However, there's one more snag here.
Snapdragon 808 and 810 are coming soon
Another problem for the Snapdragon 805 is the looming arrival of the 20-nanometer Snapdragon 808 and 810 products. These will offer an integrated, top-of-the-line modem and should present a pretty sizable performance improvement from the 800/801/805 chips at good power consumption levels thanks to the new manufacturing node. The chips are slated to sample to customers during the second half of 2014 and will be in devices during the first half of 2015 (this reads as second-quarter 2015).
While Snapdragon 805 didn't make it into a number of the recent hero device releases (Galaxy S5, HTC One (M8), and LG G3), there are rumblings that Sony's (NYSE: SNE) upcoming Xperia Z3 will feature this chip. It is also likely that Samsung's upcoming Galaxy Note 4 will feature the Snapdragon 805, particularly as the larger chassis of the Note products will better support the likely increased thermal envelope of the 805 over the 801 found in the Galaxy S5.
That said, it seems likely that the 805's best shot is in tablets and perhaps the very large "phablets" coming during the second half of 2014. More "mainstream"-size smartphones seem to be effectively out of the picture.
It's frankly quite surprising that the Snapdragon 805 hasn't shown up in any devices yet, particularly as Qualcomm's original press release set expectations for units in market during the first half of 2014. While the 805 didn't seem to win any of the first round of this year's "hero devices," there's still plenty of opportunity for the back half of the year via Samsung's Galaxy Note 4 and the bevy of tablets (Amazon.com's (NASDAQ: AMZN) Kindle Fire HDX refresh, for example) sure to come to market for holiday shopping.
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Ashraf Eassa has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Amazon.com and Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com, Apple, and Qualcomm. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.