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Galaxy S10 chip kills last year's in our early Snapdragon 855 benchmarking tests

The Galaxy S10 could run up to 45 percent faster than the Galaxy S9 when Samsung unveils its next flagship phone on Feb. 20 in San Francisco. This isn't just Qualcomm talking. At CES last week, we got a chance to test out the Snapdragon 855 chipset that Samsung will use in its next flagship phone. So far, the benchmarking results paint the picture of an incredibly fast phone that leaves the Galaxy S9 and LG V40 in the dust.

Qualcomm typically gives a small group of journalists the opportunity to run a battery of common benchmarking tests on a phone called a reference device. You can think of it as a working prototype phone that Qualcomm uses in part to test the latest Snapdragon chip with the camera, apps, 5G network trials and so on. While the reference device isn't a finished phone that will ever sell under a different name -- unlike a prototype for Samsung's foldable phone, for instance -- it's extremely useful for seeing how a phone running on the Snapdragon 855 might act.

Qualcomm is the world's largest chip maker for mobile phones, which means that the Snapdragon 855 will come to many of the highest-end Android phones in 2019. But Qualcomm isn't alone at the top. Samsung and Huawei, the top two phonemakers, manufacture their own in-house chips, too -- though only a small number of Samsung phones use its home-grown Exynos chip.

Meanwhile, Apple uses its own A-series CPUs in the iPhone -- Apple designs them, and TSMC or other partners manufacture them. What about that big Apple/Qualcomm brouhaha, then? Yes, the iPhone company is currently engaged in an FTC suit against Qualcomm for allegedly operating a monopoly in the mobile chip space and charging excessive licensing fees. But those are the modem chips that the phones use to communicate on cellular wireless networks. Apple has shifted to using Intel as its modem supplier while the Qualcomm issue works its way through the courts -- though that may well delay Apple's path to a 5G iPhone, the iPhone-maker testified on Monday.

But back to CPUs: The Snapdragon 855 is expected to process CPU tasks 45 percent faster than last year's Snapdragon 845, the one on the Galaxy S9. It's projected to process graphics 20 percent faster, too. My test results from the Snapdragon 855 just about fit in to the claims, ranging from an average of 19 percent to 45 percent faster than two phones using Snapdragon 845.

Let's break this down for a minute. To test the speed of Qualcomm's new processors, I ran eight benchmarking tests three times apiece on the Snapdragon 855 reference phone, and two phones running the 2018 Snapdragon 845: a Galaxy S9 Plus and an LG V40. Together, these tests measure CPU, GPU and JavaScript speeds for web apps. The chart below shows the average result, but I also included a column showing the Snapdragon 855 reference device's percentage gain over the LG V40 or Galaxy S9 Plus, whichever phone had the next-closest score.

Snapdragon 855 reference phone specs

  • 6-inch WQHD AMOLED with 2,880x1,440-pixel resolution
  • Dual rear cameras: 12-megapixel and 13-megapixel
  • 8-megapixel front-facing camera
  • 6GB RAM
  • USB Type-C connector
  • No headphone jack
  • Kryo 485 CPU: Up to 2.8GHz

Can we trust benchmarking results?

Why do we benchmark? There's value in quantifying the improvements we might see on a finished product. Fast phones mean you'll be able to do what you want to quicker, including loading resource-hungry apps and processing photos with advanced features.

Benchmarking is even more useful for the companies using the chips. Qualcomm can provide phone makers with a range of scores that phones using the new chip should hit on certain tests. If that doesn't happen, the engineers on both sides can dig in to work out the problem. Nobody wants to sell or buy a suboptimal phone.

That said, benchmarking tests aren't without controversy. The reference device isn't a "final" phone, which means that final results on the future Galaxy S10, Google Pixel 4, OnePlus 7 and LG G8 could turn out differently. It all depends how the phone maker's software works with the chipset. Yes, even if they all use Android as their base operating system, the phone makers' software layers are different enough to impact these speeds.

Phone makers have also been found to game the most popular benchmarking apps, causing tests to inflate the resulting scores. That's why CNET also relies on real-world observation when we rate a phone's processing speeds. If the phone feels slow despite top benchmarking scores, we'll point out the discrepancy.

Now for just one more reminder. Phones that use the Snapdragon 855 aren't automatically 5G phones -- these devices will need to use Qualcomm's X50 modem to connect to faster networks, once they're available. Here's everything you need to know about 5G phones.