At MWC 2023 in Barcelona, I sat in on the Samsung Mobile Gaming Roundtable hosted by Qualcomm. I’ll be honest - as someone who does play a lot of games on my phone, I had a personal interest as well as a professional one. I had already seen the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra and learned more about its impressive Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor, which is capable of hardware-accelerated ray tracing.
As a seasoned PC builder and laptop enthusiast, this was somewhat mind-blowing to me. I usually tend to stay in my lane; stuff going on in the smartphone space interests me, but I don’t follow it with the same dedication as the computing industry. Ray tracing? On a phone? Surely not.
Having seen ray tracing grow on PC over the course of three generations of graphics cards has been a strange journey. It was deeply unimpressive at first, tanking framerates for minimal visual changes. As Nvidia’s DLSS tech improved to compensate and more developers began to implement ray-tracing options in their games, it became more viable - though it still hasn’t truly exploded in popularity.
Part of the problem with ray tracing is that far too many gamers don’t have access to the hardware required to do it. Why bother putting in the effort to include it in your game when the most popular GPUs used by PC gamers on Steam are the GTX 1650 and 1060 - two cards that aren’t capable of running ray-traced graphics?
The Snapdragon solution
Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 (and future Snapdragon systems-on-chips from Qualcomm) could be a way to solve this issue. They’re not only cheaper, but also far less power-hungry than a watt-guzzling RTX 4090. Sure, this SoC was designed for smartphones, but we’ve seen detachables and Chromebooks running Snapdragon processors before - my favorite recent example is the excellent Lenovo IdeaPad Duet 5 Chromebook.
This got me thinking. After the roundtable meeting had finished, I approached Qualcomm VP Mike Roberts to inquire about the possibility of gaming laptops powered by Snapdragon technology. He smiled. “I can’t really discuss that,’ he said evasively. “But I will say watch this space. One or two years' time.”
Sure, this isn’t concrete evidence of a Snapdragon-equipped gaming notebook coming in the next two years, but Mike had enough of a twinkle in his eye when I asked my question that I’d be surprised if Qualcomm doesn’t have something interesting in the works. During the roundtable, he was very proud to discuss the ray tracing capabilities of the company’s new flagship chip, describing it as “a definite goal” that the team developing the chip was keen to achieve.
Without getting too bogged down in the technology behind it, I would describe ray tracing as a graphically intensive process that can - with the proper support from game developers - provide very impressive realistic lighting, shadows, and reflections. However, it’s a demanding addition that requires powerful hardware, and it was a huge challenge for Qualcomm to get the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 to run ray-traced graphics with only the comparatively low power capabilities of a smartphone battery.
A potential power move from Qualcomm
Nvidia has been the king of ray tracing for quite some time now, and this could be an opportunity for Qualcomm - itself a powerful force in the processor market - to unseat Team Green from its ray-traced throne.
With Snapdragon, Qualcomm could bring the feature to the masses. I’ve often criticized ray tracing as an overly resource-intensive addition to games that isn’t worth the drawbacks that accompany it and the barrier to entry, but if a phone can produce ray-traced graphics, that technology can scale up to tablets and laptops. Making ray tracing more accessible really could make it more popular, among both gamers and game developers.
It might take a few years, but I’m excited about what the future holds. If the Snapdragon 8’s successors can further improve the processor’s ray tracing capabilities, we could see the feature finally integrate properly into the development ethos of the wider industry. I love the idea of ray tracing; it’s just not worth the cost right now. I’m counting on you, Qualcomm - you can be the company who finally brought ray tracing to the world at large.