The Qualcomm Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders (SSI) is a showcase and playground for the latest technologies from the world’s leading smartphone chipmaker. You are almost certainly not going to buy this $1,499 Asus-made phone, which is only available to people in Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Insiders fan club. It’s chunky, it has short battery life, and the software is a mess (at least as of this writing). But it still grabbed our interest, as it shows the limits to which processor management and 5G banding can currently be pushed. For that, we aren’t giving it an Editor’s Choice award, but we are giving it a TechX award. By throwing the industry’s received wisdom out the window, the SSI paves the way for other phones to make innovations in areas like customizability, wireless audio, and international portability, ideally without the SSI’s limitations on usability.
Get Under the Hood of Your Phone
Qualcomm powers almost all of the top Android phones in the world, but it doesn’t get to choose how they work. It hands chips over to Samsung, OnePlus, and other OEMs, who then decide on processor throttles, maximum heat levels, audio codecs, and radio bands. From Qualcomm’s perspective, none of those phones ever really shows the extent of what its Snapdragon processors can do. (Qualcomm wouldn’t say this for fear of angering its partners, but I can.)
Thus the SSI. Qualcomm wants to make very clear that the SSI is built by Asus, supported by Asus, and sold by Asus, and it has a lot in common with other Asus phones. But many of the features and options in the SSI are designed to make points about Qualcomm technologies that the OEMs have been dragging their feet on introducing.
Phone makers tend to keep phones very locked down, making it hard for aficionados (the traditional PCMag readers) to get under the hood, understand the components, and customize performance the way serious computer users have always done. The SSI is, finally, a step in that tech-fan direction. Android phone tweaking has been around as long as Android phones have, but it has a very high technical barrier to entry. Go to xda-developers.com and you can find thousands of people doing things like writing entire new operating systems for their phones; that’s cool if you can do it, but most people can’t. The SSI exposes a lot of those previously unalterable settings in the out-of-box UI, without the need for major hacking.
Within the past few weeks, Asus undercut Qualcomm by adding many of these settings options to its own more affordable Zenfone 8 and ROG Phone 5 in a software update. Specifically, Asus added the options to tune CPU, GPU, and thermal performance. If that’s all you want to play with, you now have a less-expensive way to do it. But the SSI will still get Qualcomm’s latest innovations first—at least, that’s the idea.
Rather than write this review with the usual sections for design, performance, and so on, I’m going to put it in terms of concepts that Qualcomm is trying to demonstrate. The industry is full of norms that very few people argue with, such as the idea that slower performance is acceptable if it means your phone won’t catch fire. Here’s how the SSI breaks with those norms, sometimes with genuine innovation and sometimes in ways that don’t fully make sense.
Concept: A Chip-Maker Can Brand Its Own Phones
Qualcomm’s marketing waxes and wanes. It wants to be enough of a household name that consumers demand phones with Qualcomm chips (and not Mediateks), but it doesn’t want to spook its partners by competing with them. So it hasn’t put out a phone of its own since 1999—not counting, of course, doomed smartwatches and doomed mini-TVs.
The SSI changes that. Asus may have built it, but this is a Qualcomm phone. The dark blue slab has Snapdragon-red accents around the camera bump and power button. On the back, there’s a white LED with a Snapdragon symbol that pulses on and off (unless you just turn it off). The default wallpaper is a picture of a Snapdragon 888 chip.
The SSI measures 6.80 by 3.00 by 0.38 inches (HWD) and weighs a substantial 7.4 ounces. It is not small. The screen is a brilliant 2,448-by-1,080-pixel, 6.78-inch Samsung AMOLED panel with 800 nits full-screen brightness and 1200 nits peak spot brightness. It is very, very bright. It runs at up to 144Hz, with the frame rate adapting to the content and an icon in the status bar showing which frame rate mode is active. Of course, you can kick the frame rate down to 60Hz if you want.
Qualcomm’s second-generation fingerprint sensor is on the back. It’s accurate but hard to find. There isn’t a well-defined ridge or physical guide to the location of the fingerprint sensor: it’s very flush with the back, so I had a lot of mistouches simply because I couldn’t position my finger right by feel. Qualcomm said it had to go with a rear-mounted sensor rather than its ultrasonic under-display sensor because it’s using a rigid OLED screen panel to achieve 144Hz.
A bumper case, a power adapter, two USB cables, and a pair of $300 earbuds are included in the box. I’ll get to the power adapter and earbuds below.
Concept: You’re the Boss of How Fast (or Hot) Your Phone Is
The Snapdragon 888 powers most of the flagship Android smartphones in the world. So do they all have the exact same performance? The SSI is here to say no.
It’s not just what chip you use; it’s how you use it. Power management routines, thermal limits, and body design all affect how a phone can use its engine. The SSI lets you tweak and play with processor performance more than any other phone I’ve personally seen. You can tune CPU, GPU, and thermal limits to your taste—and yes, it makes a difference in real-world application performance.
The SSI has a Snapdragon 888 with 16GB of LPDDR5 RAM and 512GB of UFS3.1 storage. There is no MicroSD card slot, because SD storage is slower than UFS.
We run two kinds of benchmarks. Geekbench slams the processor with a bunch of synthetic math problems. PCMark and GFXBench more closely simulate real applications. All the Snapdragon 888 phones do about the same on Geekbench. But pumping up the clock speed on the SSI caused it to score considerably better at PCMark and GFXBench than competing phones, and turning it down caused it to score worse. Tuning matters.
The result is a very smooth gaming experience, of course. Genshin Impact at 144Hz running all of the data over T-Mobile 5G? No problem.
But you pay the price in heat. It is absolutely possible to make the SSI too hot to touch, whereas other phones will cut you off first. I ran an app called Processor Throttling Test, which wallops the processor on all cores as hard as it can, for 10 minutes, then checked battery temperature using the CPU-Z app. The SSI got up to 121 degrees (and I felt it!). After running the same test, the Samsung Galaxy S21 was down at 114 degrees and the OnePlus 9 Pro was a cool 110 degrees.
Performance maximization takes a major toll on battery life. In both low-speed and high-speed modes, I got about 7 hours, 5 minutes of screen-on time with the 4,000mAh battery, which is much less than we typically see on premium smartphones. Of course, the SSI doesn’t have any of the guardrails those phones do, such as turning down performance automatically when the battery is at 20% or warning you when the battery is at 10%. With the SSI, your phone can go flat out until its last electron is spent.
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To quote my raw notes: “There is no thermal protection on this thing. I just ran down the battery playing Genshin. One, it didn’t warn me before 0%, and two, it’s burning my damn hand.”
Qualcomm draws a line that true phone hackers won’t love, though: While the SSI is running mostly-stock Android 11, the bootloader is locked and there’s no easy way to load custom ROMs. I think that’s a big mistake. This is clearly a phone for tweakers and maximizers, and if they want to play with the kernel to get even closer to the hardware, they should be able to.
Speaking of Android, Qualcomm promises four years of security updates, but so far, not a single Android version update—not even to Android 12. It’s “working on a plan for feature updates but not ready to announce it yet,” the company said.
Concept: Go Ahead, Include Every Possible Cellular Band
Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X60 modem is the world leader in performance. Samsung uses it in its US phones, and Apple uses Qualcomm’s previous generation (the X55) for iPhones because of development lead times. But Qualcomm’s partners don’t use all of the X60’s features.
Wireless carriers in different countries use a huge array of different frequency bands. The more bands you add to a phone, the more power amplifiers you need to build in. You also pay more licensing fees. So phone makers often trim down their banding to what’s needed in a specific region, and sell different models in different parts of the world. Apple, OnePlus, and Samsung all do this. This annoys people who are frequent international travelers or who want to arbitrage different countries’ prices to import phones across borders.
The SSI adds all the bands. New millimeter-wave 5G bands that Europe will use in the future. Weird bands only used in Japan. This isn’t actually useful to US customers unless you’re a globetrotting Jason Bourne type, but some of the bands in here, especially the new mmWave bands, may be hard to find on phones sold in the EU right now.
The phone is also a genuine physical dual-5G-SIM device, which is rare among high-end phones sold in the US. I only have working T-Mobile and T-Mobile MVNO SIMs right now, but it worked with two of them.
And can you tweak? Of course you can tweak. You can put 5G into standalone mode, turn 4G or 5G off, and even turn LTE carrier aggregation off, which is a very weird flex.
I’d like to see the tweaking go a little further, just as I would with the bootloader. Samsung phones have a field test mode that lets you see exactly what frequencies the phone is using, and turn on and off specific bands. This is great for testing new network rollouts. So far, the SSI doesn’t have anything comparable. I’ll keep using my Galaxy S21 Ultra for the best 5G diagnostics.
Qualcomm says the phone is being certified by all three US carriers, and Verizon confirmed directly to me that the device would work on its network. For phone calls, it has the super-high-quality EVS codec, which enables the clearest possible calling. Performance-wise, the SSI hit the same maximum speeds on the T-Mobile 5G network as a Galaxy S21 Ultra in the same location did, but it has another trick up its sleeve. Because Qualcomm has thrown all power management to the winds, the SSI polls for network much more often than the S21 Ultra does, meaning it recovers from dead zones 8–10 seconds more quickly. Nice.
The phone also has Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5.2, which lets you connect to multiple Bluetooth devices at once. Qualcomm says the phone’s FastConnect 6900 chipset gives it superior Wi-Fi performance. I found that result to be mixed. On the 2.4GHz band, the SSI was consistently able to connect and hang on to a network at a distance where a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra couldn’t maintain a reliable connection. But on the 5GHz band results were less clear, with the SSI getting better performance in some tests and the S21 Ultra in others. That said, my source connection, a 600Mbps symmetrical 802.11ac link, wasn’t appropriate for testing the SSI’s most advanced features, which would require a Wi-Fi 6 or 6E router.
Concept: QuickCharge 5 Fast Charging Is Useful
Fast charging is all the rage among Chinese phone-makers, but it’s much less popular in the US because neither Samsung nor Apple is particularly enthused about the feature. Qualcomm has its own fast-charging system, called QuickCharge 5, but its partners tend to ignore it so they can roll their own, most notably the VOOC system used by Oppo and OnePlus.
So there were no QuickCharge 5 phones available in the US—until now. The SSI comes with a chunky QuickCharge 5 adapter and a USB cable, capable of charging the phone at 65w. At least, that’s what the reviewers’ guide says.
Tested against a OnePlus 9 Pro—which really does charge at 65W—the Snapdragon phone was much more conservative, especially toward the end of its charging curve. It took 15 minutes to get from 93 to 100 percent, while the OnePlus 9 Pro took about 8 minutes. The SSI got to a full charge in 55 minutes, while the 9 Pro got there in 35. QuickCharge 5 definitely charges faster than Samsung’s 25-watt charging, which charges a Galaxy S20 FE in 75 minutes. But if this is supposed to be a demo of Qualcomm’s superior charging solution, Qualcomm needs to look at its software again.
There’s also no wireless charging. I guess Qualcomm doesn’t have much to say about wireless charging.
Concept: Wireless Headphones Can Be as Good as Wired
Qualcomm has a package of audio software called Snapdragon Sound that includes super-wideband codecs for voice calling and the ability to do lossless, 24-bit, 96kHz audio to wireless earbuds. The voice codecs pair with EVS, a very high-quality voice calling system now available on the latest smartphones (including this one). So far, only Xiaomi has picked up Snapdragon Sound, making the SSI a great potential platform for what it can accomplish.
Unfortunately, the software isn’t yet available on the review unit I was sent. So I can’t tell you how Snapdragon Sound really sounds.
The SSI comes with a pair of custom Master & Dynamic MW08S earbuds with a Snapdragon logo on each one, in a Snapdragon Sound–branded case. They’re a $300 value, and we really like them. According to our review, they have “a fairly accurate sound signature for people who want some bass, but mostly favor clarity and balance. As for active noise cancellation (ANC), they deliver high-quality performance for low frequencies, and do pretty well against mids and highs, too.”
Just like with the processor and radio, the SSI gives you more awareness of what’s going on in your audio than you might get from another phone. In this case, it’s in a Qualcomm AptX Adaptive Settings screen, which tells you the wireless codec currently active, the profile, and the sample rate. This is Qualcomm marketing: The company wants you to know when you’re on the highest quality AptX codec (Qualcomm’s codec) so you can hear the difference in clarity and highs.
If this is an audiophile phone, I’m disappointed it doesn’t have a headphone jack. Yes, I know they’re few and far between now. But the fact is, high-end wired headphones still have 3.5mm plugs, not USB-C. LG had the right idea with its Quad DAC system, which pushed out super-high-quality sound to a jack that would accept super high-quality headphones. Having to hunt for rare Snapdragon Sound earbuds or thresh the parched fields of USB-C headphones is frustrating when there are so many great, high-end headphones out there to enjoy—as long as you have 3.5mm.
Loud, stereo tweeters are built into the top and bottom of the SSI. They gave me crisp electronic highs in MGMT’s “Time to Pretend,” but the powerful bass opening of Silent Shout’s “The Knife” was utterly muted. Putting on my M&D earbuds brought those lows back.
Concept: Cameras Can Get Smarter (Especially for Video)
The SSI has a triple-camera system with elements similar to what we saw on Asus’ ZenFone 8. The main camera has a 64MP Sony IMX686 sensor that by default uses quad binning to deliver 16MP images. There’s an ultra-wide lens on a 12MP Sony IMX363 sensor, and an 8MP 3x-zoom telephoto as well. The front-facing camera is 24MP.
The hardware is good. But the software is poor, and Qualcomm acknowledges it. The company sent me a changelog of a software update coming later this month, which mentioned “noise” in four different places, and specifically called out night-shot quality.
This is an enthusiast’s phone, though, so I want more of that! I love the idea of software updates every month improving the quality and features of the camera. Heck, I don’t even care if they’re stable.
For photography, I compared the SSI to a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, and the Samsung crushed it in every circumstance. In daylight, the S21 Ultra’s focus was vastly superior, with photos taken by the SSI often looking a bit blurry or out of focus. In low light, images taken with the SSI were dimmer, with more muted colors than in the S21 Ultra’s photos.
An image from the SSI’s front-facing camera in low-light was a horror of noise. Even in regular light, the shot was messy and gritty, making my skin look awful.
So what’s Qualcomm really bringing to the table here? The company’s flagship feature is tracking focus in video. You should be able to tap on a video subject and have an AI-powered camera automatically keep focus locked and the image zoomed appropriately. In my tests, this sort of worked, as long as the subject didn’t move too fast or go behind something. The AI sometimes made vertiginous zoom choices that I wouldn’t have made, getting really aggressive with fast zooms in a way that I find a bit dizzying. This is a feature with lots of potential, but it’s not yet ready for prime time.
Maximal Customization, Insufficient Usability
Right now, the SSI is a bit of a mess. Being able to tweak every possible setting is nifty, but the phone is loaded with pre-release software that doesn’t achieve the goals Qualcomm sets out to reach, like showing off Snapdragon Sound and the AI-powered camera.
The big question is whether Qualcomm will keep pushing the software forward. Some messiness is acceptable if Qualcomm goes beyond fixing it to really show off what Snapdragon chips are capable of.
I’d also love to see some sort of leasing plan. Snapdragon fans aren’t going to want to hold onto a Snapdragon 888 phone for three years, especially this late in the chipset cycle. They’ll want a Snapdragon 895, followed by a Snapdragon 1000, followed by whatever comes next. Rather than $1500 once every three years, they’d probably prefer $70/month with annual trade-ins.
If the SSI is taken exactly as it is, you’ll only want it if you’re an extreme international traveler of the sort that hasn’t existed since 2019. (Will they ever again?) You can get less-expensive gaming phones (from Asus, even: the ROG Phone 5 costs around $800) that kick Genshin in the Impact, and the Galaxy S21 Ultra has far better cameras. But you can’t, in the US at least, get a dual-physical-SIM phone with all of these international 4G and 5G frequencies. In that case and only that case, the SSI is worth trying out. Otherwise, we view it as a curiosity and a demonstration of cool ideas, not a consumer product.