Qualcomm chips targeting cheap smartphones add 5G modem

Qualcomm chips targeting cheap smartphones add 5G modem

Technology News |
By Jean-Pierre Joosting

Qualcomm is looking to roll out its 5G modems to the billions of people unable to afford handsets with the wireless technology inside. The company said it has added an advanced 5G modem for the first time to its line of chips designed for cheap smartphones, in a bid to persuade more people to upgrade to 5G phones at a time when demand has declined globally.

Qualcomm has long been the world’s top vendor of chips used in 3G and 4G smartphones. The company has also leaped to the lead in selling modem chips for the first generation of flagship 5G smartphones rolled out by Samsung, Vivo, Oppo, and LG. But these premium models are priced at more than $1,000 to account for the cost of integrating discrete 5G modems.

The company has been trying to move its 5G modems into budget smartphones by rolling out chips with the 5G modem embedded inside, including the new Snapdragon 690 chip. Qualcomm said the new chip would be used in 5G phones that are priced at only $300 to $500, addressing the high prices that have been keeping consumers from upgrading to 5G devices.

New phones based on the Snapdragon 690 chip should be on the market by the second half of 2020.

Christiano Amon, Qualcomm’s president, said that adding 5G modems to chips targeted at budget phones has the potential “to make 5G accessible to more than 2 billion smartphone users around the world.” More than 375 designs are in development or on the market using Qualcomm’s 5G modems to date. There are more than 1,800 products in the pipeline based on its Snapdragon 6-series chips, the San Diego, California-based company said. 

The chip is based on its X51 modem, which supports data rates up to 2.5 Gbps and upload speeds of 660 Mbps. The chip can connect to 5G networks in any part of the world where its customers sell phones. Qualcomm said it can handle transmissions based on TDD—which are used to funnel data over the same frequency using slightly different time slots—or FDD standards—used to relay data over slightly different frequencies at the same time. 

There are tradeoffs, however. The Snapdragon 690 chip connects to 5G networks based on the sub-6 frequency bands. The chip is incapable of connecting to millimeter waves, which support faster data transfers but struggle to reach over long distances. These signals can also be deflected by physical obstacles unless advanced cellular antennas are crammed around the sides of the phone. The problem is that these parts are costly, analysts say.

The San Diego, California-based company is looking to lure customers that sell midrange and budget smartphones as a way to start selling higher volumes of its 5G modem chips.

Olivier Blanchard, senior analyst at Futurum Research, said that “not everyone wants to or can afford to dish out upwards of $1,000 for premium smartphones every 2 to 3 years.” He said that while “sales of premium-priced flagship handsets still look strong, consumers are increasingly looking for better value in their smartphone and can now readily find it in the $400 to $800 range and below.”

Steve Mollenkopf, Qualcomm’s chief executive, said last month that its roadmap for the rollout of 5G networks was unchanged. But he warned some of its customers could delay product launches due to fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting drop in demand. Qualcomm said it has not changed its 2020 estimate for global shipments of 5G phones. Last year, the company said 175 million to 225 million units would be sold globally.

The share of smartphones shipped with 5G modems in the first quarter of 2020 was 8%, up from 1% a year ago, said Varun Mishra, a smartphone analyst at Counterpoint Research.

Qualcomm rolled out its Snapdragon 765 chip, the first in its family of chips for the higher end of the market for midrange smartphones with an integrated 5G modem, last year. The chip features data transfer rates of up to 3.7 Gbps and uploads of up to 1.6 Gbps, and it can also handle all the bands used by the 5G networks, including the millimeter waves favored in the US and the sub-6 frequencies used in China, South Korea, and Europe.

That contrasts with the Snapdragon 865 chip, which is paired with a separate 5G modem in the first flagship 5G smartphones from LG Electronics, Samsung, and other manufacturers. The use of a separate modem inflated the cost, power, and footprint of these devices. The X55 5G modem delivers download speeds of up to 7.5 Gbps with uploads of up to 3 Gbps. Qualcomm has also rolled out a more advanced modem, the X60, to its lead customers.

Qualcomm is looking to introduce chips with integrated 5G modems for use in flagship and other high-end handsets, such as Google’s Pixel and Samsung’s Galaxy, by the end of 2020.

Samsung said it has started selling the cheapest 5G smartphone in the US, the Galaxy A70, which is based on the Snapdragon 765 chip and costs $600. The model is more than half the price of the flagship Galaxy S 5G smartphone, which uses the Snapdragon 865 chip. It is around $150 less than the cheapest iPhone model introduced in 2019, which lacks 5G. Apple is reportedly planning to sell 5G phones with Qualcomm’s X55 modem in 2020.

Qualcomm said it has improved the internal architecture of the Snapdragon 690, which integrates large, high-performance cores and small, energy-efficient cores to boost battery life. The Kryo 560 CPU incorporates a pair of Cortex-A77 cores clocked at up to 2.3 GHz. The remaining Cortex-A55 cores in the eight-core CPU have clock speeds of 1.7 GHz. The chip pumps out up to 20% more performance than its predecessor, the Snapdragon 675.

The chip also incorporates Qualcomm’s Adreno 619L GPU, which bolsters performance up to 60% over its predecessor, bringing lusher colors, enhanced details and faster load times to video games on budget smartphones. The chip supports 120Hz screens for fast refresh rates and smooth scrolling. The memory subsystem is based on LPDDR4 lanes with up to 1.86 GHz clock speeds. The chip can accommodate up to 8GB of RAM, Qualcomm said.

The image signal processor (ISP) in the Snapdragon 690 can handle more advanced cameras in phones. The Spectra 355 has enhanced capture rates plus fast autofocus and other technology for shooting sharper, brighter video in more than one billion shades of color, the company said. The dual-core ISP can be connected to image sensors with up to 192 MP of overall resolution or dual cameras with up to 32 MP and 16 MP, Qualcomm said.

The chip can also connects to 4G networks with data transfer rates of up to 1.2 Gbps, more than double the maximum speed of the Snapdragon 675. The chip supports upload speeds of up to 210 Mbps on 4G networks. Qualcomm said it also added WiFi 6 and Bluetooth 5.1  to the processor, which also supports NFC, GPS and other global positioning systems. The new chip also interfaces to USB Gen 3 ports and DisplayPort over USB Type-C.

Lenovo, Motorola, LG, HMD and Sharp are among the phone manufacturers planning to sell 5G smartphones with the Snapdragon 690 in the second half of 2020, Qualcomm said.

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