Qualcomm just announced its next-generation flagship systems-on-a-chip (SoC) and has made good on its promise to offer a chip with integrated 5G. However, it did so in an unexpected way. The company’s new Snapdragon 865 SoC will power high-end phones in 2020, but it won’t include a built-in 5G modem. Instead, Qualcomm announced its first integrated 5G chip will be the more modest Snapdragon 765.
Qualcomm hasn’t announced the design details — it’s spending the first day of its Snapdragon Summit talking about how it will position its next-gen chips. The 865 will be the SoC powering phones like the Samsung Galaxy S11, and it will support 5G. It just doesn’t make any major advances over the Snapdragon 855 in that respect. OEMs will need to design 5G phones with a separate 5G modem (the X55) that links with the 865.
Oddly, Qualcomm says it won’t allow device makers to use the Snapdragon 865 in any devices that lack 5G. So, Qualcomm is essentially forcing flagship phone makers to buy 5G modems and make the changeover in 2020. 5G is still very much in its infancy, but it looks like 2020 will be the year many people end up buying a 5G phone even if they don’t have access to a 5G network. Most flagship phones will have the Snapdragon 865 because it’s the best SoC available, so they’ll also have a 5G modem.
Qualcomm won’t require 865-based devices to support millimeter-wave 5G, which requires special design considerations. Millimeter-wave is also the likely reason Qualcomm could not integrate the 5G radio in the 865 — MediaTek’s new integrated 5G modem is sub-6 only. Millimeter-wave can offer multi-gigabit speeds, but the signals (in tens of gigahertz) don’t pass through obstacles or travel far from the cell site. The 765, on the other hand, only works on sub-6 5G networks, which are slower but have better coverage. T-Mobile and Sprint are the only carriers to roll out substantial sub-6 5G networks so far. Verizon and AT&T plan to add sub-6 to their 5G networks over time.
It’s clear Qualcomm considers millimeter-wave 5G to be a “premium” technology. Only more expensive phones with the Snapdragon 865 will even be able to support it, but we don’t know what sort of performance gap to expect between the 865 and 765. Qualcomm should release more details on the new SoCs in the coming days.
- MediaTek Announces Dimensity 1000 ARM Chip With Integrated 5G Modem
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- Qualcomm Publishes Half-Baked Study to Make 5G Look Good