Two months ago, Qualcomm held the Snapdragon Tech Summit in Hawaii. It is here that the company talked for two days of how the Snapdragon X50 modem was going to usher in the era of the 5G mmWave. That was all for this yearAnd although there is not yet a single product on sale with the X50 modem, Qualcomm is already talking about its 5G solution for next year.
Today, Qualcomm has announced its "second generation 5G solution", the Snapdragon X55 5G modem. To accompany the new modem, a new 5G mmWave RF antenna called QTM525 renders the company's QTM052 obsolete with the X50 modem obsolete. Overall, it is a faster, more compact and more compatible version of Qualcomm's 5G chip solution. We've been immersed in Qualcomm's first-generation 5G parts after Qualcomm's big technology show, and while these "second-generation" components do not really address the issues raised in this article, they're a step in the right way.
Qualcomm says these new chips will not be available until "end of 2019." This means that the X50 and QTM052 will continue to fill smartphones and absorb batteries for the majority of 2019. With the World Mobile Congress taking place at the end of February, many manufacturers will announce 5G hardware this week and next week. Devices must use the previously announced X50 hardware. The X55 looks more like "5G hardware next year," but Qualcomm likes to talk about these things a year in advance.
Faster and smaller, but still complicated?
The 5G will greatly complicate the design of smartphones. Today, 4G LTE phones use a single chip design with a SoC and modem integrated into a single piece of silicon. The 5G requires the SoC, plus an additional 5G modem, more several built-in RF antenna modules on the sides of the phone. A single chip solution is smaller, fresher, cheaper and uses less power, so all these 5G multi-chip devices will have to make compromises in these areas. Qualcomm's second generation 5G package is still part of the same large pile of multiple chips, but the chips themselves should be smaller.
The 5G's mmWave connectivity poses a number of range and penetration issues, and the industry is working to solve this problem by gluing multiple RF antenna modules to the sides of the device. Many Qualcomm graphics show four antenna modules in one device (one on each side of a device). The new QTM525 antenna is expected to help design phones for 2020 because it is smaller than this year's QTM052. Qualcomm does not give the exact sizes for each module, but says it has spent time "reducing module height to support 5G smartphone designs thinner than 8 millimeters thick". With scale images near a penny, we know that the old QTM052 module measured about 5 mm. I have not seen anything that will allow us to determine the height of this new QTM525 module.
Speaking of size improvement, the Snapdragon X55 should be a little more efficient in terms of space. The Snapdragon X50 was built on a 10nm manufacturing process, but the X55 is upgraded to a 7nm process. Smaller transistors should mean less use, less heat and, if the design is the same, a smaller die size. The design is not the same, though.
For this year's X50 5G chip, manufacturers would use a Snapdragon 855 SoC with a built-in 4G LTE modem, and pair it with an X50 mmWave modem, installed on a separate chip. The X55 modem, however, is 5G mmWave and Compatible with 4G LTE, which allows it to support everything from 2G to 5G. Spectrum sharing is also supported, allowing mmWave and LTE to coexist on the same frequencies. The new modem is more compatible with global 5G technology and now covers the 26GHz, 28GHz and 39GHz mmWave ranges. The X50 did not support 26GHz.
The 5G relies on the promise of very fast access to data (if you can get it), and the X55 is a step up. The LTE modem is a Snapdragon 855 SoC that can reach a theoretical maximum speed of 2 Gbps, and this year's Snapdragon X50 5G modem can theoretically drop by 5 Gbps, and this new X55 5G modem is technically rated at 7 Gbps. The X55 can only generate 6 Gbps on mmWave, with an additional 1 Gbps coming from LTE below 6 GHz.
It is not known how this 4G / 5G modem will be used in a device. The modem must still be associated with some kind of SoC. Does this mean that you have an LTE modem on the SoC and a second LTE modem on the chip? Will Qualcomm start manufacturing SoC without LTE on board, relying totally on this chip for cellular connectivity? What we would really like to see is a SoC with built-in 5G, just like LTE-only phones have single-chip + SoC modems. We do not know anything about Qualcomm's SoC 2020 range and we will not know for a moment. So there are still many possibilities.