Two months ago, Qualcomm held the Snapdragon Tech Summit in Hawaii. That's where the company talked for two days about how the Snapdragon X50 modem would usher in the era of 5G mmWave. That was all for this year, and while there still isn't a single product readily for sale with the X50 modem, Qualcomm is already talking about its 5G solution for next year.
Today, Qualcomm announced its "second-generation 5G solution," the Snapdragon X55 5G modem. To go along with the new modem is a new 5G mmWave RF antenna called the QTM525, which obsoletes the QTM052 the company was pairing with the X50 modem. Overall, it's a faster, smaller, and more-compatible version of Qualcomm's 5G chip solution. We tore into Qualcomm's first-generation 5G parts after Qualcomm's big tech show, and while these "second-generation" components don't really address the issues raised in that article, they are a step in the right direction.
Qualcomm says these new chips won't be out until "late 2019." That means the X50 and QTM052 will still be filling smartphones and sucking down batteries for the majority of 2019. With Mobile World Congress happening at the end of February, a bunch of OEMs are going to announce 5G hardware this week and next week, and those devices should run previously announced X50 hardware. The X55 is more like "Next year's 5G hardware," but Qualcomm likes to talk about these things a year in advance.
5G is going to majorly complicate smartphone design. Today, 4G LTE phones use a single-chip design with an SoC and modem integrated into a single piece of silicon. 5G requires the SoC, plus an extra 5G modem, plus several RF antenna modules built into the sides of the phone. A single chip solution is smaller, cooler, cheaper, and uses less battery power, so all of these multi-chip 5G devices are going to have to compromise in those areas. Qualcomm's second-generation 5G package is still part of the same big pile of multiple chips, but the chips themselves should be smaller. The 5G's mmWave connectivity has a number of issues with range and penetration, and one of the ways the industry is working around this is by sticking multiple RF antenna modules in the sides of the device. Many of Qualcomm's graphics show four antenna modules in a device (one on each side of a device). The new QTM525 antenna should help out phone designs for 2020, as it is smaller than this year's QTM052. Qualcomm doesn't give exact sizes for each module, but it says it has spent time "reducing the height of the module to support 5G smartphone designs sleeker than 8 millimeters thick." Thanks to to-scale pictures next to a penny, we know the older QTM052 module was about 5mm tall. I haven't seen anything that would let us figure out the height of this new QTM525 module.
Speaking of size improvements, the Snapdragon X55 should be a bit more space efficient. The Snapdragon X50 was built on a 10nm manufacturing process, but the X55 is being upgraded to a 7nm process. Smaller transistors should mean less usage, less heat, and—if the design was the same—a smaller die size. The design is not the same, though.
For this year's X50 5G chip package, OEMs would use a Snapdragon 855 SoC with an integrated 4G LTE modem on board, and they would pair it with an X50 mmWave modem, which lives on a separate chip. The X55 modem, though, is 5G mmWave and 4G LTE compatible, allowing it to support everything from 2G to 5G. There's also support for spectrum sharing, which allows mmWave and LTE to co-exist on the same frequencies. The new modem comes with more global 5G compatibility and now covers the 26GHz, 28GHz, and 39GHz mmWave spectrum. The X50 didn't support 26GHz.
5G is all about the promise of really fast data access (if you can get it), and the X55 raises things up a notch. The LTE modem is a Snapdragon 855 SoC that can hit a theoretical top speed of 2Gbps down, and this year's Snapdragon X50 5G modem can theoretically do 5Gbps down, and this new X55 5G modem is technically rated for 7Gbps. The X55 can only do 6Gbps over mmWave, with an extra 1Gbps coming from sub-6Ghz LTE.
It's unclear how this 4G/5G modem will be used in a device. The modem still needs to be paired with some kind of SoC. So does that mean you have an LTE modem on the SoC and a second LTE modem on the chip? Will Qualcomm start making SoCs without LTE on board, totally relying on this chip for cellular connectivity? What we would really like to see is an SoC with 5G on board, the same way LTE-only phones have single-chip modems+SoC combos today. We don't know anything about Qualcomm's 2020 SoC lineup and won't for a while, so lots of possibilities are still up in the air.