Against the backdrop of accelerating global adoption of 5G smartphones, with CCS Insight forecasting over half a billion shipments in 2021 (more than double those in 2020), Qualcomm announced its latest premium Snapdragon 778G 5G chipset at its 5G Summit.
The event also saw the launch of a companion radio frequency (RF) system design for the previously announced fourth-generation Snapdragon X65 and X62 5G modems, leveraging a new software-upgradeable architecture as well as a modem reference design based on a new M.2 form factor for always-connected PCs.
The Snapdragon 778G joins the 780G, announced just two months earlier, as the only two integrated system-on-chip platforms to incorporate Qualcomm's third-generation Snapdragon X53 modem. However, the company explicitly called out the new chip's millimeter wave RF capabilities, in contrast to Snapdragon 780G, which is limited to sub-6 GHz frequencies for 5G support.
This emphasis underpins Qualcomm's confidence in the growth of millimeter wave deployments, with the Snapdragon 778G targeted more at markets that have rolled out 5G using the technology, such as the U.S., South Korea and Japan. We also believe it will be a growing requirement in Europe and particularly China, as operators deploy ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics. Broad support for the chipset from phone makers Honor, iQOO, Motorola, Oppo, Realme and Xiaomi underlines the strength of the chip's feature set and the growing need for millimeter wave support to fulfill the needs of high-tier operators.
Both the Snapdragon 780G and 778G feature the latest Kryo 670 CPU, Spectra 570 triple image signal processor and Hexagon 770 digital signal processor. These premium silicon specifications place the two Snapdragon platforms just behind the current flagship Snapdragon 888 5G chipset as the most powerful mobile application processor in Qualcomm's stable. It's a further reinforcement of the chipmaker's "waterfalling" strategy of aggressively taking premium tier specifications down the price curve (see Qualcomm's Mid-Tier 5G Chipsets Expand Phone Design Possibilities).
Although the new Snapdragon chip and M.2 reference design garnered most of the media coverage of this year's 5G Summit, perhaps more significant is the companion RF system that enables the chipsets to attain gigabit-class wireless communication performances. RF front-ends of 5G smartphones are notoriously difficult to integrate into the overall smartphone designs. The sheer number of frequency bands that require support and the prerequisite of dual 4G and 5G connectivity increases the complexity of the RF front-end geometrically, compared with support for LTE alone. Smartphone makers are challenged to contain the growing complexity and overall cost in the RF section of their 5G designs.
This complexity will only be compounded by more RF demands as mobile operators upgrade their 5G networks in the coming years. As a leading provider of 5G chipsets, Qualcomm offers the industry not just chipsets and modems but a complete modem-to-antenna design solution. For some smartphone manufacturers, adopting its complete modem-to-antenna system can save a lot of time and effort in selecting individual RF components from a varied group of suppliers and then fine-tuning the bespoke RF design to optimize RF performance.
This complete solution offering is adding substantial value to the 5G ecosystem, as shown in Qualcomm's latest quarterly results. The RF portion of its business has posted two consecutive quarters of revenue exceeding $1 billion, placing the unit just behind that of traditional RF suppliers such as Skyworks Solutions.
As the mobile industry marches forward in the transition to 5G, additional features will be added to the network, forcing mobile chipset suppliers to constantly upgrade their designs. Qualcomm's latest fourth-generation 5G modem is a prime example of this industry dynamic. Its Snapdragon X65 modem is the first modem to be compatible with 3GPP Release 16, offering improvements in MIMO, RF beam forming, expanded carrier aggregations and combinations, including up to 300 MHz of 5G Sub 6 GHz bandwidth. Qualcomm's 5G market leadership hinges on staying ahead of industry requirements by offering 5G solutions and capabilities well before market needs develop.
A unique area of leadership that Qualcomm commands is in millimeter wave 5G. Currently, all 5G smartphones with millimeter wave capability use the company's solution, including the latest Apple iPhone 12. Other players are expected to enter this space, but Qualcomm clearly enjoys a multigeneration lead in this flavor of 5G. Its latest Snapdragon X65 modem and RF system will allow for a maximum aggregated millimeter wave bandwidth of 1 GHz — that's 200 MHz wider than current leading-edge millimeter-wave 5G designs. In anticipation of market requirements in China, its fourth-generation modem-to-RF system has been upgraded to support up to a 200 MHz millimeter wave carrier (the standard bandwidth is 100 MHz).
As with any new wireless generation, network improvements are made over years and decades, and right now, we're in the early innings of the 5G transition. Global 5G deployments are still under way and major spectrum holdings need to be vacated and repurposed for use. There will undoubtably be more headroom for 5G devices to evolve. Qualcomm's news is a sign that the 5G wireless revolution continues, and not just in the premium tier.
Wayne Lam is senior director, Research, Americas at CCS Insight. He has more than 12 years of experience covering mobile devices, wireless technology and associated supply chains. He joined CCS Insight after starting with smartphone pioneers such as Symbian and progressing to market intelligence firms including iSuppli.
"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.
Note: Article updated May 25 with description of Snapdragon X65 and X62 5G modems.