Mobile chip giant Qualcomm is already leading the 5G charge with key technologies such as the Snapdragon 855 chip for phones that can be configured with an X50 5G modem for faster cellular data speeds.
But even though nobody has a 5G phone yet — more than 30 devices expected to ship with the first-gen X50 5G modem — Qualcomm’s already planning for even faster and more power-efficient 5G devices.
Ahead of Mobile World Congress, Qualcomm is announcing the Snapdragon X55 5G modem, its second-generation 5G modem for mobile devices.
The new X55 5G modem is built using a smaller 7-nanometer process compared to the X50 5G modem’s 10-nanometer design.
There are two clear advantages to the more compact modem design. For one, it allows devices to be sleeker. A smaller modem means slimmer designs; Qualcomm says it’ll fit in phones that are less than 8mm thick. Phones with the X50 5G modem are expected to be thicker than existing phones in the same way the first phones with 4G LTE modems were clunkers. A smaller design will also leave more room for other components like a larger battery.
The other benefit to a smaller modem: better power efficiency. Whenever a piece of silicon is shrunken, it uses up less power, which translates to longer battery life. Qualcomm wouldn’t tell us how much more power-efficient the X55 5G modem is compared to the X50, though.
Faster, more reliable, and more power efficient
But for all the promises 5G will bring, there are still many technical hurdles to overcome to achieve faster and more reliable cellular connectivity.
Qualcomm says the X55 5G modem improves on the X50 in a few key ways such as:
- Up to 7Gbps download speeds (the X50 tops out at 4.5Gbps)
- Support for “virtually any band” — just like 4G LTE, different regions use different wireless spectrums; the X55 will allow access to cellular networks with 5G (or older) anywhere in the world
- Improved 5G performance indoors using “5G Envelope Tracking”
- More consistent data speeds
- Longer battery life
Just as it took years to build out today’s 4G LTE networks, building out 5G solutions will be a work-in-progress for years to come. The X55 looks like a major step towards 5G adoption worldwide and Qualcomm says it’ll make its way into devices in 2019.
“This will be instrumental in the second wave of 5G devices coming to commercialization later this year,” Qualcomm staff manager of product marketing Nitin Dhiman said during a press briefing. “We have a very unique solution in the industry that goes from the baseband to the antenna. [The X55 modem] has support for all key capabilities for 5G global rollout.”
5G is a marathon not a sprint
Qualcomm’s advances in 5G technologies won’t go unchallenged, though. Chinese tech giants like Huawei and ZTE have been aggressively pushing out their own 5G technologies worldwide in hopes of becoming industry leaders.
How far ahead they’ll get won’t be known until years down the road since the security of their 5G technologies is being questioned. Under Trump, the U.S. government could move to ban Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE from deploying their 5G tech and infrastructure in the U.S. over concerns to national security.
Meanwhile, Qualcomm’s rivals such as Intel are also racing to build its 5G modems, which it could potentially sell to Apple to include in future iPhones. Citing unfair patent licensing fees, Apple dropped Qualcomm as a modem supplier for its latest iPhones, the XS, XS Max, and XR. As a result, the new iPhones use Intel modems, which tests have shown are slower than Qualcomm’s.
When Apple does release an iPhone with 5G support (rumored to happen in 2020), it might not even use Intel modems. Rumors suggest Apple is working on its own modems for future iPhones to reduce dependency on other suppliers.
With so many legs in the 5G race, there’s unlikely to be any one winner who takes all. Qualcomm’s X55 5G modem is another step towards making 5G real and putting its capabilities in the hands of real people.