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5G gets much-needed jolt at IFA 2019: Cheaper devices and more chips

You have to shell out a grand to get a 5G phone today, but that could change soon.

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Smartphone companies like Samsung are introducing less expensive 5G phones.

Chris Monroe/CNET

IFA, Europe's biggest electronics show, isn't heavy on phones, but that didn't stop companies from talking about a major new wireless technology: 5G. Unlike other trade shows such as Mobile World Congress, though, IFA's 5G focus wasn't on super high-end, expensive 5G phones (well, aside from the revamped $2,000 Galaxy Fold). Rather, it was all about making 5G more accessible to the rest of us. 

IFA, now winding down in Berlin, saw the introduction of a cheaper 5G phone from Samsung at a time the electronics giant has been releasing pricier products. Companies like Motorola and Nokia phone maker HMD vowed to introduce devices next year that cost less than most 5G phones today. Mobile chip giant Qualcomm said it will bring 5G to its cheaper Snapdragon processors for phones next year, and chip rivals Samsung and Huawei updated their own 5G modems with integrated versions that typically bring down the cost. 

"We accelerated the launch of 5G to 2019," Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon said in an interview Friday at IFA. "Now we're accelerating the scaling of 5G."

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5G is touted as a game-changing technology, with the ability to dramatically boost the speed and coverage of wireless networks. It can run between 10 and 100 times faster than your typical 4G cellular connection today. And latency, the amount of time between when your phone pings the network and when it responds, is faster than what Wi-Fi provides.

But like any new technology, the first 5G products don't come cheap. 

Shunning $1,000 phones

Most of the world's early 5G phones cost more than $1,000. Samsung's Galaxy S10 5G and Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G retail for $1,300, which is $400 more than the 4G S10 and $200 more than the 4G Note 10 Plus. Samsung also will sell a 5G version of the Galaxy Fold in Korea that you can buy for the equivalent of $2,000. It's not offering a 4G version there, but the US won't get the 5G model. In the US, the 4G Galaxy Fold costs $1,980.

Most other 5G phones today are also pricey. LG'S V50 ThinQ costs $1,152 at Sprint and $1,000 at Verizon. The Oppo Reno 5G, which isn't officially available in the US, costs about $1,030, when converted from its Australian price of AU$1,499. In the UK, it's sold exclusively via monthly plans through EE, from £49 ($60). And Huawei's Mate X foldable will cost $2,600 when it goes on sale as soon as next month

Lowering the price for 5G devices and chips makes the network technology accessible to more people. Not everyone can afford to spend over $1,000 on a phone, as Apple, Samsung and others are increasingly discovering. By late next year, 5G networks will be widespread and anyone buying a new phone will want a device that taps into that technology. Offering 5G at lower prices will help even more people use the technology sooner. 

With even 4G phone prices on the rise, people are opting to buy cheaper models. Apple's iPhone XR was the top-selling smartphone in the world in the first half of 2019, according to IHS Markit. At $749, it's the least expensive phone in Apple's 2018 lineup. More people bought Apple's two-year-old iPhone 8 for $599 than the new $999 iPhone XS or $1,099 iPhone XS Max, the firm said. The second most popular smartphone in the world for the first six months of the year was Samsung's Galaxy A10, not its $1,000 Galaxy S10, which hit the market in March. 

"With the prices of Apple's latest iPhones weighing on consumers' budgets, many iPhone customers are opting to pick older models instead," IHG Markit analyst Jusy Hong said.

Samsung A90 5G 

It's too early to tell how well the 5G devices are selling. Motorola, for one, said only that its 5G modular phone has been selling a bit better than it expected. 

Samsung's given some specifics. The company on Friday at IFA said it has sold 2 million 5G phones since its first device went on sale in May. That number should increase to 4 million by the end of 2019. While 2 million is a high number of devices for a new wireless technology, it's a tiny fraction of Samsung's total smartphone sales. In the second quarter alone, Samsung shipped 76.3 million smartphones, according to Strategy Analytics.

A lot of the 2 million phones selling later this year will likely be Samsung's new, cheaper 5G phone that it introduced at IFA, the Galaxy A90 5G. At 749 euros (about $827) it's nearly $500 less than Samsung's other 5G phones.

"With its launch, we now have a full portfolio of 5G devices," Nicole Ng, product manager for Samsung Europe, said Thursday during the company's IFA press conference.

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Samsung's Galaxy A90 comes first to Korea, followed by Europe. It's unclear whether it will be sold in the US. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

Samsung's 4G A series phones have traditionally cost hundreds less than their Galaxy S and Note siblings, while still having many of the same features. They've proven to be popular. 

The A90, the first 5G model in the A series, sports a 6.7-inch display and three rear cameras, including a 48-megapixel lens and one 32-megapixel front camera. For the first time in the A series, you can connect the phone to a monitor or PC using Samsung DeX and Microsoft's Your Phone app.

It's available in Korea now and will come to Europe in October. It's unclear whether the device will arrive in the US, and a Samsung spokesperson declined to comment. 

While the Galaxy A90 has Qualcomm's pricey, high-end Snapdragon 855 processor and X50 5G modem, the arrival of less expensive modems will bring down 5G phone prices even more.

Cheaper chips

Qualcomm, the company supplying modems for the vast majority of the world's 5G phones today, said at IFA on Friday it will soon bring the super-fast connectivity to a broader swath of its chip line.  

Next year, the company will expand its 5G modems across its Snapdragon 8 series, 7 series and 6 series processors. The company's 8 series chips are aimed at high-end phones like the Galaxy S10, and it's the Snapdragon 855, alongside a Qualcomm 5G modem, that connects the Galaxy S10 5G, Note 10 Plus 5G and other phones to 5G networks. The company's 7 series and 6 series chips power much more affordable devices like those from Motorola.

Qualcomm said its partners are developing over 150 designs using its 5G processors, and so far, 12 vendors have said they plan to use the company's less expensive 7 series Snapdragon 5G chip. That includes Oppo, Realme, Redmi, Vivo, Motorola and Nokia phone maker HMD. 

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Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon talks up the company's new 5G processor at IFA in Berlin.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Expanding 5G across Qualcomm's product line will make 5G accessible to over 2 billion smartphone users, the company projected. 

"The transformation [from 4G to 5G] is so profound," Qualcomm's Amon said. "You want to have as many devices [available] as possible."

He added that "when the 7 series launches, we expect to see price points with 5G that we see today in 4G devices." That means devices will cost less than $800 or so. 

Samsung and Huawei also unveiled new 5G modems at IFA. Samsung's Exynos 980 is its first processor that combines a 5G modem and mobile application processor into one chip. Putting a modem and the brains of a phone on one processor makes the device more power-efficient and brings down the cost.  Mass production will begin later this year, which means it likely will be in devices in early 2020. Samsung's own phone business is the biggest customer for its modem operations. 

And Huawei's Kirin 990 also integrates the modem with the apps processor. It contains four sub-6 antennas, but no millimeter wave, which means it will work on most European and Asian networks but not the super-fast networks found in the US. The Kirin 990 will be in the Mate 30 smartphone when it launches Sept. 19 in Munich.

When chips get cheaper, so too will the phones.

Making affordable phones

While most 5G phones so far have been expensive, there have been some exceptions. The OnePlus 7 Pro 5G costs $840 on Sprint's network. Xiaomi's Mi Mix 3 5G sold for 599 euros ($679) when it hit the market in May, an amount that's less than that of many 4G phones today.

The cheapest is a modular phone designed by Motorola. The company's first 5G phone came in the form of a "Mod," or module accessory that attaches to the back of the Moto Z3 or Moto Z4 to let it run on the faster wireless network. The setup costs $499 for the Z4 itself and extra for the Mod. For a limited time you can get both for $440.

Motorola's next 5G phones likely will be positioned as more premium devices, Francois LaFlamme, chief strategy and marketing officer for Lenovo's Motorola business, said Friday during an interview at IFA. While they'll likely cost more than the Moto Z4 (LaFlamme declined to provide details), they'll still be less expensive than rival 5G phones, he said. 

"Our strategy is always to bring [a device with] equal specs but a slightly lower price point than our competition," LaFlamme said. 

He added that Motorola aims to bring prices down even more to tap into price-sensitive markets. The company's addressable market in Europe, for instance, won't be as large if the phones cost more than $1,000.

"Our goal is to bring 5G down to more manageable levels," LaFlamme said. He declined to specify what that level could be but said a $399 5G would today would "have to sacrifice in a lot of elements consumers value" like camera and other features. 

"Today it's a small segment that would value 5G over everything else you put in a device," LaFlamme said. "For the foreseeable future, price points for 5G will remain high."

Nokia phone maker HMD, meanwhile, said its first 5G phone will hit the market next year. The phone will be both "affordable" and "premium," CEO Florian Seiche said Thursday at the company's IFA press event.

The phone should be "something that's a bit more affordable than anybody that's out there today," HMD Chief Product Officer Juho Sarvikas told CNET's Katie Collins in an interview at IFA. But at the same time, he promised it'll offer a "great smartphone experience with some cool stuff in there."

For those of us waiting for cheaper 5G phones, 2020 can't come soon enough. 

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