With all the talk about 5G at Qualcomm's conference this week, it'd be easy to assume that you'd automatically get 5G with the company's latest Snapdragon 855 processor. You'd be wrong.
Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855 will power most high-end Android 5G smartphones next year -- but the chip itself doesn't actually provide the speedy connectivity. Instead, accessing the new network requires additional chips from Qualcomm, including its X50 modem.
By not integrating 5G into Snapdragon initially, Qualcomm got to market much faster. "We wanted to start early with 5G," Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon said Tuesday in an interview with CNET.
But it's up to the handset makers to decide if they want to actually include the X50 modem or stick with 4G.
The decision to bring the Snapdragon 855 to market without 5G underscores that the transition to the next generation of cellular technology won't exactly be seamless. Despite all of the positive 5G vibes sent out at Qualcomm's Snapdragon Tech Summit this week, its availability remains limited. And each transition takes years before the kinks are truly worked out. That includes being able to deal with the complexity of integrating 5G with the technology powering the phone's smarts.
Qualcomm unveiled its first 5G chip, the X50, two years ago. It's only now making its way into mobile devices as carriers start turning on their 5G networks over the next year.
What's embedded on the Snapdragon 855 is still super-fast connectivity. The integrated X24 modem is capable of multigigabit 4G LTE download speeds, double the speed in 4G LTE phones today.
There are some technical benefits you get from integrating connectivity on the same chip as the brains of the device, including lower power consumption. But as a consumer, you won't notice a difference in the device's performance. It's already going to be much faster than what you're used to.
"The consumer experience does not change at all between the platforms with the exception of the faster modem," Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Patrick Moorhead said.
Where you may see an impact, though, is in the types -- and number -- of phones handset makers actually release.
Next year, handset makers will release some devices that only use 4G LTE and save the 5G models for their most important, highest-end phones.
The first devices for the fast, next-generation network will hit the market in early 2019. Samsung, for one, said it will have a phone for Verizon, AT&T and other networks in the first half of the year. And OnePlus said Wednesday that in the UK early in 2019.
Qualcomm's Amon told CNET that by the holiday 2019, every Android handset maker using Snapdragon will offer 5G connectivity for their flagship phones in the US.
By not integrating 5G onto the Snapdragon 855, handset makers can offer two versions of the same flagship device -- one that's 5G and another that's 4G LTE. It could be similar to what companies do with different screen sizes, like how Samsung offers a "Plus" version of its flagship S9 device. And there are some regions that won't really have 5G until later in 2019 or early 2020, removing the immediate need for a 5G phone in those places.
Handset makers and operators tend to get quiet when talking about pricing for 5G phones and service plans. But it's all but certain they'll use the new technology as an opportunity to boost prices. We've already seen phone makers raise their prices over the past couple of years.
When Apple launched its iPhone X a year ago, some wondered if the $999 price tag -- $300 more than the iPhone 8 -- would scare away consumers. Instead, the iPhone X became the best-selling device from the time it hit stores through the end of the June quarter, even though it was the most expensive phone Apple had ever sold.
Android handset makers have also followed suit with higher prices. The cost for Samsung's flagship Galaxy phone for US buyers has spiked 15.1 percent from the Galaxy S7 in 2016 to this year's Galaxy S9. The Huawei P series has climbed 33 percent since 2016 -- and that doesn't even account for the existence of a Pro model.
Integrating a modem onto the application processor that acts as the brains of the device has some big benefits. It allows Qualcomm to make the processor smaller, so there's more room for the battery and other components inside a phone.
Integrated chips are more power efficient and need less memory. When the modem isn't integrated, there's a memory system on the modem and another on the application processor.
Integration also speeds up the connection between the modem and application processor and allows a handset maker to have what's essentially the entire smarts of a phone on a single chip.
"Designing as a system, you get a lot more efficient, more performance and lower the cost," Amon said.
Not all phone makers use integrated processors. Apple's iPhones have modems that are separate from the A-series processors that power its devices. It used to buy connectivity chips from Qualcomm but now works with Intel.
And this isn't the first time the latest version of wireless connectivity chip was separate from the processor powering the device.
When 4G LTE devices hit the market a decade ago, the first Qualcomm-powered devices used a standalone 4G multimode LTE chipset from the San Diego company. The first processor that featured LTE embedded on the same chip as the application processor -- the MSM8960 -- was announced 2009, a year later.
"For the first go-around, it would be too difficult to integrate the new technology with the rest of the platform," Gartner analyst Mark Hung said. "Over time, integration will eventually happen, and [device makers] -- and by extension, consumers -- benefit from the additional performance and cost savings from the tighter coupling."
4G chugging along
For the next couple of years, at least, the majority of phones will be 4G LTE. Kevin Petersen, senior vice president of device and network experiences at AT&T, said Tuesday during a roundtable with reporters at the Snapdragon Technology Summit that the percentage of phones that will be 5G enabled in 2019 in the US will be in the "low single digits."
If a handset maker opts for just the Snapdragon 855 but no 5G modem, your phone will be able to download data at up to 2 gigabits per second because of the built-in X24 modem (assuming you're directly under a cell tower, and no one else is around). That's double the previous fastest LTE, letting you do something like download 7GB of Ultra HD video on Netflix in 28 seconds.
"Never forget the fact that 4G itself is evolving," Durga Malladi, senior vice president of 4G and 5G at Qualcomm, said in an interview ahead of the Snapdragon Tech Summit.
If combined with the 5G X50 modem, though, users can expect up to 20-times faster average performance compared to LTE today, Qualcomm said.
Amon didn't specify when 5G would actually be integrated into the Snapdragon chips, but it could be as soon as next year.
"That's the next natural step for Qualcomm," Amon said. "It should not be a surprise that as the tech gets mature, it gets integrated."
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