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Qualcomm to jazz up modem chips with new name

The smartphone-chip maker is introducing new classes for its radio chips to let customers more clearly know the upload and download speeds of their phones.

The LG G Flex 2 uses the Snapdragon 810 chip. Josh Miller/CNET

When discussing new smartphones, people may highlight the speed of the processor or the sharpness of the display. But the modem chip -- the thing that actually lets a smartphone make phone calls -- many times gets ignored.

Qualcomm, the world's largest smartphone-chip maker, is hoping it can change that situation, at least a little, by more clearly defining its modem chips, which are used to connect phones to cellular networks. The change should make it easier for consumers to figure out whether they're buying a phone with a top-end modem, which will provide a speedy connection for streaming movies and playing games, or a lower-end handset that offers slower download speeds.

The company -- whose Snapdragon chips are used in flagship phones from Samsung, Motorola, Sony and others -- said Wednesday it's introducing new classes for its modems, from X5 to X12, to let customers know the difference between their upload and download speeds. For example, the X12 will have peak speeds of 450 megabits per second for downloads, while the X5 will offer a slower 150Mbps. For future modem chips, the numbers will keep going higher, to -- say -- X13 or X15.

The tiered system is similar to how Qualcomm sets up its Snapdragon processors, which are the brains of a smartphone, used to run its display and applications. Those processors range from the top-end 800 line, to the mid-range 600 and 400 lines, down to the budget 200 line. Moving forward, what was once named, for instance, just the Snapdragon 810 -- a chip with both a processor and radio chip -- would now be named a Snapdragon 810 with an X10 LTE modem.

The change could offer consumers and handset makers a little information on how powerful their radio chips will be, while also helping Qualcomm more clearly show off the capabilities of its newest modems. Qualcomm is also a leader in phone modem technology, so this change is also a way for the company to highlight that strength.

Additionally, explaining modem chips can at times be complicated, so Qualcomm hopes the new system simplifies things. "We realized we could do a better job explaining that to our customers and our customers' customers," Tim McDonough, a Qualcomm marketing executive, said in an interview.

In addition to the new modem names, Qualcomm said it will gradually be retiring the name of its standalone modem chip, called Gobi, and renaming it under the Snapdragon brand. The name Gobi was first introduced in 2007 and the chips have mainly been used for cars and laptops, as well as Apple's iPhone, which uses an Apple custom processor instead of one from Qualcomm. The Gobi brand, though, has been mostly overshadowed by the more well-known Snapdragon name.

Qualcomm on Wednesday also unveiled four new mid-tier chipsets, the Snapdragon 620 and 618, and the Snapdragon 425 and 415. The new 600 line chips will include a handful of features previously only found in higher-end phones, including 4K video capabilities and the ability to use two cameras at once. All four chipsets are expected to be used in new devices by the second half of the year.