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Qualcomm already has a new 5G chip that promises sleeker, long-lasting phones

The second-generation chip comes as we're still waiting on first-generation 5G smartphones.

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Qualcomm's Snapdragon X55 modem can run on everything from 2G to 5G networks.

Qualcomm

The first 5G phones haven't even hit the market yet, but Qualcomm's got a new processor ready for future devices.

The company on Tuesday unveiled its new Snapdragon X55 5G modem, which can run on 2G, 3G and 4G networks along with the new, ultrafast 5G networks. The 7-nanometer, multimode processor is the second 5G chip Qualcomm has made but the first that's capable of running on multiple networks. It also will let handset developers create unlocked 5G phones, much like what's available with 4G LTE devices.

"This converges 30 years of cellular and wireless innovation and R&D from Qualcomm all into this one chip," Nitin Dhiman, Qualcomm staff manager of product marketing, said in an interview. The company made the announcement ahead of the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona. 

The X55's predecessor, the X50, was unveiled two years ago but is only now making its way into mobile devices. The chip only connects to 5G networks, which means handset makers also have to include a second modem for 4G, 3G and 2G in their devices. The X55 changes that, letting companies buy one chip for the various networks. 

5G promises to significantly boost the speed, coverage and responsiveness of wireless networks. It can run between 10 and 100 times faster than your typical cellular connection today, and even quicker than anything you can get with a physical fiber-optic cable going into your house. It'll also boost how fast a device will connect to the network with speeds as quick as a millisecond to start your download or upload.

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Experts expect the technology to change the way we live and even create new industries, much as 4G LTE enabled the rise of apps like Uber, Instagram and Airbnb. 

Most carriers are just starting to turn on their 5G networks, and smartphone companies are still prepping their first 5G devices. Many major Android vendors -- including Huawei and LG -- are expected to unveil 5G phones later this month at MWC. And Samsung could show off its first 5G phone at its Unpacked event Wednesday in San Francisco. 

The initial 5G phones will use Qualcomm's X50 modem, which is capable of download speeds up of 5 Gbps. More than 20 companies are prepping over 30 devices that use the X50 chip, Dhiman said. 

With the upcoming X55 modem, you'll be able to download data over 5G networks at up to 7 Gbps and upload information as fast as 3 Gbps. You'll also get a speed bump when tapping into 4G networks, with the Category 22 LTE letting you download data as fast as 2.5 Gbps. Previous Category 20 LTE technology enabled speeds of up to 2 Gbps. 

The X55 will start showing up in devices later this year, Qualcomm said, but it's not just aimed at phones. Instead, it will appear in fixed wireless, laptops, tablets and even connected cars.

"The breadth of applications is going to span both consumer and enterprise," Dhiman said. 

A multimode future

Integrating 5G with 4G, 3G and 2G on the same chip has some big benefits. It reduces power consumption and the amount of space the modems take up in a device, letting phones be even sleeker than before. Being able to buy one modem for all network speeds also lowers the ultimate cost of the phone, something that's likely to help make 5G devices more available and widespread.

The initial 5G phones on the market are expected to be pricey. Companies haven't yet detailed what their devices will cost, but it's believed they could be significantly higher than 4G LTE variants. OnePlus, for instance, believes its first 5G phone may be $200 to $300 higher than this year's flagship OnePlus 6T. That's a whopping 36 percent to 55 percent increase over the older device. 

Because of the higher cost, handset makers are likely to introduce only one or a couple versions of their flagship devices that tap into 5G, while most of their phones will remain 4G. Having a multimode chip makes it more likely that handset makers will put 5G in more of their devices over the coming years. 

Another benefit of the X55 modem is that it supports more bands, allowing phones to tap into virtually all networks in all regions of the world. That means we can finally see unlocked 5G phones, instead of having to buy a device for a specific carrier like with the initial X50-powered devices.

By the holidays this year, every flagship handset -- at least when it comes to those running Google's Android software and using Qualcomm's Snapdragon processor -- will tap into 5G, Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon told CNET in December

"Every Android vendor is working on 5G right now," he said at Qualcomm's Snapdragon Technology Summit.

X55 advancements

Along with making the X55 faster, Qualcomm has packed more technological advancements into its chip.

The X55 enables something called spectrum sharing, which lets network operators like T-Mobile support 5G and 4G LTE users and devices on the same spectrum at the same time. Carriers will be able to offer 5G without having to buy new spectrum, which is pricey and in short supply.

"It opens the floodgates for 5G rollout around the world," Dhiman said.

And the X55 allows for something called full-dimension beam forming, which enables carriers to focus beams on users more finely. That lets them support more users and effectively boost their network capacity. 

Qualcomm's X55 modem also works with the company's new QAT3555 adaptive antenna tuning technology. It intelligently knows what's around a device or near an antenna and adjusts the signal strength to make sure it's always right for the situation. That enables better indoor coverage, longer battery life, and faster and more consistent data speeds.

And it taps into Qualcomm's QET6100 5G NR Envelope Tracker to reduce energy consumption. The technology tracks the signal going out of a power amplifier to make sure it's sending only what's needed and not wasting any power. Previous technology used an average based on outgoing signals, which "used to waste a lot of power," Dhiman said. 

The X55 also pairs with Qualcomm's new single-chip, 14nm RF transceiver for 5G sub-6 GHz and LTE, and sub-6 GHz RF front-end modules. That lets it cover all major spectrum brands and makes it easy for handset makers to build global 5G devices quickly. 

Millimeter wave modules

Qualcomm on Tuesday also announced a new module to go alongside the X55 and help it tap into fast, millimeter wave signals. 

All cellular networks send data over the air, with standard networks using spectrum in lower-frequency bands like 700 megahertz. Generally, the higher the band or frequency, the higher the speed you can achieve. The promise of 5G is that it can use higher-frequency bands, called millimeter wave, to send data faster than ever before. Those signals operate on frequencies of 24GHz or higher, compared with the 600MHz to 5.8GHz used for 4G today.

Getting those ultrafast speeds using millimeter wave spectrum comes with some problems. The signal can travel only short ranges; it bounces off hard surfaces: and it has trouble moving around corners or past things like trees. Simply holding your hand over the antennas on the phone blocks the signal. The lower-frequency 600MHz spectrum that also can be used for 5G doesn't have those problems, but it's not nearly as fast or able to handle as much capacity as millimeter wave.

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Qualcomm's QTM525 modules lets handset designers tap into the speedy millimeter wave version of 5G. 

Qualcomm

It's been tough for companies to make chips that are small enough to fit in phones and can focus the millimeter-wave spectrum so it can travel longer distances. To solve that problem, Qualcomm in mid-2018 unveiled the QTM052 millimeter wave and QPM56xx sub-6GHz radio frequency antenna module families that work alongside the company's Snapdragon X50 5G modem to bring super-fast network speeds to smartphones

The modules let phone makers cover the gamut of 5G airwaves, including the shorter-range but faster millimeter wave spectrum and the more reliable but slower sub-6GHz airwaves.

On Tuesday, Qualcomm unveiled the second generation of its millimeter wave module, the QTM525. The new technology supports more bands, including the 26 GHz, 28 GHz and 39 GHz networks in North America, Korea, Japan, Europe and Australia. 

The module also is smaller than its predecessor, which lets handset makers create even sleeker phones. Qualcomm declined to provide dimensions for the QTM525 or the older module but said it can support phones less than 8mm thick. 

"There has been skepticism about whether phones with millimeter wave are going to be thin enough," Dhiman said. "This is not a limiting factor anymore."

Phone makers will likely embed three or four modules in their devices, spreading them out across the phone so the device always gets a signal from one module if the others are covered by a hand.

The hope is all of that technology supercharges 5G's rollout. 

"The momentum that 5G's building up is vastly different from 4G," Dhiman said. "It's coming fast, and it's coming big."