Qualcomm’s New 5G Offerings Extend Beyond Smartphones to PCs


For the last three Decembers, chipmaker and technology licensor Qualcomm has forced (well, OK, maybe just invited) hundreds of tech press and a few analysts from all over the world to hear the latest news on their Snapdragon mobile processors, 5G modems and other communications semiconductor innovations in the beautiful setting of Maui, Hawaii. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend all three of these Snapdragon Summit events.

As you might expect, this year’s event was highly focused on finally bringing 5G to market through a number of new offerings and into several different product categories. On the smartphone side, the company unveiled their new high-end Snapdragon 865, which is expected to power premium smartphones throughout 2020, and the mid-tier focused Snapdragon 765, designed for more moderately priced phones.

Somewhat surprisingly, the 865 is the first Snapdragon SOC (system on chip—a type of semiconductor that integrates several different components into a single package) in quite some time to not integrate a modem. Instead it’s expected be paired with the company’s current 5G-compatible X55 multi-mode modem (meaning it supports everything from 2G to 5G in a single chip), as well as the company’s new RF (radio frequency) Front End module. There’s been a lot of speculation as to why the company chose not to integrate a modem into this generation, ranging from the cost, complexity and size of integrating the existing X55 design into the 865 package, to the need to maintain a separate, cutting-edge standalone modem for Apple (who is expected to use the X55, but not the Snapdragon 865 for their fall 2020 5G-enabled iPhones), to just the overall flexibility that a standalone modem enables. Regardless of the real reason—likely some combination of all the above—expect to see a new 5G integrated modem in the next version of the Snapdragon 800-series premier part when it’s unveiled at the end of next year.

The 765, on the other hand, already integrates the new X52 5G modem, which is very similar to the X55 from a 5G features perspective, but limits the total channel bandwidth available within the modem to 400 MHz for millimeter wave and 100 MHz for sub-6 5G (versus 800 MHz and 200 MHz, respectively on the X55). While that may sound like a big difference, the practical truth is that no carrier is currently using more than the 400/100 levels, so in current real-world performance, the two modems should perform almost identically on 5G networks. In addition, it’s important to note that the 765 also incorporates a Qualcomm-designed RF Front End.

RF Front End modules—which incorporate components like antennas, power amplifiers and more that are necessary to convert both millimeter wave and sub-6 5G analog radio frequencies into a digital format the modem can use—are becoming an increasingly important differentiator in the 5G era. In Qualcomm’s case, they also represent a new revenue source, and allow them to compete with other RF chip makers such as Qorvo, Skyworks Solutions and NXP. As a result, it’s interesting to see the company include an RF Front End into the 765 and specifically optimize the 865 to work with their own RF Front End design. In addition, Qualcomm made a point to emphasize the introduction of complete 5G module solutions that incorporate 5G modems and RF Front Ends. These new modules can be used either by smartphone companies with lesser in-house engineering resources, or for incorporation into completely different types of devices, such as cars, industrial equipment, smart city infrastructure and more.

Speaking of other device categories, Qualcomm also used the Snapdragon Summit to detail their plans to bring 5G to future augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) headsets via their new XR2 5G chip. Leveraging many of the technological advancements and innovations made for the 865, the XR2 will power a range of smaller and sleeker, yet significantly more capable headset offerings that include support for things like up to 7 concurrent cameras (both inward and outward facing for eye tracking, hand tracking, environment tracking and more). In addition, by using the 5G connection, the XR2 can support remote rendering, which lets the headset use edge computing resources to create and deliver a significantly higher-resolution image to the headset’s displays than could be created by just using the onboard computing resources. It’s a futuristic application highlighting some of the interesting possible benefits of 5G, and it’s likely to become available sometime late in 2020.

Finally, Qualcomm also talked about their efforts both to bring 5G to PCs, as well as extend the range of CPU offerings that they’re making available to the PC market through their Qualcomm Snapdragon Compute platform. These PC-specific chips feature Arm CPU and GPU core designs and are the brains behind the Windows on Arm Always Connected PCs (ACPCs), such as the new Microsoft Surface Pro X. On the 5G side, the company discussed its previously introduced 8cx 5G chip—which will first show up in a Lenovo laptop that’s expected to be introduced in January at CES. In addition, the company unveiled a slightly modified version of the chip called the 8cx Enterprise, which features a few additional hardware and software security features and some modest performance enhancements. Both the 8cx 5G and 8cx Enterprise are paired with the company’s X55 5G modem and will bring the full range of 5G connectivity options (including both sub-6 and mmWave) to the PC market.

The company’s newest chips for PCs are the Snapdragon 8c and 7c, both of which feature an integrated 4G LTE modem (a Cat15 modem for the 7c and a Cat24 modem for the 8c). While the move down to 4G was initially somewhat surprising—especially given the company’s strong focus on 5G—both chips are designed to run in less expensive notebooks, which typically don’t include any kind of modem at all. In fact, the 7C is apparently targeted for notebooks priced under $400, while the 8c is headed for notebooks in the $600-$800 range. Given those price points, the incorporation of a 4G modem starts to make more sense—that is, as long as carriers offer more reasonable pricing for PC data plans. This has been a stumbling block for the adoption of modems into PCs in the past, but with the smartphone market having reached its peak, carriers seem to be finally waking up to the reality that in order to continue growing their businesses, they’re going to need to get devices like PCs onto their networks. Plus, the freedom and flexibility that cellular connectivity brings to a PC is an extremely compelling experience, so Qualcomm is likely trying to encourage that general trend among all PC users so that they get used to and start demanding that level of connectivity on all their PCs.

Real-world performance and battery life specs for both the 8c and 7c have yet to be revealed, but Qualcomm is claiming better performance than its previous 850 PC chip for the 8c and a somewhat generic “25% better than the [unnamed] competition” for the 7c. Hopefully battery life will prove to be closer to the original Qualcomm PC offerings than what the customized Snapdragon chip that Microsoft is using in the Surface Pro X. What’s intriguing about all of Qualcomm’s PC offerings is that they included dedicated AI processing cores. While we haven’t seen a great deal of PC-focused software just yet that leverages AI, a good deal of it appears to be in the works so it’s important that Qualcomm extends those capabilities across its complete line of PC-focused SOCs.

As a company that’s been at the forefront of creating chips that can enable 5G connectivity, it’s great to see Qualcomm extend beyond smartphones to bring 5G to devices like AR/VR headsets and PCs. After all, the promise of 5G is supposed to be beneficial to many connected devices and it takes these kinds of steps to move the new network standard in the right direction.

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