With 5G iPhones expected to be released as soon as next year, it’s beginning to look like Apple may have its work cut out for it if it wants to stay ahead of the game and equip its iPhones with the best 5G technology available.
Apple’s long-running spat with Qualcomm has left it with the choice of either relying on Intel’s 5G modem chips or developing its own in-house. Meanwhile, Qualcomm has already moved onto its second-generation of 5G modem chips before the first 5G-capable smartphones have even seen the light of day.
As reported by The Verge, Qualcomm has just announced the Snapdragon X55 5G modem, which follows up on its original X50 and adds support for even more 5G technologies. The X55 is promising a maximum download speed of 7 gigabits per second, an increase over the 5 gigabit speeds of its predecessor, and promises other more technical benefits such as adaptive antenna tuning for more power-efficient communications and support for smaller antenna modules. Both of these latter features will mean that the X55 can be deployed in smartphones without the bulk that many have feared would be added by existing 5G components and the larger batteries needed to keep up with their power demands.
The X55 also includes a collection of other minor upgrades that are more leading-edge, since they will be dependent upon operators adopting newer 5G standards such as Frequency Division Duplex (FDD), standalone 5G network support, and spectrum sharing between 4G and 5G networks.
Of course, it’s debatable how much of this is going to matter in the near-term, as major carriers continue to struggle with their 5G deployments. In short, Qualcomm’s X55 is a chip that’s probably going to be ahead of the curve for a while, but also has the potential to ensure that devices equipped with it will be ready for the emerging 5G standards that will undoubtedly come. Further, different carriers are going to have different priorities as to which elements of the 5G standard get deployed first, putting X55-equipped smartphones in a better position for the widest possible compatibility.
While the X55 is expected to be available to Qualcomm partners in the coming months, as Qualcomm and Apple continue to spar over everything from patent royalties to accusations of intellectual property theft, it’s pretty certain that we won’t be seeing a new iPhone using any Qualcomm modem chip, much less the X55. Apple has already cut ties with Qualcomm almost entirely, shifting to a reliance on Intel modem chips instead for its latest iPhone models.
When it comes to 5G technology, however, Apple is taking its usual measured approach, with analysts suggesting we won’t see a 5G-equipped iPhone until 2020. While some have predicted that this is a mistake on the company’s part, the same was said about Apple’s slow adoption of 3G and LTE years ago. Meanwhile, problems plaguing the rollouts of 5G technology would seem to support the wisdom of Apple’s prudence.
Meanwhile, Intel is working on its own second-generation 5G modem chip, and while the company is lagging behind Qualcomm, its XMM 8160 is expected to be available later this year, with enough lead time for Apple to test it and incorporate it into its 2020 iPhone lineup, which would be expected to arrive for the usual fall debut.
Unfortunately, while the XMM 8160 is an improvement over both Intel’s first-gen XMM 8060 and Qualcomm’s X50, it would appear that the X55 is already leapfrogging it slightly not only in terms of availability, but also in performance and features. For example, the XMM 8160 only supports a maximum throughput of 6 gigabits per second, although it does promise the similar sort of size and power improvements that will be important to Apple in keeping its 5G iPhone models down to their typical thinness. Whether Intel will be able to succeed in addressing the problems with its original XMM 8060 is another matter, however — the first-gen chip was reportedly plagued with heat problems.
However, it may also not be entirely about Intel. Apple is also clearly making plans to design its own modem chips, and with a long history of A-series, S-series, and W-series chips under its belt, the company clearly has at least some of the core skills required to design and manufacture a new modem chip. At this point, however, the open question seems to be whether Apple will be able to get its chip engineering efforts off the ground in time for the 2020 iPhone models, and if not, whether Intel will be able to supply the massive quantity of chips that will be required to keep up with iPhone demand.