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Qualcomm is the primary provider of 5G chips for smartphones and other devices. 


Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

5G’s just getting started, but Qualcomm’s already talking up its third chip for the ultra-fast network. And Samsung’s planning to use it in future Galaxy S devices. 

Qualcomm on Monday at MWC in Barcelona unveiled its first processor that integrates its 5G modem technology with the Snapdragon applications processor that serves as the brains of a device. The first two 5G chips from Qualcomm were standalone modems that worked alongside a main computing processor.

Integrating a 5G modem with the application processor brings big benefits to handset users. It reduces power consumption and the amount of space the chips take up in a device, letting phones be even sleeker than before or pack in even larger batteries. Having an integrated chip also enables device makers to quickly develop smartphones for essentially any 5G network in the world. And it makes 5G handsets cheaper for consumers.

“The integration of our breakthrough 5G multimode modem and application processing technologies into a single SoC is a major step in making 5G more widely available across regions and tiers,” Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon said in a press release. 

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The integrated chip, whose name Qualcomm hasn’t revealed, will be a follow-up to last year’s Snapdragon 855. That processor is powering most high-end Android phones this year, including Samsung’s Galaxy S10 lineup and Galaxy Fold, Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 3 5G and LG’s V50 ThinQ. The Snapdragon 855 comes integrated with Qualcomm’s X24 modem that’s capable of multigigabit 4G LTE download speeds. To get 5G on devices requires Qualcomm’s separate 5G modem.

The integrated processor will be distributed to customers as a sample in the second quarter and will be in commercial products in the first half of 2020, Qualcomm said. Based on that timeline, it’s possible the Galaxy S10’s successor — the Galaxy S11? — could use the chip.

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. 

The world’s biggest mobile trade show has seen announcement after announcement of companies working on 5G — and Qualcomm has been part of most of them.

5G rising

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. The X50 is capable of download speeds of up to 5 Gbps, and over 20 companies are working on more than 30 handsets with the X50 for this year, Qualcomm said. 

Last week, Qualcomm announced its second 5G chip, the X55. The modem can run on 2G, 3G and 4G networks along with the new, ultrafast 5G networks. It also will let handset developers create unlocked 5G phones, much like what’s available with 4G LTE devices. And you’ll be able to download data over 5G networks at up to 7 Gbps.

For now, Qualcomm’s the only chipmaker with a 5G modem available, aside from Huawei. But Huawei uses its chips only in its own devices, like the Mate X it unveiled Sunday. The foldable phone has three screens, including an 8-inch interior screen and four rear cameras. And it costs a whopping €2,299 ($2,600). It uses Huawei’s Balong 5000 modem alongside its Kirin 980 application processor. 

Samsung, the world’s biggest smartphone vendor, unveiled its first 5G phone last week during its Unpacked event in San Francisco, and Oppo on Saturday talked up its first, not-yet-named 5G phone. Xiaomi on Sunday said a 5G version of its Mi Mix 3 will hit the market in May for 599 euros ($679), and other companies are expected to talk up their own 5G devices at MWC. 

The initial 5G devices will use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 paired with the X50 modem. Devices hitting the market later this year and early in 2020 will use the X55. 

While 5G could bring big benefits to consumers, it has some early hurdles, including power consumption. Typically when a new mobile technology first comes out, the battery life takes a big hit. 

To combat that, Quacomm’s upcoming integrated chip — as well as the X50 and X55 modems — feature the company’s 5G PowerSave technology to conserve battery life. When 5G PowerSave is combined with other Qualcomm energy techniques, 5G phones could have battery life comparable to Gigabit LTE devices today. 

Quick wireless charging

Along with announcing its new integrated chip, Qualcomm on Monday made a host of other announcements at its MWC press conference. 

A big one that will benefit consumers relates to wireless charging. Qualcomm said its Quick Charge technology will be coming to Qi wireless chargers, letting them quickly juice up dead batteries. Wireless charging, while convenient, has tended to be slow, taking much longer to fully charge a device than simply plugging it in with a cable. 

The efforts will give forward and backward compatibility, and Quick Charge wireless charging pads will work with Quick Charge 2.0, 3.0, 4 and 4+ adapters that millions of people already use. Devices that currently use Quick Charge include the LG G7 ThinQ and the Razer Phone 2

Chinese handset and scooter maker Xiaomi is the first company to build a Quick Charge-enabled wireless power pad, the Mi Wireless Charging Pad.

5G in PCs — with Lenovo in early 2020

5G’s not just for phones. Qualcomm also expects it to show up in PCs, and it’s got a chip ready to connect computers in late 2019.  

The company has paired its second-generation 5G modem, the X55, with its 8cx processor for computers that it unveiled in December. At the time, Qualcomm said the 8cx would be in PCs in time for the back-to-school period. 

Lenovo on Monday said it will “be the first” to have a 5G PC on the market in early 2020.

The aim of always-connected PCs is to bring smartphone features to computers, like all-day or even multiple-day battery life and constant 4G LTE connectivity. People spend an increasing amount of time on their phones and less time on their PCs, and they’re holding onto computers for much longer than their smartphones. The answer for Microsoft and traditional PC makers has been to turn computers into something more like phones — and the promise of Qualcomm-powered computers was multi-day battery life.

With the new 5G 8cx, Qualcomm is still touting multi-day use but said “battery life varies significantly with settings, usage and other factors.”

Robot chips

Let’s not forget about robots. Qualcomm on Monday introduced its first chip system for our future overlords, the Qualcomm Robotics RB3 Platform. It combines hardware, software and tools to help manufacturers and developers build robots. The first version is 4G LTE, but it will be updated later this yera to include 5G. 

Robots that already use Qualcomm technology include the Sony Aibo robotic dog and vacuum cleaners from iRobot and Panasonic. The hope is the Robotics RB3 Platform will enable new robots in agriculture, consumer, delivery, inspection, service, smart manufacturing, warehousing and logistics, and other areas.

NAVER and LG “are evaluating” the Robotics RB3 platform and plan to show robots using the technology early next year.

5G and Wi-Fi 6 in cars

Cars need connectivity too. Well, at least most modern cars designed today. Qualcomm unveiled a new automotive Wi-Fi 6 chip, the QCA6696, to bring fast Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections to cars. The chip will support Gigabit in-car hotspots and let passengers stream ultra-high definition video on multiple displays and mirror their screens from compatible devices. 

Qualcomm also introduced its new Snapdragon Automotive 4G and Snapdragon Automotive 5G Platforms. Both include technology for things like dual SIMs, precise positioning for lane-level navigation accuracy, multi-gigabit cloud connectivity and vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-roadside infrastructure communications for safety. The features are necessary for self-driving cars. 

Automakers will be able to test out the 4G and 5G Platforms later this year for the technology to appear in production vehicles in 2021. 

Mobile World Congress 2019

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