Qualcomm announces Snapdragon 855 mobile chip as it readies for 5G

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Handsets and 5G services will roll out slowly over 2019

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5 December 2018 | 0

Qualcomm opened its Snapdragon Technology Summit in Maui, Hawaii, by evangelising the 5G wireless technology that’s rolling out worldwide from chipmakers, carriers, and smartphone makers. Its first 5G-ready smartphone processor will be the Snapdragon 855.

Though Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips are built into phones, part of the 5G transition is simply convincing users that 5G is real, that it’s here, and that it’s needed. “Here is the final message: It’s that the entire industry is moving at the same pace for 2019 launches. It is not just about upgrading a mature market, but moving to new business models,” said Cristiano Amon, executive vice president of Qualcomm Technologies and president of Qualcomm CDMA Technologies (QCT), the company’s chipset business,

5G: How we got here
In July, the 3GPP body overseeing the standard published Release 15, described as necessary to enable the final sprint toward 5G commercialisation. This is known as 5G NR. (Release 16, described as ‘5G phase 2,’ will enable such next-gen functionality as 5G LANs, satellite connectivity, and vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity. That spec is scheduled to be published at the end of 2019.)

One of the challenges of 5G, though, is simply defining it. So-called 5G technology is really two different pieces: narrow frequency bands in the sub-6GHz range, and the so-called ‘millimetre wave’ spectrum. While the sub-6GHz portion of 5G offers speeds comparable to today’s 4G LTE, it’s the millimetre wave portions of the spectrum that can push throughput to the multi-gigabit level – but the signal strength falls off quickly over distances.

All of the major US wireless carriers have announced 5G plans; in the case of Verizon, the company launched the first 5G broadband network in four cities in October. AT&T has also announced its own 5G rollout plans, including major metropolitan areas in all parts of the country. Qualcomm invited both companies up on stage as partners in its 5G rollout. The US carriers plan to support both sub-6GHz as well as millimetre-wave technology, Amon said. In October 2018, Amon said, the first 5G NR over-the-air call was placed on a mobile device.

“One important message is that this transition is different than the transition between 3G and 4G,” Amon added. “This will be much bigger.”

Qualcomm announces the Snapdragon 855
Now that the specification has been written, chipmakers are jockeying for position in the 5G space. The same development process has more frequently played out in the Wi-Fi market, where router and modem makers have developed pre-standard chips, only to tweak them when the final standard was published. This same process allowed Qualcomm to announce its discrete X50 5G modem in 2016, well before 3GPP published its final standard. That chip has now been respun, and is Release 15 compliant, Qualcomm executives said.

Two of Qualcomm’s biggest rivals, Intel and Samsung, are also developing 5G technology. Intel recently said it has pulled in the release of its first 5G modem, the XMM 8160, by a full six months. But the chip is still expected to ship at the end of 2019, leaving 5G phones using it (such as a next-generation Apple iPhone) very much in doubt. Samsung has also built its own modem, the Exynos Modem 5100, which it claims was the first to be compatible with the 3GPP Release 15 specs, and which will almost certainly be used within its own phones.

An upcoming front in the 5G wireless chip battle will be how each manages to integrate 5G into their existing controllers. For Qualcomm, that has the potential to affect the future phones of its existing customers, which include Google, OnePlus, and the U.S. version of Samsung’s Galaxy phones. Qualcomm’s flagship mobile chip is the Snapdragon line, and the new version the company announced Tuesday is the Snapdragon 855.

Qualcomm said Tuesday that the Snapdragon 855, will support multi-gigabit 5G technology. (Though the Snapdragon is an integrated chip with a modem, DSP, GPU, and CPU, it does not natively support 5G. A “5G” phone would also need to include the discrete X50 modem chip, Qualcomm executives confirmed.) Qualcomm is claiming that it will be the first commercial mobile platform to support 5G, executives said.

While Qualcomm plans to offer a more in-depth look at the Snapdragon 855 on Wednesday, the company confirmed some basic features:

  • AI will again play a role within the Snapdragon 855, with a fourth-gen AI engine that delivers what the company calls three times the AI performance of the previous Snapdragon 845
  • Twice the performance of a “competing 7nm SOC”
  • A dedicated computer-vision image signal processor (ISP) has been included for computational photography and video capture, to recognise what the camera is seeing and take better photos
  • Qualcomm developed a 3D Sonic Sensor, an in-display ultrasonic sensor for authenticating smartphone users via their fingerprints, and through smudges on the glass. It will also read fingerprints through moisture
  • Something called Snapdragon Elite Gaming, designed to bring next-gen gaming experiences to mobile users

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