Even before most phone makers have launched their first 5G handsets, Qualcomm, the company behind the chips powering many of these smartphones, is already thinking about the second generation. Today, Qualcomm has announced the Snapdragon X55 5G modem, its follow-up to its first 5G modem, the X50. The chip-maker will make the new modem available to its partners in the coming months, and the first devices equipped with it should be out before the end of the year.
The headline feature of the Snapdragon X55 is its maximum download speed of 7 gigabits per second, compared to 5 gigabits for the X50. That’s technically a 40 percent improvement — even if a combination of geography, radio interference, and spectrum availability means you’re unlikely to see anything close to these theoretical limits in real world usage.
Thankfully, the X55 contains a number of other benefits that aren’t specifically related to speed. Support for adaptive antenna tuning for sub-6GHz 5G, for example, makes the new chip’s wireless communication more power-efficient. The X55 is also compatible with Qualcomm’s new, physically smaller mmWave antenna module, reducing the amount of space required inside the smartphones that use them. The first 5G devices will all suffer from a bit of gigantism — because they need larger batteries to feed more power-hungry and bulkier components — and the X55 is an early evolution trying to address that issue.
Beyond smartphones, Qualcomm claims that the X55’s flexibility should make it a better fit for a much broader range of devices. While the X50 is tailored towards smartphones and Wi-Fi hotspots, Qualcomm has spent more time tailoring the architecture of the X55 towards a wider range of devices ranging from always-connected PCs to cars. Although Qualcomm told me “there’s no tangible technical reason” why the X50 couldn’t be used in these devices, they conceeded “it’s just not quite a perfect architecture.”
There are a host of other minor upgrades in the new chip, though many of these will depend on operators building out support for updated 5G standards before you’ll see any benefit. There’s support for FDD (or Frequency Division Duplex), which allows uplink and downlink data to be transmitted at the same time on different spectrum, as well as support for standalone 5G networks (rather than ones needing 4G as a supplemental connection). Support for spectrum sharing allows 4G and 5G signals to share the same spectrum, which will be pretty important during the transition period as operators need to continue to support legacy 4G devices. Finally, the modem supports MIMO beamforming in three dimensions, so you’ll maintain a strong connection while you’re moving up and down in relation to a cell tower, rather than just left to right.
If all this sounds complicated, then that’s because it is. The challenge of a new standard like 5G is that it relies on many different companies coming together to support the same set of standards. We’re on the cusp of seeing the first generation of devices launch for the first generation of networks that support them, but each participating company will be working toward different priorities and facing different limitations, meaning many are launching without full support for all the various elements of the standard such as standalone 5G.
5G consists of a lot of interoperable and overlapping technologies, and with the X55 we’re going to be a step closer to having devices that support all of them. Qualcomm expects the first X55 modems to be shipped to its manufacturing partners in the first half of this year, with the first consumer devices shipping before 2020. Then, the onus will be on operators to support more of these standards and move us closer to the full potential of 5G.