A Qualcomm sign is seen at the second China International Import Expo (CIIE) in Shanghai, China November 6, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
Aly Song | Reuters
Qualcomm expects all high-end Android phones using its chips to support 5G next year, an executive said in an interview.
“In 2020, for what it’s worth, all of the premium chips that we sell with our new chip will be 5G-capable,” said Keith Kressin, senior vice president of product development. “So every new high-tier phone.”
Qualcomm announced its new top-tier chip for 2020, Snapdragon 865, which it sells to phone makers for use in high-end Android phones like Samsung’s Galaxy or Google’s Pixel. Qualcomm says the 865 will be shipped only in new 5G devices and will be bundled with a separate 5G modem — the X55, also sold by Qualcomm, which is necessary to deliver 5G service.
Qualcomm also announced a less expensive and slightly slower chip, the Snapdragon 765, that can come with an 5G modem integrated into the chip.
5G wireless technology offers the promise of faster speeds and lower latency, leading to better cellular service for consumers. But it’s also strategically important for Qualcomm, which licenses patents required for many of the technology’s essential systems, and sells 5G cellular components and modems that are seen as the best in the market. Even Apple, which builds its own phone processors, recently signed a multiyear deal to use Qualcomm 5G modems, ending a yearslong legal battle between the companies.
By bundling 5G modems with chips that will end up in millions of phones, Qualcomm is signaling that a substantial number of smartphones sold next year will support 5G, not just the high-end, low-volume devices currently supporting next-generation networks. If enough people have 5G phones, consumer demand could spur carriers to accelerate their 5G network buildout plans.
Qualcomm predicted last month that 200 million phones with 5G would ship to retailers in 2020. A separate estimate from J.P. Morgan analysts this week estimated 229 million in 2020, going up to 462 million in 2021.
Preview of next year
Designing a chip is hard — among top smartphone makers, only Apple, Samsung and Huawei design their own chipsets for high-performance devices, and Samsung still uses Qualcomm chips for some of its top-end phones. Instead, most smartphone makers tend to build mid-range and high-end devices around a Qualcomm processor and Google‘s Android operating system, giving brands the ability to focus on marketing and software tweaks. Last year, phones from LG, Xiaomi, Oppo, Nokia, Google and Samsung, among other companies, used Qualcomm processors.
That means hardware features supported by these chips will become selling points for phones throughout the year, and could trickle down into budget-priced chips launched later by Qualcomm.
Chips used to be judged by their CPU speed and number of cores, but most of the improvements on this year’s Snapdragon chips come through a new process in which specialized tasks that are repeated over and over are given their own custom “block” on the chip.
Kressin said this approach is how chip performance has increased in recent years given a slowdown in the advancement of transistor manufacturing technology that fueled Moore’s Law, the concept that says chip performance doubles roughly every two years.
He cited cores for audio, video, camera and computer vision in Qualcomm’s latest chips.
One key hardware feature in this year’s chips is improved specialized hardware called Hexagon for artificial intelligence applications. Instead of having the CPU handle every task, it can offload specific AI problems to a “block” of silicon specially designed to calculate only these kind of problems, Kressin said.
For consumers, this means better pictures.
“A lot of use cases are related to camera, enhancing your pictures, object recognition, blurring the background, automatic portrait mode, this sort of thing,” Kressin said.
Qualcomm isn’t the only company integrating specialized machine learning hardware into phones. Apple designs and builds its own phone processors, which have an integrated AI processing component called the “neural engine.” Nvidia, Intel and a number of start-ups are also building similar AI chips for servers.
“The silicon vendors such as Qualcomm are now moving towards moving what we call a neural network accelerator into those devices,” said Simon Bryant, director of research at Futuresource. “Basically, that allows all that clever stuff they do with machine learning where they train the algorithms, what comes out of that algorithm is what’s called a neural network, that is then placed on the device and run on that chip.”
Qualcomm said it expects the 765 and 865 chips to ship to smartphone makers nearly simultaneously and said many companies are already planning to use the chips, with announcements starting in early January.