Qualcomm revealed the newest iterations of its Snapdragon mobile processors this week. The chipmaker announced not just one but two new chipsets: one that will power some of the highest-end smartphones to be released in 2020, and another system-on-a-chip for midrange phones.
The company’s two new chips are the flagship Snapdragon 865, which also includes an add-on X55 5G modem, and the mid-tier Snapdragon 765 or 765G with integrated 5G capabilities.
The announcements came during a press conference on the Hawaiian island of Maui, with hundreds of analysts and members of the media in attendance. Some of them were flown to the remote, tropical destination on Qualcomm’s dime. (WIRED did not attend.)
The more powerful of the two chips, the Snapdragon 865, is the natural successor to last year’s 855 chipset. Qualcomm’s high-end Snapdragon chips are routinely used by smartphone manufacturers to power their most advanced and feature-packed phones. For example, the 855 showed up in 2019 devices like Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10 and Galaxy S10 phones, as well as Google’s Pixel 4 handset.
The new 865 includes an updated engine for processing AI functions that Qualcomm says is twice as powerful as the AI engine on the previous chip. Gamers will see a boost as well, with a GPU that Qualcomm claims is 20 percent faster than before. The new chip can also support real-time language translation and can power a smartphone camera that captures 8K video and still photographs of up to 200 megapixels.
Even though the next-generation, high-speed 5G wireless networks have been slow to proliferate around the world, Qualcomm says that phones using its latest Snapdragon chip will be ready to take full advantage of 5G whenever it arrives. The company claims devices powered by the 865 and its companion X55 modem can achieve peak download speeds of up to 7.5 gigabits per second. The modem also supports all of the various frequency bands being used in 5G communications, including mmWave and sub-6.
The less powerful Snapdragon 765 has slightly less impressive specs, with an integrated X52 5G modem and support for download speeds of up to 3.7 Gbps. But it has some of the same AI features and the same boost in graphics as its more powerful sibling.
The fact that Qualcomm announced its mid-tier chip right alongside its most powerful mobile processor is noteworthy. Qualcomm tends to reveal chips for non-flagship devices in spring or summer—the Snapdragon 730, 730G, and 665 mobile chips were unveiled in April of this year. But analysts say Qualcomm’s dual-headliner show this week was really all about speeding the adoption of 5G technology.
The meat of the global smartphone market is in midrange devices, says Patrick Moorhead, founder of Moor Insights and Strategy—exactly the kinds of devices that could potentially be powered by Qualcomm’s lower-cost, 5G-capable chip. “I see this as a message that the company wants to accelerate 5G,” he wrote to WIRED.
In 2019, three out of the four major US wireless carriers set goals to launch 5G wireless in 30 cities by the end of the year. But the rollout has been slower than expected, the 5G standards have varied, and handsets capable of connecting to 5G networks have been scarce.
As the Verge previously pointed out, it’s a seemingly odd choice on Qualcomm’s part to offer integrated 5G in its less powerful chip, rather than its top-of-the-line SoC. But Creative Strategies principal analyst Carolina Milanesi notes that Qualcomm likely still wanted to “leave opportunity for those brands that might just want the modem part rather than the integrated solution. Apple, of course, comes to mind here.” (Alex Katouzian, senior vice president and general manager of Qualcomm’s mobile business unit, later said in a Q&A with analysts that Apple was not the reason his company is shipping a separate 5G modem.)
Two phone makers—Xiaomi and the Lenovo-owned Motorola—appeared on stage at the Qualcomm summit yesterday to show support for the new Snapdragon 865 and 765 chipsets. Motorola even said it plans to launch a premium smartphone in early 2020 that will support 5G. For several years now, the brand had settled for the mid-to-low end of the smartphone market, but this week’s statement (and the pricey folding Razr it showed off last month) indicate that Moto wants to compete at the high end again.
Qualcomm’s Maui event was full of exciting 5G proclamations, but Milanesi warns that even if 2020 ushers in more 5G-capable phones, the experiences of using them will vary from region to region.
“Depending on the number of smartphones in the market, as well as current infrastructure, you might see markets in Asia and Europe ahead of the US,” says Milanesi. Some regions will focus on a “connectivity first” approach rather than experience first, she says. Markets with more developed wireless infrastructure will try to tempt consumers with specialized experiences, like blazing-fast cloud gaming and augmented reality, Milanesi says, while emerging markets will focus on connectivity, especially where mobile broadband is a critical part of economic development.
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