MWC 2019: Samsung gets in first with 5G phone, Qualcomm upgrades 5G modem

It comes as no surprise that Mobile World Congress will feature the first commercial 5G smartphone, nor that it will come from Samsung, which has been promising to be first to the market for over a year now. Others, like Huawei, are likely to show handsets too, but the Korean company has got its announcement in first.

The Galaxy S10 5G made its debut short on details – release date and price were not revealed, although Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg joined the launch event in Seoul to say that his firm would be the first to offer the S10 5G. That makes it likely that the product will support mmWave as well as sub-6 GHz bands, to work on Verizon’s 28 GHz network – which in turn makes it probable that the US models have Qualcomm’s multiband 5G RF module included alongside its Snapdragon system-on-chip.

Samsung also rolled out three LTE handsets with prices ranging from $749 to $999. The 5G handset has a larger case and battery than Galaxy LTE models and no MicroSD slot. It measures 77.1 x 162.6 x 7.94mm compared to 74.1 x 157.6 x 7.8mm for the largest of the new LTE handsets and includes a 4,500mAh battery, up from 4,100mAh maximum on LTE.

As usual with the Galaxy range, each member has some models running on Samsung’s own Exynos system-on-chip and some on Qualcomm Snapdragon, depending on the target geography. Both SoCs have eight-core apps processors but the 8nm Exynos runs slightly more slowly than the 7nm Snapdragon 855.

The 5G phone also has a fourth rear-facing camera for ultrawide pictures, while the LTE models have three rear-facing cameras.

In addition, Samsung the Galaxy Fold, a foldable smartphone priced at a lofty $1,980, available from April 26. It has two batteries with total capacity of 4,380mAh, six cameras and a 7.3-inch fold-out screen. There is also a 5G Fold model.

Meanwhile, AT&T says it will offer the S10 5G in “the coming months,” while Sprint and T-Mobile will have the phone this summer.

Fellow Korean vendor, LG Electronics, is expected to launch a 5G smartphone at MWC, destined initially for Sprint.

As for the chips inside such devices, Qualcomm – despite all its pressures – remains ahead of the pack in commercializing the latest technologies. Its 5G silicon has been part of a dominant number of 5G tests and trials, with Intel the only rival to play a significant role in the process. Both firms will find their addressable market squeezed by the trend for large device makers to design their own processors – Huawei has announced 5G-focused chips from smartphone to data center; Samsung has Exynos; even Apple is rumoured to be working on its own modem, to accompany its existing apps and graphics processors.

But Qualcomm’s expertise in modem technology consistently allows it to outperform its competitors. “Most of the industry is still trying to figure out their first generation” of 5G, said the firm’s Nitin Dhiman.. “We are already looking at our second generation at a time where a lot of others are having to do a lot of proof of concept in terms of actual implementation.”

The firm’s latest 5G modem is the X55, and according to Anshel Sag, an analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy, this is “Qualcomm’s continuation of their leadership in 5G. The fact that this is Qualcomm’s second generation of chips and it is already shipping to customers means that they’re considerably further ahead of the competition.” He told LightReading: “It’s possible that we could even see these chips in devices by the end of the year which means that we could see Qualcomm shipping their first and second generation of 5G modems in the same year.”

The X55 is a successor to Qualcomm’s first 5G chip, the X50, released in 2016. It supports peak speeds of 7Gbps by combining transmissions in LTE and 5G. It promises tighter multimode integration to support better battery life and thinner devices. It supports both Non-standalone and Standalone versions of the 5G New Radio in TDD and FDD configurations, and adds 26 GHz to the 28 GHz and 39 GHz mmWave included in the X50.

While Intel’s recently announced XMM 8160 5G modem outperformed the X50 – 6Gbps to 5 Gbps – it has been leapfrogged by the X55. The Intel chip will ship in commercial devices from early 2020 and is tipped to be part of the first 5G iPhone, presumed to be launching next year (if Apple hasn’t pulled off a miracle and created its own advanced modem by then).

So Intel is a year or so behind Qualcomm in commercial terms, and the latter says it has more than 20 customers for the X50. With the X55, it is looking beyond smartphones and fixed wireless CPE or hotspots, to laptops, tablets, connected cars, VR glasses and more – part of the company’s perennial quest to widen its addressable market as smartphone growth slows and competition rises.

CEO Steve Mollenkopf said on the company’s recent quarterly results call: “Our Snapdragon platform continues to outperform industry benchmarks and is well-positioned to successfully enable the low latency, high reliability and security requirements of 5G. We continue to extend this expertise with handset OEMs and adjacent industries of compute IoT and auto.”