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12 January 2021

Qualcomm leapfrogs rivals with mmWave for affordable 5G phones

Competition has heated up dramatically in the low end 5G chipset market with Qualcomm’s launch of its Snapdragon 480, which spans both sub-GHz midrange spectrum and higher millimeter wave bands.

This pits Qualcomm squarely against Taiwan’s MediaTek in the field for lower cost chipsets aimed at affordable 5G smartphones, priced not much higher than the current crop of budget 4G smartphones. But while MediaTek and Qualcomm are about neck-and-neck in the overall mobile devices chipset market, with about 30% each, the latter leads in 5G chips with almost 40%, and sub-6/mmWave support should help preserve that advantage.

The Snapdragon 480 is likely to supersede its predecessor, the 460, in 5G versions of a number of affordable handset models, such as the Oppo A53, Moto E7, Nokia 3.4 and OnePlus Nord 100. These currently come in between $130 and $200 in price, though the step-up to 5G will most likely add about $30 to the price tag.

It is only a year since Qualcomm launched the 460 and since then, MediaTek has consolidated its position in the midrange 5G chip market, but has left open a window of opportunity for Qualcomm in the fast-expanding low end field by not offering support for mmWave there. This could lead to significant gains in Asian markets, especially China, where a lot of the early 5G deployments in cities include mmWave.

MediaTek has launched 5G chips and was planning to introduce one with support for mmWave as well as midband before the end of 2020. That always looked ambitious though because MediaTek had decided to wait for the latest 5-nanometer fabrication process to give a further boost in performance and power efficiency, possibly based on the ARM Cortex A78/X1 architecture and its Mali G78 GPU, both optimized for high performance.

That has been postponed and the company has yet to identify a launch date, with rumors it will not be until the second half of 2021 and even then, this will be too expensive for low end phones anyway. That leaves MediaTek targeting low end phones with its Dimensity 700 smartphone processor chip, launched in November 2020, aimed particularly at the Chinese market for midrange handsets.

The 5nm process technology has just reached the market in Apple’s A14 chip, manufactured by TSMC and incorporated in the iPhone 12 and latest iPad Air, launched in October 2020. By reducing transistor size and therefore distance signals have to travel during a calculation, potential power consumption is cut and/or performance increased. More transistors can be accommodated in a given space and by shrinking the process from 7nm to 5nm, the A14 chip has 38.8% more than the preceding A13, up from 8.5bn to 11.8bn. With further iterations of the 5nm process, currently in its first generation, there is potential to pack as many as 80% more transistors than the A13, rising to 15bn.

This gives a clue why Qualcomm has decided to persist with existing processes, exploiting greater maturity to get close to the same levels of performance and efficiency without waiting for 5nm.  That would provide that window of opportunity to tap the fast-growing market, especially in Asia, for low end 5G chips that span the mmWave as well as mid band sub-6 GHz spectrum.

The Snapdragon 460, released just a year ago, was in fact built with 11nm process and Qualcomm has moved down to 8nm for the Snapdragon 480. Qualcomm has though focused on optimizing within that process, so that the Snapdragon 480 incorporates more A5 cores working at 1.8 GHz, which are more efficient than their predecessors, along with Kryo 6 high performance cores on the CPU side, clocked at 2.0 GHz. This has yielded a two-fold increase in both CPU and GPU performance compared with the Snapdragon 460, as well as a 70% acceleration in execution of machine learning tasks as a result of Qualcomm’s latest Hexagon 686 chipset.

Introduced in 2017, these Hexagon chips are essentially co-processors that execute machine learning algorithms to optimize performance of the whole chipset itself, rather than for higher level applications. The upshot is that the chip executes more intelligently rather than relying just on brute force. So instead of relying on raw performance measured in MHz, Qualcomm has invoked Hexagon to increase the amount of work that can be done per cycle, even reducing the clock speed.

That gives some indication why Qualcomm does not feel under pressure to adopt 5nm process too hurriedly.