Qualcomm’s New X60 5G Modem Gives Us an Early Look at 2021

Qualcomm has kicked off 2020 by telling us that we should already be looking forward to 2021. When early 2021 gets here, we’ll see a new wave of smartphones powered by the new Qualcomm X60 5G modem, which will dramatically increase performance and also improve power efficiency in the ways that might finally help fulfill some 5G promises.

This new X60 5G modem is the world’s first 5nm-based 5G modem, it can aggregate mmWave and sub-6 spectrum, and it features 3rd-generation mmWave antenna modules that should help slim down device sizes.

I know that’s all obnoxious 5G lingo, so here is the simple breakdown of what this chip can do. For one, as a 5nm modem, it should be much more efficient and could provide a big increase in battery life on 5G phones. Two, the carrier aggregation of 5G mmW and sub-6 means the potential for ridiculous speeds (up to 7.5Gbps down, 3Gbps up) and better coverage. And three, the slimmer mmW antenna modules should help more devices have 5G mmW support that manufacturers may not have found room for previously. Think about the Galaxy S20 and its lack of mmW support. With this new chip, maybe that wouldn’t have been a thing.

Qualcomm says they will start sampling this X60 chip this quarter, but we won’t see it in “commercial premium smartphones” until early 2021. So prepare for the Galaxy S21 to have it.

To date Qualcomm has promoted two key standalone 5G modems for widespread adoption: the Snapdragon X50 and the Snapdragon X55. Today the company is disclosing details on its upcoming 3rd generation 5G modem design, the Snapdragon X60, which is being promoted as the premium offering for smartphones, industrial, and commercial designs that require a discrete 5G modem. Key features of this modem include the fact that it is built on a 5nm process, supports carrier aggregation between Sub-6 and mmWave, and offers up to 7.5 Gbps download speeds.

Author Nerdcore Computer

These peak speeds with the X60 modem is going to be achieved through new mmWave antenna modules. For the X50/X55, Qualcomm introduced its QTM525 module for mmWave, in a slim packaging to help enable the technology. Despite the sleek stature, the X50/X55 modems supported four of these modules, and Qualcomm recommended a minimum of three – the replacement of which did require these devices to be of a specific minimum thickness to ensure complete coverage. The new QTM535 module is promoted to be thinner, reducing that requirement.

Unfortunately the diagram showed by Qualcomm of the new module (as they didn’t have a physical one to show us) was not to scale, so no real conclusions could be drawn to the old module. Qualcomm also stated that they were not discussing dimensions at this time, despite the fact that the QTM525 launch was all about the dimensions. The new module can support 26 GHz, 28 GHz, and 39 GHz, enabling wider support. Qualcomm is going to keep its recommendation to vendors to use at least 3 in a connected device.

Alongside the modem and the mmWave antenna, Qualcomm is also offering the full RF front end for Sub-6 GHz. Qualcomm was proud to promote last year at its Tech Summit that out of the 150 devices that were using X50/X55 modems, all of them were using Qualcomm’s RF front-end solution. The X60 will similarly be a full stack offering.

Rollout of Qualcomm’s 5G modems has been a varied affair, with the time between the initial announcement of the first generation X50 and it actually launching into consumer devices being around two years. The process was sped up with X55, with a quicker time to market and eventually widespread deployment for consumer devices through the end of 2019 and likely for all of 2020. There was no doubt that Qualcomm was going announce its next generation design at some point, and with X55 in full swing, that time would appear to be now. When asked regarding timeframe of the X60, Qualcomm stated that they’re not sticking to any timeframe, with a spokesperson saying ‘these things go through revisions’. It is worth noting that for 5nm, TSMC has not yet entered high-volume manufacturing on this node yet (it will do soon, but yields are still low according to the ISSCC 2019 disclosure in December), and Samsung is further behind. So the exact timeframe for X60 rollout maybe sometime in 2021 at our best guess. Qualcomm has an annual Tech Summit in December, so we might see some of the first X60 reference designs at that event, likely with early silicon or the first batches of production silicon.

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