Qualcomm's Snapdragon X55 5G modem can reach 7Gbps download speeds

Qualcomm's Snapdragon X55 modem chip will supercharge 5G in late 2019

So all of the flagship smartphones announced this month-Samsung's new Galaxy S10 family tomorrow and then a slew of other handsets at Mobile World Congress next week-will all utilize LTE-only chipsets or perhaps the Snapdragon X50 instead.

Anyway, expect to see devices with the Qualcomm Snapdragon X55 modem in late 2019.

Qualcomm hasn't been idle in the meantime, however.

While driving 5G forward, we also continue to innovate and push 4G LTE boundaries.

While the modem is at the heart of a wireless device, a significant amount of system-level innovation beyond the modem is needed in order to build a high performance, power-efficient 5G device.

The Snapdragon X55 uses a 7nm manufacturing process and supports networks ranging from 2G to 5G in a single chip. Many of Qualcomm's graphics show four antenna modules in a device (one on each side of a device). All of that means the X55 can be used by a wider array of network operators around the world, speeding up the 5G rollout. The X50 didn't support 26GHz. T-Mobile will be launching 5G on a primarily sub-6GHz FDD network, so this is important in the USA, too.

The other difference is standalone mode support.

One of the most important bits about the X55 is that it supports FD-MIMO or Full-Dimension MIMO. The modem supports "all major frequency bands", including both mmWave and sub-6GHz, as well as spectrum sharing between 4G and 5G, which allows carriers to use their existing 4G spectrum to support dynamic 4G and 5G services.

While the modem may be the centerpiece of the 5G story, it's not the only component involved. Altogether, they make what Qualcomm is calling its second-generation modem to antenna 5G multimode solution.

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Qualcomm's modem will probably be the only one that will appear in U.S. phones in 2019.

Compared to the previous model, the QTM525 is longer but slimmer. That form-factor change - based on device-maker feedback, apparently - means it's flawless for phones under 8mm thick. The problem with the first generation X50 modem is that it only supported the 28GHz and 39GHz bands which are predominantly going to be supported in markets such as North America. RFFEs might not be headline grabbing but they are critically important to real world use and for some reason Qualcomm is the only one talking about such technology. Envelope tracking was launched roughly five years ago, for LTE devices, and it optimizes how the transmit signal is powered.

All in all, I really do take this to mean that buying a Snapdragon X50 phone is probably not a very good idea - unless you know you live in a mmWave market for AT&T or Verizon this year. Qualcomm's second-generation 5G package is still part of the same big pile of multiple chips, but the chips themselves should be smaller. Indeed, the chipmaker says it's already seeing 5G devices on the roadmap with 9-10 antennas onboard. The QAT3555 can handle 600MHz to 6GHz antennas and with a 25-percent reduced package height.

In the end we have the fastest, most advanced LTE/4G modem announced to date in the X55. Why even launch the X50 at all? The X55 will bring far better 5G network intercompatibility (I don't know if we'll see unlocked 5G phones in the United States next year, but maybe) and probably will have worked out some of the bugs carriers and OEMs discover in these first-generation 5G devices. 5G speeds on this new modem are theoretically even more impressive, with Qualcomm claiming a maximum of 7Gbps on the downlink and 3Gbps on the uplink. There's no denying that the X55 has more potential than its predecessor, mind. Meanwhile, it's still early days for 5G, which has quite a road ahead of it, in terms of carrier support (no, 5GE doesn't count) and device adoption, before it's as prevalent as LTE is today.

That leads to freakish arrangements like Motorola's 5G Moto Mod having its own Snapdragon 855 onboard to go with the X50, completely separate from the Moto Z3's own Snapdragon 835. That's great for OEMs, but it could easily get confusing for consumers already uncertain about what 5G represents. The new modem is created to work with everything from fixed wireless connectivity to laptops and automotive systems.

The X55 will appear in phones in the second half of this year, Qualcomm said.

Of course, Qualcomm doesn't have control there. But that's not the only modem the parts-maker has planned for 2019. That might be inside a standalone set of augmented reality smart glasses or an ultraportable notebook, but it could just as easily be a smartphone hoping to get an edge.

Right now, there's the first of the X50-based devices to see. You'll still need an SoC.

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