Qualcomm is Leading the 5G Semiconductor Market with a System-Level Approach

Qualcomm is building momentum as 5G rollouts continue

Smartphones with the Snapdragon 865 are beginning to hit the market. As always, testing of devices in the market is the only way to properly critique performance as chip benchmarks can be misleading. However, early indications show that Qualcomm is building on its 5G leadership with its second-generation flagship SoC paired with advanced modem to antenna system-level offering.

Qualcomm has spent over ten years of R&D work on the building blocks needed for 5G. The company is also driving new use cases and delivering design kits to OEMs to help them incorporate these new use cases into their own products faster.

Qualcomm’s System-Level End-to-End 5G Offering

Qualcomm is the only game in town when offering a tightly optimized semiconductor offering to power 5G devices. Qualcomm is offering an end-to-end portfolio from SoC, modem, complete RF Front End (RFFE) to antenna supporting both sub-6GHz to mmWave. This portfolio is at least one to two generations ahead of its competitors in the 5G semiconductor market from a feature-set to commercial availability perspective.

Design Wins Accumulate

Qualcomm has registered over 70 design wins with the Snapdragon 865. Design wins include the Samsung Galaxy S20 family, the top-selling Android flagship. Samsung dual sources its chipsets and also uses its own Samsung Exynos 990. Early testing shows the Snapdragon 865 outperforming the Exynos 990 in most benchmarks. This has even led to a change.org petition to have Samsung stop using Exynos chips in Galaxy models outside the US – an ultimate compliment to Qualcomm.

Top gaming smartphone franchises such as the Black Shark 3 and Lenovo Legion have chosen the Snapdragon 865 for its sustained performance levels needed for a premium gaming experience. Leading Chinese brands such as Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo continue to shift their portfolios

towards Qualcomm. Xiaomi announced plans to launch over ten 5G smartphones in near- to mid-term with expectations many will be running Qualcomm Snapdragon SoCs.

Global 5G deployments will require a full set of 5G features. One of the reasons that Qualcomm is gaining 5G share is because it supports low and mid bands for blanket coverage as well as mmWave for performance 5G. Qualcomm is now on its third generation mmWave solution. To date, competitors have not put a mmWave solution in the market. mmWave is the 5G ‘performance band’, with spectrum allocations between 24GHz and 39GHz. These frequencies are providing the highest capacity and fastest cellular speeds – up to 7.5Gbps. New user applications needing the highest throughputs will be supported by mmWave. mmWave is being rolled out in the US, South Korea, Japan and other countries widely this year.

Qualcomm is the only “global-scale” chipset solution that allows operators and OEMs to optimize the spectrum utilization thereby boosting their 5G capacity and coverage from low-bands (sub-2GHz), mid-bands (2GHz to 6GHz) and mmWave (24GHz to 39GHz). In addition, the Snapdragon 865 supports 200MHz aggregation which allows for a doubling of peak speeds vs. competitors. For example, Qualcomm’s sub-6GHz, 200MHz aggregation has peak download speeds of 5Gbps. The peak download speed in the sub-6 band for Huawei’s Hisilicon Kirin 990, for example, is 2.3Gbps.  Further, the Snapdragon X60 modem in tow, supports mmWave and sub-6GHz Carrier Aggregation (CA) and sub-6GHz CA across TDD/FDD bands, a first in the industry.

Many 5G smartphones in the market have over 40 Qualcomm components within, including: SoC, modem, full RF Front-End (RFFE) connectivity, power management, audio, and full RF front-end. Almost all OEMs choosing the Snapdragon 865 are choosing Qualcomm’s RF front end. This system-level tightly integrated solution offers multitudes of benefits to OEMs. Firstly, time-to-market is faster with fully tested global certifications. Secondly, the system is optimized for power and performance gains. This accelerates OEM designs to breeze through global operator labs.

Qualcomm Leading in Global 5G Band Support

 

Qualcomm is providing the most comprehensive 5G band support. The company has a presence in every country where mobile 5G is offered. This support is part of the reason Qualcomm is leading Samsung, Huawei and MediaTek in application processor market share in smartphones above $400 wholesale price. Leading in the higher price tiers positions the company well for the transition to 5G. Counterpoint Research estimates that in 2020, Qualcomm will sell almost two times more 5G application processors than its nearest competitor.

Snapdragon 865 Platform Raises the Bar in Imaging, Gaming and AI

During Qualcomm’s Tech Summit in December 2019, the Snapdragon 865 was unveiled. The mobile platform was built to aid flagship devices to excel in key areas of imaging, mobile gaming and AI.

Mobile Imaging Surpassing DSLR Experiences

 The industry is seeing a rise in importance of imaging capabilities. The Snapdragon 865 can support a vast array of integrated camera sensors and resolutions. Most premium devices are integrating a telephoto, portrait, primary, ultrawide, and macro lenses. OEMs in collaboration will continue to push the envelope in mobile imaging to craft advanced DSLR grade or more imaging experiences.

The Qualcomm Spectra ISP is the fastest on the market processing 2 gigapixels per second which unlocks new capabilities from 8K video capture, slow motion at 960fps without recording limits, Dolby Vision video capture, and up to 200-megapixel photo capture. OEMs have flexibility in how to use the impressive amount of data capture, under varying conditions, and to bring novel and new mobile imaging features. The first improvements have been supporting lossless telephoto digital zooms and sharper low-light imagery. The Snapdragon 865 allows OEMs to have the largest simultaneous data capture with 4K HDR video plus 64-megapixel photos. As impressive is the ability to capture 4K video at 120 fps (frames per second) and slow-motion of 960 fps without recording limits – both industry firsts.

Mobile Gaming Rivalling Desktop Experiences

Mobile gaming has made great strides because the experience is smoother and rivalling the desktop experience. Gaming is a focus for Qualcomm, with the company building on its lead in the space when compared to Hisilicon Kirin 990 or Samsung Exynos 990. The emphasis has good timing with the launch of new mobile gaming platforms such as Google Stadia, Hatch and Microsoft xCloud collaborating with operators to drive 5G cloud gaming.

The Snapdragon 865 gaming headline specs is HDR10 support and 144Hz display refresh rates.  HDR10 (high dynamic range) is the ability for the display to accurately render colors, highlights and shadows with more life-like accuracy. 144Hz refresh rates allows for extremely smooth and accurate game play during high speed action. Both are key for mobile gaming and 144Hz is an industry first. The Samsung Exynos 990 at 120Hz is the next closest.

To improve the mobile gaming experience further, Qualcomm has its Snapdragon Elite Gaming. This is a combination of software and hardware features that boost the gaming experience. A few features include the Vulkan 1.1 graphics driver which improves gaming graphics and optimizes battery life. Online gaming is supported with 60GHz Wi-Fi reducing latency and clocking over 10Gbps. Game engine optimization for the top 10 games. Qualcomm is collaborating with top game-makers to optimize the game experience on Snapdragon premium platforms. There is also less stutter, anti-cheat extensions, and faster game loading. Qualcomm aptX adaptive audio synchronizes optimum audio quality with the situation on the screen. And, of course, cloud gaming over 5G is supported.

Many silicon platforms claim fast frame rates only to suffer degradation as the components heat up causing a throttling of performance. The Adreno 650 GPU is built for rich and smooth gaming experiences of over 30 minutes without FPS degrading. For sustained gaming of 30 minutes or more, the Snapdragon 865 has the least FPS degradation. Similar to PC gaming, smartphones will be able to receive updated GPU drivers. This means performance optimizations can be pushed out for new games as they launch.

Google is working with Qualcomm to optimize Android with updateable GPU drivers. Game studios will be able to create optimizations which can be built into their apps. Google and Qualcomm Technologies can take these optimizations and enhance the Adreno GPU software driver. Game developers will be able to suggest enhancements to the driver and Qualcomm Technologies will build them in. Gamers will be able to get the final drivers in the Google Play store like an app on a growing number of devices. This will improve GPU utilization which will help smooth graphics with higher frame rates and improve battery life.

The Snapdragon 865 supports Wi-Fi 6 and dual band simultaneous (DBS) which allows a smartphone to harness four unique and simultaneous Wi-Fi data streams across 2.4 and 5GHz bands. This will enhance online gaming experience as users will have improved speed and lower-latency performance.

5th Generation AI Story Improves Entire Platform

The Snapdragon 865 has an industry leading 15 TOPS (tera operations per second)—the spec that highlights the AI capabilities of the Snapdragon 865. The entire platform is improved with its AI prowess. For example, on-device real-time language translation can be performed. AI and dedicated cores help the imaging performance by improving noise reduction and better night vision.

New AI applications are being developed utilizing extreme low-power cameras and audio. Extreme low-power camera under 1mW enables facial recognition and all the applications which are being integrated into facial recognition. Low-power (under 1mA) voice or multi-word wakeups for cross ecosystem usage (Google, Alexa, others) are enabled. Users can also have ‘wake-ups’ to sounds such as crying or the sound of glass breaking.

The Hexagon 698 has improved deep learning bandwidth utilization with 50% lossless compression that frees bandwidth for other parts of the SoC, while also saving power due to fewer memory transfers. This model efficiency will open the door to new AI applications.

All of these features trump the rivals by a generation or two.

5G Solutions Quickly Trickling Down the Price-Tiers

Qualcomm leads when there are R&D hurdles to overcome as it is supported by billions of dollars, years of research, and an impressive intellectual property portfolio. The transition to 5G is one of these industry hurdles. Flagships using Qualcomm might be touted as a bit more expensive than flagships using rival solutions with a misnomer that the Snapdragon 865 would be costlier being a two-chip (SoC with a discrete 5G modem) unlike the Snapdragon 765/765G, Hisilicon Kirin 990, or Samsung Exynos 990. However, when OEMs consider the final pricing it’s still on par or even lower than the recent 4G LTE flagships. Further, the integration challenges with third-party RFFE and spending more time in the carrier labs make the Snapdragon 865 offering more attractive and rational.

The Samsung Galaxy S20 did see increased pricing over last year’s Galaxy S10, however, there were many hardware upgrades besides adding 5G. There was a larger, high-resolution Super AMOLED+ display, higher megapixel cameras, advanced memory configurations (DDR5, UFS3.0), and a larger battery. In fact, according to the Counterpoint BoM Cost Tracker service, the combined costs on imaging is more than the 5G semiconductor costs on the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra.

It is true, there is a large range in the costs of 5G devices. 5G smartphones in the market range from US$2500 (Huawei Mate Xs 5G) to US$280 Xiaomi Redmi K30 5G, which uses the Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G integrated SoC. Qualcomm is also the one driving the 5G technology swiftly across the price-tiers supporting global operators’ rollouts and subscriber targets. It is clear that 5G cost erosion is happening quickly as there are now many handset OEMs aggressively attempting to gain share during the transition to 5G. Counterpoint Research expects this to continue, estimating that 5G smartphone ASPs will fall from $664 in 2020 to $377 in 2024. As a result, Counterpoint Research estimates that 5G smartphone sales will be tracking faster than in the 4G era. In 2021, about one-in-three smartphones sold will support 5G. This gives first movers such as Qualcomm, with its complete system-level approach, a greater advantage during the 4G-5G transition.

 

Disclosure: In its capacity as an industry analysis and consulting firm, Counterpoint Research works with a wide range of technology manufacturers and service providers, some of whom may be mentioned in this article.