We’re all expecting to see the first commercial 5G phones this year running on the Qualcomm X50 millimeter wave modem. That was Qualcomm’s latest and greatest until now — behold the X55 5G modem. It’s faster and more capable than the X50, but you won’t see it in any phones until 2020. That’s a bit of a bummer for all these first-gen 5G phones, which will suffer from numerous disadvantages at launch.
Qualcomm says the X55 will support data speeds as high as 7Gbps. Great, you’ll never see speeds that high on a real carrier network, but bigger numbers are better. The real advantage of the X55 is that it integrates LTE and 5G on a single chip with support for many more frequencies.
Currently, building a 5G phone requires two modems. There’s an LTE modem integrated with the Snapdragon system-on-a-chip (SoC) like the 855, and then a separate 5G modem linked via an interconnect with the SoC. The second modem makes the device bulkier and less power efficient, but there will be no way around that for the first-gen 5G phones.
In addition to handling both LTE and 5G, the X55 expands the frequency range for 5G. The first few 5G networks will run on very high frequencies in the tens of gigahertz, known as millimeter wave. However, some carriers like T-Mobile also intend to roll out 5G on lower sub-6GHz bands. Those bands don’t have as much bandwidth, but they propagate through obstacles better. The X50 doesn’t support those frequencies, but the X55 will. This modem will also hit a few more millimeter wave bands that European carriers intend to use.
As part of this announcement, Qualcomm also revealed a new antenna design. The QTM525 is slimmer than existing antennas, which should allow for 5G phones as thin as 8mm. Because millimeter wave signals won’t pass through your hands, 5G phones will need several of these modules positioned around the periphery. It’s up to the modem to switch between them to get the best signal.
The X55 modem will most likely arrive integrated with Qualcomm’s next-generation Snapdragon SoC in 2020. So, we’re at least a year away from seeing consumer-ready phones. Why even launch the X50 at all? Because the carriers really want to sell exclusive 5G phones as soon as their networks are capable. Establishing dominance in this emerging mobile ecosystem will pay off when 5G phones are actually good.
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