5G phones are quickly coming down in price, but maybe not in the US. Today Qualcomm introduced the Snapdragon 690 chipset, its first 5G chipset in its midrange 6-series, designed for phones under $500.
The Snapdragon 690 supports 5G, 120Hz screens, Wi-Fi 6, and 4K HDR video capture. It will appear in phones from HMD (Nokia), Motorola, LG, Sharp, TCL, and Wingtech, among others, Qualcomm says.
“This pandemic has really highlighted the importance of connectivity,” says Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon. “We want connectivity to be upgraded to 5G everywhere and we want to make it affordable to everyone.”
By “everyone,” I’ll note, he’s focusing on everyone globally—not everyone in the US. 5G phones in the US have remained stubbornly more expensive than 5G phones in Asia, where 5G devices now cost under $500.
The Snapdragon 690’s 5G is of the sub-6GHz variety, which in the US is dominated by one carrier—T-Mobile. While Verizon and AT&T will both have some sub-6GHz 5G by the end of the year, they don’t have enough dedicated 5G spectrum in those bands to deliver speeds much faster than 4G. Instead, they’re reusing old 4G channels or sharing 4G spectrum with 5G.
To a great extent, that’s down to the FCC, which neglected to offer up sub-6 5G spectrum and instead preferred to auction the more difficult-to-use millimeter-wave. We will have a major sub-6 auction this December, and advocates such as 5G Americas are pushing to free up even more.
More Than Just 5G
5G isn’t the only feature in the new chipset.
Qualcomm is using eight ARM A77-based Kryo 560 cores to boost CPU performance 20 percent above the previous Snapdragon 675, and the Adreno 619L GPU renders graphics 60 percent faster, the company says.
The Snapdragon 690 follows the 675, the chip which powered the Moto Z4.
The chipset supports 1080p screens at 120Hz, and quad-HD screens at 60Hz, both with HDR10 and HDR10+ colors.
There are also a ton of camera improvements. The chipset supports 192-megapixel snapshots; 4K HDR video capture; AI-enhanced smooth zooming; and AI-enhanced filter smoothing for apps like Snapchat and TikTok. Interestingly, Qualcomm didn’t say anything about advanced night modes, but the hardware is there for it.This is all stuff that was previously only on higher-end chipsets, Qualcomm says.
5G Gets Limited
The Snapdragon 690’s X51 modem is the third in a family based on the X55, the modem in the Samsung Galaxy S20 and the OnePlus 8 series.
The X55 supports 800MHz of millimeter-wave 5G and 200MHz of sub-6Ghz 5G. The next step down, the X52, supports 400MHz of millimeter-wave and 100MHz of sub-6GHz. This modem, the X51, supports only 100MHz of sub-6GHz. That’s fine for now, though, because most global carriers at the moment only have 100MHz or less allocated to each of them. Like the other X55-series modems, the X51 supports standalone and non-standalone, FDD, and TDD modes.
Larger sub-6GHz bandwidths will become possible when phones can combine disparate lanes of 5G spectrum, a feature coming next year with the next generation of modems, the X60.
Qualcomm’s Kedar Kondap says the X60 series will likely “end up with the same thing” as the X55 series, with several variants that have different levels of performance at different price points.
Even Qualcomm Can’t Pay the mmWave Tax
The Snapdragon 690 lacks support for millimeter-wave, the short-range, high-speed 5G technology the FCC bets would make the US a 5G leader. Verizon, especially, has built its entire 5G network so far on millimeter-wave. AT&T and T-Mobile also have some millimeter-wave in their networks.
Millimeter-wave appears to add about $100 to the price of a phone, as it has with the OnePlus 8, which comes in $799 mmWave and $699 non-mmWave options. Or, manufacturers can cut other corners to include the expensive component; Verizon’s Galaxy S20 cut out RAM and its microSD card slot to sell at the same price as its non-mmWave cousin.
“There is absolutely no doubt in our commitment to millimeter wave,” Kondap says. “It’s all a function of timing … we are committed to supporting a broad scale of 5G along with millimeter-wave.”
He didn’t give details on how or when millimeter-wave would make it into the mid-tier, though, instead talking about how some millimeter-wave launches based on the Snapdragon 765 chipset are imminent. The phone he was talking about there may be Verizon’s Samsung A71 5G and Google’s Pixel 5, which are rumored to sell at $599 and $699—not exactly the sub-$500 prices we expect from Snapdragon 600-series phones.
Snapdragon 690-based phones should start to appear later this year, although maybe not in the US.