Qualcomm’s flagship chipset is now official in its full glory, but even before Qualcomm talked about what’s hot and happening, it revealed one surprising shortcoming of the new Snapdragon 865 – It does not have an integrated 5G modem. 

To have the 5G modem on the same die reduces complexity in design and results in better efficiency. Huawei’s Kirin 990 5G was the first chipset to brandish an integrated modem, and the Exynos 980 that OEMs like Vivo and Oppo have also sourced from Samsung for their mid-range phones also has one. In fact, Qualcomm’s own mid-tier Snapdragon 765 and 765G aren’t missing out either. 

So, why does Qualcomm Snapdragon 865, the cutting edge chipset that we will see on most 2020 flagships and flagship-killers, is missing an integrated modem?

Check: What is LPDDR5 RAM? How is it better than LPDDR4 or LPDDR4x?

The rationale behind using a discrete modem: To reduce time-to-market 

Qualcomm answered the question at the Snapdragon 865 announcement. 

Qualcomm clarified that as it has the technical ability to integrate 5G modem on the same chip, but decided to keep the modem separate this generation in order to make things simpler for device manufacturers. 

Unlike 4G, the 5G platform is more complicated and many smartphone makers will be implementing 5G for the first time. This means that vendors will have to invest time and effort in getting their 5G right. The extra time required for development could delay the advent of Snapdragon 865 phones from many OEMs. 

Qualcomm’s X55 modem was released a few months in advance and is already being tested by OEMs. Using the same X55 modem on the Snapdragon 865 will result is simpler integration on the Snapdragon 865. 

As AnandTech points out, this makes a lot of sense from a practical standpoint. 

Yes, an integrated modem is always better but Qualcomm still promises power-efficiency gains over the last generation. Even Samsung has a separate modem on its flagship Exynos 990 and Apple has always used discrete modems on its iPhone chipsets. 

Manufacturers could always replace X55 with another modem, but Qualcomm will sell X55 and SD865 as a bundle, so that’s not going to happen.

Another advantage of using a discrete modem is better performance. The X55 has full 5G support (sub-6GHz, mmWave, NSA and SA) and offers better download speeds compared to X52 that is integrated on Snapdragon 765 (6Gbps vs 3.7Gbps). Having said that, these speed gains don’t mean much considering the 5G infrastructure today. 

Next year, Qualcomm will shift to an integrated modem.

Check: Dual-mode 5G is not the same as Dual SIM 5G

Snapdragon 865 highlights 

We have covered the details pertinent to Snapdragon 865 in a separate detailed article, but here’s a quick summary.

The good:

  • Snapdragon 865 promises 25% CPU performance improvement, 25% improvement in power efficiency, and 25% improvement in graphics performance.
  • AI processing also gets a significant bump. 
  • The SD 865 also has support for LPDDR5 RAM which will make it to flagship phones next year.
  • The new chipset will support Dolby Vision, HGL format, and up to 144Hz display refresh rate.
  • SD 865 shows remarkable improvement in camera capabilities. There’s now support for up to 200MP sensors and 8K@30fps
  • Slow-motion recording gets better. The chip supports unlimited 720p@960fps slow-motion recording. 
  • According to AndroidPolice, SD865 supports Google’s Project Mainline, which means driver updates will hit the device via Play Store instead of Over-the-Air.

The not so good: 

  • Qualcomm isn’t customizing ARM’s CPU architecture and is using regular Cortex-A77 and Cortex-A55 design. 
  • Qualcomm is using TSMC’s 7nm ‘N7P’ process to manufacture Snapdragon 855, which isn’t as cutting edge as the new EUV process (7+) that’s used on Kirin 990 5G and Exynos 990.
  • And of course, the use of a discrete modem. 

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