Every year in the run-up to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, companies across the mobile sector announce a slew of new products that they will eventually show off on the exhibition floor. Qualcomm is no exception, timing its product announcements (just like last year) to demonstrate how much of a 5G juggernaut the company truly is.
This year, Qualcomm has announced four new modems, the Snapdragon X75, X72, X35 and X32—with the X_2 digit always denoting a lesser model that the company barely mentions in most of its materials. The show's real stars were the Snapdragon X75 and X35, with the X75 playing a more prominent role. In fact, the X75 is arguably the premiere top-of-the-line modem, considering its laundry list of features and performance improvements. That said, I believe that both the X75 and the X35 are essential to talk about in the grand scheme of the industry and Qualcomm's 5G strategy.
For starters, both modems are built according to the 3GPP Release 17 standard, which means that they will be compatible with many of the new features coming to 5G in the next few years. Both of them will also support 5G NTN (non-terrestrial networks), which is the 3GPP standard for satellite communications over 5G. The Snapdragon X75 is Qualcomm's sixth-generation 5G modem, a lineage that started with the X50 back in 2018. The Snapdragon X35 is Qualcomm's first 5G RedCap (reduced capability) modem, which is a part of the 3GPP 5G standard designed to address IoT applications that can benefit from the many capabilities of 5G without the need for the higher speeds. While Qualcomm is targeting the best performance and power on the X75, the X35 is all about delivering adequate performance while reducing power. By introducing both products at roughly the same time, Qualcomm is demonstrating its leadership in the 5G modem space and how it plans to address the entire market.
The Snapdragon X75 represents the best-in-class 5G technology from Qualcomm and the most advanced modem in the world in virtually every way possible. This includes being “ready” for 3GPP Release 18, according to Qualcomm. The company refers to its modems as 'modem to RF' systems since they include transceivers, mmWave modules and an RF front end. The Snapdragon X75 brings 10CC carrier aggregation for mmWave and 5CC carrier aggregation for sub-7-gigahertz bands and uplink MIMO.
Qualcomm isn’t talking peak throughput numbers—yet. Previously in the Snapdragon X70, mmWave was limited to 8CC carrier aggregation and 4CC for the sub-7-gigihertz spectrum, so this will improve spectrum flexibility and potentially improve real-world download speeds. Additionally, the uplink MIMO will improve uplink performance, meaning that it will increase both upload performance and total coverage, given that uplink performance determines actual coverage. Qualcomm says that this will improve upload throughput by up to 50%, which is impressive considering that most of the performance improvements in cellular generally happen in the downlink.
Qualcomm has targeted the Snapdragon X75 for many applications, including smartphones, mobile broadband, automotive, satellite communications, industrial IoT, fixed wireless access and private network applications. That's also why Qualcomm is releasing the third generation of its FWA platform to take advantage of all the new capabilities that this new modem delivers. This is important for Qualcomm when you consider how dominant MediaTek has been in FWA; in fact, this could help Qualcomm stem the tide in FWA, which has recently started to slow as a growth vector for carriers in the U.S. but still represents a meaningful opportunity overall. To further improve the X75 and third-generation FWA platform in mmWave applications, Qualcomm has also released its new fifth-generation QTM565 mmWave antenna module to help further reduce costs, power consumption and board complexity. Qualcomm didn’t go into detail about this module, but based on what we’ve seen in the past, Qualcomm continues to shrink the size of these modules to make mmWave easier to deploy.
In addition to all the capabilities already mentioned, Qualcomm also claims to have increased the AI performance of the X75 by 2.5x over the previous generation, further embracing AI to improve performance and battery life. Qualcomm is calling this the “5G AI Suite Gen 2,” which builds on what we’ve seen in the Snapdragon X70 that currently ships inside all the Android flagship phones that use Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processors. In addition to the AI capabilities, Qualcomm has also decided to combine the sub-7-gigiherts and mmWave transceivers into a single transceiver, which it claims results in a 25% reduction in PCB area and up to 20% in power savings. Most of these savings make sense only when compared to a mmWave-capable device, which already limits the total application of this solution given that mmWave smartphones are still relatively limited on a global scale. That said, I believe that in the long term, mmWave will become a standard feature in smartphones as operators look for ways to address congested areas and alleviate capacity and bandwidth constraints.
Qualcomm says that the Snapdragon X75 is already sampling to some customers and will be available in commercial devices in the second half of 2023.
The Snapdragon X35 is squarely targeted toward non-smartphone markets. Qualcomm optimized this modem for power efficiency, lower cost and smaller form factors. This makes it the world's first modem for the 5G NR-Light standard—also known as RedCap—which allows it to take advantage of all the latency and power benefits of 5G but at a lower power level and a bandwidth that is capped at 220 Mbps download. The X35 also has a peak upload of 100 Mbps and is expected to use up to 20 megahertz of sub-7-gigahertz spectrum. It won't bring any mmWave support, something Qualcomm had not done for a modem since 2018 when it released its last LTE modem, the X24. The X35 will also support LTE Cat 4 for networks that have not yet transitioned to 5G or don’t have mature enough coverage, enabling an upgrade path. However, the X35 does require a new RF frontend, adding some development costs to any potential new designs.
The expectation is that the Snapdragon X35 will find its way into XR devices, connected cameras, laptops and premium wearables, which puts it in competition with existing LTE solutions. Qualcomm claims that the Snapdragon X35 delivers all of its features while needing only half the power of its LTE predecessors—yet also being faster. Qualcomm is promoting the X35 as a solution for migrating to 5G even if an OEM or operator doesn't plan to use 5G quite yet. Qualcomm also designed this modem for longevity by including support for 3GPP Release 17, which brings in features like satellite connectivity through NTN and could be beneficial for many IoT applications. Qualcomm did not confirm whether Snapdragon Satellite or any specific satellite services would be compatible with this modem, but I expect that the company will make more announcements soon to address that.
Qualcomm expects to start sampling the X35 in the first half of 2023, with commercial devices expected to launch in the first half of 2024. That makes sense considering that this platform is expected to ship in IoT and commercial applications, which traditionally move slower than the smartphone industry’s breakneck pace.
Our industry is full of industry firsts and plenty of leadership claims. But what Qualcomm has announced in the 5G modem arena in the last week between the Snapdragon X35 and X75 is nothing short of astounding. Qualcomm is without a doubt facing challenges from the likes of MediaTek and Apple, both of which are developing their own 5G modems. However, with the announcement of the X35 and X75 modems, Qualcomm has moved the goalposts even further out than I believe its competitors may have anticipated.
Considering how much of Qualcomm's valuation depends on its 5G leadership, it does make sense that the company would keep its foot on the pedal in 5G innovation, and these two modems appear to validate that strategy. It will be interesting to see how Qualcomm's competitors respond to these new modems—especially Apple, which has yet to ship its first generation 5G modem even as Qualcomm prepares to ship its sixth-generation 5G modems this year.