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Latest Qualcomm Wins Again Raise LTE Stakes

by Chris Taylor | Jun 24, 2014

Qualcomm's latest LTE chipsets have arrived in two new flagship phones, the Samsung Galaxy S5 Broadband LTE-A and the Amazon Fire Phone.

The Samsung Galaxy S5 Broadband LTE-A uses Qualcomm's Snapdragon 805 applications processor paired with a Gobi MDM9235 modem to support LTE-A Cat. 6 data rates and 4k video content.  Just to clarify, the phone can handle 4k video content but actually includes a 2.5 k display, 2560 x 1440 pixels.  Operator SKT will offer the phone to consumers this month (June, 2014) in South Korea, followed later by KT.  This is at least five to six months earlier than most analysts, including ourselves, had anticipated the Snapdragon 805 in shipping phones.  Intel seems to be the only other chipset supplier shipping a multimode modem for LTE-A Cat. 6, but theirs, the XMM 7260 platform, has not yet appeared in any production devices to the best of our knowledge as of the date of this blog. 

LTE-A Cat. 6 supports downlink data rates up to 301.5 Mbps and 50 Mbps uplink, but SKT has only enough spectrum available to support 225 Mbps for now.  The 300 Mbps DL rate requires aggregation of two carriers to get 40 MHz of carrier bandwidth, for example by combining two 20 MHz carriers.  The modem normally ships with the new WTR3925 TR transceiver, which includes integrated GNSS receiver.   This is the first production cellular transceiver fabricated in 28 nm CMOS, and Qualcomm claims this is the first to support 20 MHz + 20 MHz (2x) DL carrier aggregation in one transceiver chip instead of two.  The transceiver is an advance on Qualcomm's WTR1625L and WFR1620 transceiver and receiver fabricated in 65 nm RF CMOS.

TSMC fabricates the MDM9x35 family basebands in 20 nm CMOS, making the MDM9235 in this phone Qualcomm's first baseband at the 20 nm process node.  Qualcomm announced the MDM9x35 in November 2013.  Qualcomm will integrate the MDM9x35 core into its Snapdragon processors in the next iteration of new chips (see below).  The company says that it now releases a new modem (a new baseband if not a new transceiver) about every 12 months, and a new applications processor about every 6 months.

The Snapdragon 805 applications processor, fabricated in 28 nm CMOS, includes baseband processing for GNSS, 802.11n/ac Wi-Fi with MU-MIMO, Bluetooth 4.1, FM radio and USB.  The processor uses four Krait 450 CPU cores running at 2.7 GHz clock rate, an Adreno 420 GPU and Hexagon V50 DSP.  The Snapdragon 805 also incorporates a dual ISP (image processor), which Qualcomm says supports a "full camera experience" using H.265 for 4 k video, and "a very robust 2k video experience."  Together with the MDM9x35, Qualcomm claims that the solution supports leading-edge features for "iconic" and "hero" smartphone rollouts to help OEMs maintain position through the 2014 / 2015 holiday season.  Expect more design wins soon.

The other Qualcomm win of interest is the Amazon Fire Phone, which uses the Snapdragon 800 baseband-apps processor and three pieces of Qualcomm's RF360 front-end platform: Qualcomm's CMOS multimode-multiband PA, an envelope tracking PA modulator, and an antenna tuner.  The phone does not use the "RF PoP (package on package)" PA with on-board duplexers that Qualcomm has described to much fanfare, however, Qualcomm has stated that carrier aggregation is driving OEMs to try many different front-end partitioning schemes, and the RF PoP PA should appear in phones within nine months.  The Snapdragon 800 is used in many popular smartphone models including the LG Nexus 5, LG G2, and Samsung Galaxy Note III.

In 2015 Qualcomm plans to ship the Snapdragon 810 (MSM8994) and Snapdragon 808 (MSM8992).  Both will use internal 64-bit architectures and integrate the 9x35 core, and both will support 3x downlink carrier aggregation, allowing aggregation of 10 MHz + 10 MHz + 20 MHz carriers.  Most wireless operators do not have enough available spectrum to aggregate two 20 MHz carriers in one or two LTE bands, and have to use three bands to get to Cat. 6/7 data rates.  To support 3x CA, Qualcomm plans to ship the Snapdragon 808 and 810 with a second transceiver, the WTR3905, which can support an additional 20 MHz DL carrier on top of the two DL carriers supported by the WTR3925.

These two production phones raise the stakes in LTE chips and advance Qualcomm's position even as it has begun to suffer some share erosion to LTE chip competitors.  On top of this, more compelling phones are on the way with advanced capabilities through 2015 enabled by Qualcomm. 

In light of this and new LTE chips coming from Intel and from China, it seems that Broadcom's decision to stop offering cellular chips was the right call.

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