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CMOS at 4 nm Enables Qualcomm’s Fastest 5G Modem-RF Solution

by Chris Taylor | 2月 11, 2021

Just eight days after MediaTek announced its first millimeter-wave capable 5G modem, Qualcomm has again upped the ante with the X65, the fastest wireless modem to date.  The MediaTek M80 modem supports peak downlink speeds of 7.67 Gbps; the Qualcomm Snapdragon X65 edges out MediaTek with a whopping 10 Gbps.

Qualcomm’s fourth-generation X65 modem for 5G follows the earlier Qualcomm Snapdragon X50, X55, and X60.  The core of the X65 modem, a communications (baseband) processor, can handle the enormous bit rates needed for 5G in an increasingly video-centric world.  The X65 does not include a host / applications processor to manage the user interface or an operating system, so future smartphones would have to pair it with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 or perhaps a future Bionic processor from Apple.
Qualcomm X65 Modem-RF

In addition to handling the communications processing, Qualcomm will offer the complete “Qualcomm Snapdragon X65 Modem-RF system.”  The system includes antenna tuners, power amplifiers, RF filters, switches, envelope trackers, sub-6 transceiver and millimeter wave (mmW) modules from Qualcomm.   The X65 modem-RF system, plus an apps processor such as the Snapdragon 865, make up an entire cellular radio, the heart of a modern 5G phone.  As a system, the X65 Modem-RF solution supports up to eight antennas in the sub-6, and up to eight carrier components in the mmW, plus the ability to receive data split across the sub-6 GHz and mmW bands at the same time.

OEMs will have the option to purchase additional Wi-Fi / Bluetooth, charging, and other chips from Qualcomm to accompany the X65 radio and apps processor.

As part of the X65 Modem-RF system, Qualcomm also announced:

  • The QET7100, a smaller, more efficient power amp envelope tracker to optimize battery life and free up battery energy for longer cellular range and higher data rates.This is Qualcomm’s seventh-generation envelope tracker.
  • Qualcomm “AI-Enhanced Signal Boost” antenna tuning.This intelligently detects user interaction and hand grips to fine-tune the antennas, improving receive sensitivity and the efficiency of transmitted signals.
  • The QTM545, Qualcomm’s fourth-generation mmW module.This module improves coverage across all 3GPP-approved mmW bands including bands at 41 GHz.
  • The QTM547, Qualcomm’s latest extended range, high-power mmW module for fixed wireless access, customer premises equipment (FWA CPE), has flexible operating power to comply with regional mmW regulations around the world. Judging from the photograph below, the module has more than the four elements (or eight counting two polarizations) used in Qualcomm’s earliest mmW antenna arrays.

mmW Module

Qualcomm QTM547 extended-range mmW module (courtesy of Qualcomm).

In the sub-6, the X65 modem can handle 300 MHz of aggregate bandwidth, up from 200 MHz in the X60.  In the mmW, Qualcomm has increased the bandwidth to 1000 MHz using 10 component carriers of 100 MHz, up from 800 MHz and eight carriers.  In the mmW, the X65 supports up to 2 x 2 MIMO, although it isn’t clear whether this is limited to simple diversity or involves higher-order MIMO modes that take full advantage of spatial diversity. 

Qualcomm also announced the X62, an RF-modem solution that targets devices at lower price tiers than flagship devices.  The X62 has peak downlink speeds of 4.4 Gbps, putting it below MediaTek’s M80 in peak speed.

Just as MediaTek will integrate the M80 modem for 5G into its Dimensity processor SoCs, Qualcomm will integrate the X65 and X62 into its applications processors as well.  The Snapdragon 888, announced in December 2020, incorporates Qualcomm’s X60 modem on the same die.  The next flagship SoC processor for smartphones from Qualcomm (the 899?) will probably incorporate the X65 on chip.

It appears that Samsung fabricates the X65 baseband processor for Qualcomm using its 4LPE, 4 nm CMOS FinFET process.  Basic physics, escalating R&D, chip design and manufacturing costs have had a slowing effect on Moore’s Law from a doubling of transistor density every 18 months to a doubling every 30 months or longer, with successive chip shrinks now going from full nodes to half nodes.  Even with advances such as EUV lithography and GAA (gate all around) transistors, it is not clear how much longer density and power consumption can improve until the industry reaches fundamental physical limitations somewhere below 1 nm.

It will be interesting to see which competitors successfully negotiate a future that will require more reliance on creative circuit design, software, artificial intelligence and machine learning for new features and higher performance mobile processors and chipsets. 

In the interim, smartphones, FWA CPE, laptops, mobile routers and other 5G broadband wireless devices using the X65 and X62 should ship by late 2021.

For more information on 5G processors and market share, subscribers can read our latest baseband market share report here.

 

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