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Qualcomm’s new X60 modems promise future 5G phones will be faster and more power efficient

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5nm process and carrier aggregation

We’re just starting to see the first phones with Qualcomm’s X55 5G modem (announced last year) hit the market now, with devices like the recently announced Galaxy S20 lineup, but the company isn’t standing still. Qualcomm has already announced its next 5G modem, the Snapdragon X60, which promises improvements to speed, battery life, and overall performance.

Admittedly, the changes here aren’t nearly as dramatic as the X50 (Qualcomm’s first 5G modem, which introduced the next-gen network) or the X55 (which helped expand 5G by adding better support for standalone 5G networks that weren’t based in LTE). Instead, the X60 is designed to combine and leverage existing 5G technologies in subtler ways.

Specifically, Qualcomm is highlighting the capability for sub-6GHz and mmWave aggregation — i.e., connecting to both sub-6GHz and mmWave at the same time for faster and more reliable speeds. There’s also sub-6GHz carrier aggregation (utilizing more chunks of spectrum at the same time), which promises to improve speeds for the slower version of 5G. The Snapdragon X60 also adds support for running voice calls over the 5G network, instead of using LTE or even older networking standards for cellular audio.

These aren’t really new technologies, per se — things like carrier aggregation have already been used for years to improve LTE speeds — but the addition of support for them with 5G could help lay the groundwork for those technologies going forward.

The other major change in the X60 is the shift from a 7nm process to a 5nm process, making the actual modem hardware itself smaller and more power efficient, meaning it’ll likely be easier for manufacturers to fit the modem into their phones. Qualcomm also announced a new QTM535 mmWave antenna to go with the new X60, which it says is smaller than the QTM525 (which is apparently large enough that Apple is having issues fitting the antennas in its upcoming 5G iPhone, according to a report).

That leaves the biggest unanswered question surrounding the X60 modem: whether Qualcomm will be packaging it into its next-gen mobile processor (call it the Snapdragon 875), or if the company will continue to offer it as a separate piece of hardware, as is currently the case with the Snapdragon 865 and the X55 modem.

At the going rate, it’s likely that we won’t see any phones with an X60 modem until the end of 2020 at the absolute earliest, but that’s okay, too. As Qualcomm points out in its own chart, many of the new features that the X60 can enable — like sub-6GHz and mmWave aggregation or sub-6GHz carrier aggregation — won’t be available until the end of 2020 at the earliest.

Image: Qualcomm

Qualcomm is one of the most important players when it comes to 5G, as the suppliers of the modems that will be used by nearly every major smartphone — Android and iPhone alike — to connect to the next-gen network. So even if it’ll be months before the processors actually ship and years before carriers have the infrastructure to take advantage of it, the ubiquity of Qualcomm’s hardware means that the features it’s adding here aren’t just to pad out a spec list. They’re an early glimpse at what the future of cellular connectivity could look like.