The new top-of-the-line Snapdragon chip, likely to be found in almost all of the flagship phones in 2020, has just been announced, and it looks like things may be getting a bit worse for Android in 2020.
All modern smartphones use a SoC (system on a chip) to handle the processing functions. Unlike traditional computers, the SoC is not a single processor but rather a collection of all the major computing components needed by the phone on a single, tiny, chip (hence the name).
The current Snapdragon processor, the Snapdragon 855 features many processing components on a single chip. The 855 SoC has a CPU, a GPU, a chip for special camera functionality, a “Hexagon” co-processor, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and an onboard cellular modem. Having everything located on a single chip comes with two advantages: power savings and a smaller SoC package, which can mean more room for other phone components (like more battery).
But wait, there’s less
However, it’s that last thing I mentioned – the onboard cellular modem – that is gone from Qualcomm’s 865 chip. This means that Android phones that use the 865 will need an additional chip outside of the SoC to handle cellular 5G or even 4G connectivity, with less battery life as a result.
Even stranger, while the Snapdragon 865 does not include an onboard modem, OEMs that use the Snapdragon 865 will be required to also use the Snapdragon X55 5G modem chip in the phone. This means that all flagship phones will have limited 5G connectivity (more on that in a bit) and will take a resulting hit in battery life. Since this means the OEM must buy 2 chips for every phone, these phones are also likely to be more expensive
The 5G Problem
There are more than a few strikes against Qualcomm’s 5G/modem decision for the Snapdragon 865.
It will likely reduce battery life, and increase device size and cost. It also won’t provide benefits to people that are outside of the very few 5G areas.
Maybe even more frustrating, it won’t provide much benefit to those who do get 5G service. At least for the next 12-24 months.
What 5G Is (Or Could Be)
Like 4G before it, 5G is a communication spec, but the term is also commonly twisted by carriers to confuse the public.
Early in 2019, for example, AT&T started calling its 4G networks “5Ge” or “5G Evolution”, without making any technical upgrades to its network. This makes it seem like AT&T has a wide 5G network, but of course, it doesn’t. Even if it did, most phones wouldn’t be able to take advantage of it.
But the Snapdragon 865 does include a 5G modem. However, 5G networks come in two flavors: mmWave (24-100 GHz) and low-band 5G (600-850 MHz).
The good 5G, with potential gigabit speed and sub-10 millisecond latency, is the mmWave 5G. But that has numerous problems, mainly with range and signal issues. The range is so short that it requires numerous towers to cover a square mile, and windows, walls, and even your hand can block the signal.
Low-band 5G, on the other hand, has performance very similar to good 4G connectivity.
The good news is that the Snapdragon 865/X55 chips support both types of 5G.
The bad news is that the vast majority of phone carriers and phone OEMs are only using the low-band 5G, and even that is very limited.
It will likely be a year or few before the mmWave 5G is practical, and in that time, Android phones using the Snapdragon 865 will likely be upgraded, and so the potential benefits from this 5G capability will be lost.
Buy Now, or Wait Until 2021
If you’re looking for a new Android phone now or in 2020, you’ll likely want to avoid anything with a Snapdragon 865. Stick to 4G devices for now – the networks aren’t ready for 5G, and your battery will be much happier!