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Chipmakers agree that as 5G rollouts increase, millimeter-wave (mmWave) is becoming more important, making it a requirement for 5G modems to provide support for both sub-6-GHz and mmWave networks. Power savings is also a big priority in these 5G chips, with many of the chipmakers incorporating proprietary power-saving techniques and technologies. Also important is packing new features and functionality into their chips in the same footprint as previous-generation devices.
In the world of 5G chipsets and processors, particularly for mobile devices, support for artificial intelligence and advanced multimedia features and power savings are now big must-haves. Along with improved processing and graphics performance, these chips also incorporate advanced image signal processors (ISPs) that deliver multi-camera functionality.
Here are 10 of the hottest 5G chips, including modems, modules, and processors, introduced over the past three quarters.
Modems and modules
Qualcomm Technologies Inc. has continued to extend its 5G portfolio throughout the year, including its modem-RF systems. In February, Qualcomm introduced the Snapdragon X65 5G Modem-RF System, its fourth-generation 5G modem-to-antenna solution. Claimed as the industry’s first 10-Gb 5G and the first 3GPP Release 16 modem-RF system, Qualcomm called it “the company’s biggest leap in 5G solutions since the commercialization of its first modem-RF system.” The software-upgradeable architecture allows for future-proofing and fast rollout of new features and expansion of 5G in mobile broadband, compute, extended reality, industrial IoT, 5G private networks, and fixed wireless access.
In addition to the upgradeable architecture, the Snapdragon X65 is packed with lots of features, including AI antenna tuning technology, power-tracking technology, and spectrum aggregation across all key 5G bands and combinations including mmWave and sub-6 GHz, using frequency division duplex (FDD) and time division duplex (TDD). It also includes Qualcomm’s 5G PowerSave 2.0, Smart Transmit 2.0 that increases upload data speeds and enhances coverage for both mmWave and sub-6 GHz, and Qualcomm’s QTM545 fourth-generation mmWave antenna module to support higher transmit power compared with the previous generations as well as support for global mmWave frequencies, all in the same footprint.
Qualcomm followed up this launch with new upgraded features and capabilities in May 2021. One new feature is extended mmWave capabilities for global expansion, with support for wider 200-MHz carrier bandwidth in the mmWave spectrum and mmWave support in standalone (SA) mode. The Snapdragon X65 supports spectrum aggregation of up to 1 GHz of mmWave spectrum and 300 MHz of sub-6-GHz spectrum across FDD and TDD.
The upgrade also delivers improved power efficiency with support for all-day battery life while enabling better performance thanks to new power-saving technologies within Qualcomm 5G PowerSave 2.0. Featuring Release 16 UE-Assisted Information (UAI), a power-efficiency–enhancing technique, the device and base station can exchange critical information to dynamically manage various connection parameters to optimize network resources for the particular ongoing application or context.
Also in May, Qualcomm announced a purpose-built 5G modem optimized for industrial IoT (IIoT), targeting the transition from LTE to 5G. The Qualcomm 315 5G IoT Modem-RF System is a modem-to-antenna solution designed to support upgradeable LTE and 5G devices for IoT verticals, including retail, energy, automation and manufacturing, precision agricultural, construction, mining, and public venues.
The 5G modem features a highly integrated RF front end, supports global 5G NR sub-6-GHz bands, and operates in SA-only mode, with the capability to switch to LTE as needed. The solution can be deployed over private or public 5G networks, leveraging network slicing or in isolation. It also provides pin-to-pin compatibility for current LTE legacy modules, providing the ability to upgrade solutions from LTE to 5G with no changes to hardware.
MediaTek Inc. also introduced a 5G modem that supports both mmWave and sub-6-GHz 5G networks. The single-chip M80 supports ultra-fast speeds on both non-standalone (NSA) and SA architectures, with a peak rate of 7.67 Gbits/s in the downlink and 3.76 Gbits/s in the uplink. The M80 also supports dual 5G SIM, dual 5G NSA and SA networks, and dual Voice over New Radio (VoNR) for more reliable connectivity.
The M80 integrates MediaTek’s 5G UltraSave technologies to provide another layer of power-saving enhancements. It also includes MediaTek’s UltraSave Network Environment Detection and UltraSave OTA Content Awareness technologies that dynamically adjust power configuration and operating frequency based on the network environment.
Other features include MediaTek’s Dynamic Bandwidth Part (BWP) technology, which is designed to optimize bandwidth use to accommodate light or heavy data throughput requests, and the Connected Mode DRX (C-DRX) technology that enables the modem to remain powered in connected standby, even when there is no data activity. The 5G modem is suited for a range of devices, including smartphones, PCs, Mi-Fi hotspots, broadband customer premise equipment, and IIoT applications.
NXP Semiconductors N.V. released its second generation of Airfast RF power multi-chip modules (MCMs) that support 5G massive MIMO (mMIMO) active antenna system requirements for cellular base stations. The all-in-one power amplifier module family, which addresses the 5G C-band from 3.7 to 4.0 GHz with 37- to 39-dBm average output power, is based on NXP’s latest LDMOS technology that offers higher output power, extended frequency coverage, and higher efficiency in the same footprint as the previous generation of MCMs.
The new AFSC5G26E38 Airfast module is said to deliver 20% more output power compared with the previous generation, addressing the need for broader 5G coverage per base station tower without increasing the radio unit size, said NXP. It also offers increased efficiency of up to 45%, which is four points higher than the previous generation, for an overall reduction in the 5G network electricity consumption.
NXP’s second-generation RF power MCMs also deliver on higher integration, including LDMOS ICs, paired with an integrated Doherty splitter and combiner and a 50-Ω in/out matching. “This high level of integration removes RF complexities and eliminates multiple prototype passes, while the reduction of component count helps improve yields and decrease qualification cycle time,” said the company. In addition, both generations of products share the same pin-out to enable RF designers to scale from one design to the next.
NXP recently announced that it will be adding gallium nitride (GaN) technology to its MCM platform for 5G infrastructure, which is expected to increase efficiency by eight percentage points. The company said it is the first to announce RF solutions for 5G mMIMO that combine the high efficiency of GaN with MCMs.
The use of GaN in multi-chip modules increases lineup efficiency to 52% at 2.6 GHz, translating to eight percentage points higher than the company’s previous module generation. The company also further improved performance with a proprietary combination of LDMOS and GaN in a single device, delivering 400 MHz of instantaneous bandwidth that makes it possible to design wideband radios with a single power amplifier.
As noted earlier, the modules integrate a multi-stage transmit chain, 50-Ω in/out matching networks, and a Doherty combiner and now has added bias control using its latest SiGe technology. “This new step in integration removes the need for a separate analog control IC and provides tighter monitoring and optimization of power amplifier performance,” said NXP.
Xilinx Inc. launched the Zynq RFSoC digital front end (DFE), called a breakthrough class of adaptive radio platforms, to meet the evolving standards of 5G NR wireless applications. The device combines hardened DFE blocks and adaptable logic, targeting performance, power, and cost for 5G NR radio solutions in a variety of use cases ranging across 5G low-, mid-, and high-band spectrum.
The company said the Zynq RFSoC DFE “offers the best balance of technologies between the cost economies of an ASIC using hardened blocks and the flexibility, scalability, and time-to-market benefits of a programmable and adaptive SoC.”
Touted as the industry’s only single-chip 5G NR radio platform, the Zynq RFSoC DFE, along with integrating hardened DFE application-specific blocks for 5G NR performance, offers power savings and the flexibility to integrate programmable adaptive logic to deliver a futureproof solution for evolving 5G 3GPP and OpenRAN (O-RAN) radio architectures. In addition, the Zynq RFSoC DFE allows customers to bypass or customize the hard IP blocks.
The Zynq RFSoC DFE offers 2× performance per watt compared with its prior generation and scales from small cell to mMIMO macrocells. The solution is the industry’s only direct RF platform that enables carrier aggregation/sharing, multi-mode, multi-band 400-MHz instantaneous bandwidth in all FR1 bands, as well as emerging bands up to 7.125 GHz, said Xilinx.
When used as a mmWave intermediate frequency transceiver, it provides up to 1,600 MHz of instantaneous bandwidth. It also provides up to 8T8R with integrated feedback ADCs for a single-chip FDD radio solution.
5G Chipsets and processors
At the beginning of the year, MediaTek introduced its Dimensity 1200 and Dimensity 1100 5G smartphone chipsets packed with advanced AI, 200-MP camera support, and multimedia features, giving designers more options for their 5G smartphone designs.
The Dimensity 1200 and 1100 chipsets include a highly integrated 5G modem with MediaTek’s 5G UltraSave technology for power savings. Both chipsets support every connectivity generation from 2G to 5G, in addition to supporting the latest connectivity features, including 5G standalone and non-standalone architectures, 5G carrier aggregation (2CC) across FDD and TDD, dynamic spectrum sharing, true dual-SIM 5G (5G SA + 5G SA), and VoNR. The chipsets also integrate 5G HSR Mode and 5G Elevator Mode enhancements for seamless 5G connections across networks.
The Dimensity 1200 flagship 5G SoC has an octa-core CPU designed with an ultra-core Arm Cortex-A78 clocked up to 3 GHz, three Arm Cortex-A78 super cores, and four Arm Cortex-A55 efficiency cores. With a nine-core GPU and six-core MediaTek APU 3.0, the Dimensity 1200 delivers a new level of premium performance, said the company.
In addition, the Dimensity 1200 supports 200-MP photos with its five-core high-dynamic–range (HDR) ISP. It provides staggered 4K HDR video capture for significantly greater dynamic range. The chipset integrates an updated version of MediaTek’s hexa-core AI processor (MediaTek APU 3.0), which has an enhanced multi-task scheduler that reduces latency and improves power efficiency.
The Dimensity 1100 is designed with an octa-core CPU, which includes four Arm Cortex-A78 cores operating at up to 2.6 GHz and four Arm Cortex-A55 efficiency cores, along with a nine-core Arm Mali-G77 GPU. It offers 108-MP camera support and integrates MediaTek’s existing APU 3.0 for high-performance computing.
Both chipsets support AI camera features including AI-Panorama Night Shot, AI Multi-Person Bokeh, AI noise reduction (AINR), and HDR capabilities. The chipsets also support new AI-enhanced video playback features including AI standard dynamic range (SDR)-to-HDR. They are manufactured on TSMC’s advanced 6-nm process technology.
In addition, the Dimensity 1200 supports ultra-fast 168-Hz refresh rates while the Dimensity 1100 supports 144-Hz refresh rates for ultra-sharp, zero-lag visuals. Both chipsets support MediaTek’s HyperEngine 3.0 gaming technologies, which include 5G call and data concurrency for more reliable connectivity, plus multi-touch boost touchscreen responsiveness. The new chipsets also support ray tracing in mobile games and artificial reality applications for more realistic visuals, along with super-hotspot power savings for longer battery life between charges.
Other features include support for Bluetooth 5.2, ultra-low latency true wireless stereo audio, and LC3 encoding for higher quality, lower latency streaming audio, which also helps extend the battery life of wireless earbuds.
For high-tier smartphones, MediaTek also launched the Dimensity 900 5G chipset this year. Like the Dimensity 1200 and 1100 chipsets, the Dimensity 900 chipset, is built on the 6-nm high-performance manufacturing node. It supports Wi-Fi 6 connectivity, ultra-fast FHD+ 120-Hz displays, and a 108-MP main camera.
The Dimensity 900 chipset is integrated with a 5G NR sub-6 GHz modem with carrier aggregation and support for bandwidth up to 120 MHz. The 5G chipset integrates an octa-core CPU consisting of two Arm Cortex-A78 processors with a clock speed of up to 2.4 GHz and six Arm Cortex-A55 cores operating at up to 2 GHz. It also supports flagship LPDDR5 memory and UFS 3.1 storage.
The chipset also integrates an Arm Mali-G68 MC4 graphics processing unit (GPU), along with an independent AI processing unit (APU), offering power efficiency for extended battery life. The 3rd generation of MediaTek’s AI processing unit is extremely power-efficient to support a wide variety of AI applications and 4K HDR, said MediaTek.
Technologies integrated into the chipset include MediaTek’s Imagiq 5.0 with an HDR-native ISP and unique hardware-accelerated 4K HDR video recording engine, supporting up to four concurrent cameras and up to 108-MP sensors. It also includes MediaTek’s MiraVision, upgrading video capabilities from SDR to HDR with real-time enhancements of HDR10+ video playback to improve color and contrast of content. It also includes AI camera enhancements with ultra-efficient INT8, INT16, and accurate FP16 capabilities and MediaTek’s HyperEngine gaming engine.
Other features include advanced connectivity with dual-SIM 5G standby function, 5G SA/NSA networking, and dual-SIM VoNR voice services as well as support for 2 × 2 MIMO Wi-Fi 6 connection, Bluetooth 5.2, and GNSS.
At the Snapdragon Tech Summit Digital 2020 last December, Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. introduced its latest flagship Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 5G Mobile Platform, with advanced 5G, AI, gaming, and camera technologies. Manufactured using the advanced 5-nm process technology, it features the Qualcomm Kryo 680 CPU that provides up to a 25% increase in overall CPU performance and allows top frequencies of up to 2.84 GHz and the Qualcomm Adreno 660 GPU with up to 35% faster graphics rendering compared to the previous generation.
It is also the first commercial CPU subsystem to be based on the Arm Cortex-X1, said Qualcomm.
A key feature of the mobile platform is the integrated 3rd generation Snapdragon X60 5G Modem-RF System. It enables support for 5G sub-6 carrier aggregation and mmWave to deliver 5G speeds up to 7.5 Gbits/s. It also supports Dynamic Spectrum Sharing technology and Global 5G multi-SIM.
The platform also includes the Qualcomm FastConnect 6900 Mobile Connectivity System, supporting the fastest Wi-Fi 6 speeds (up to 3.6 Gbits/s), as well as new 6 GHz capacity with Wi-Fi 6E. It also supports Bluetooth 5.2, dual Bluetooth antennas, Qualcomm aptX suite, broadcast audio, and advanced modulation & coding optimizations.
Qualcomm said the Snapdragon 888 takes the biggest architectural leap forward in AI with a completely re-designed 6th generation Qualcomm AI Engine with the new Qualcomm Hexagon 780 processor. It offers up to three times performance-per-watt improvement over the prior generation—at 26 TOPS. Another enhancement is the 2nd generation Qualcomm Sensing Hub, which integrates a dedicated low-power AI processor for use cases like screen awake, lift and activity detection, and audio event detection. This is achieved by using contextual awareness and combining new data streams like 5G, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, said Qualcomm.
The camera features the new Qualcomm Spectra 580 ISP, and this platform is the first Snapdragon with a triple ISP, capable of capturing from three cameras simultaneously at processing speeds up to 2.7 gigapixels per second. It also delivers 120 fps burst snapshots for capturing ultra-fast high-resolution action shots, or captures three 4K HDR videos at the same time.
The Qualcomm Spectra 580 ISP also debuts a new low light architecture. Other features include photo capture in 10-bit color depth in the HEIF format, enabling over a billion shades of color.
For gaming, the Snapdragon 888 features the full Qualcomm Snapdragon Elite Gaming technologies. It delivers variable rate shading (VRS) for the first time to mobile devices, said Qualcomm. VRS improves game rendering by up to 30%, while also improving power, compared with the previous generation.
The Snapdragon also includes many security measures for keeping on-device user data private including Qualcomm Secure Processing Unit, Qualcomm Trusted Execution Environment, and support for Qualcomm Wireless Edge Services. It also features a new Type-1 Hypervisor, which provides a new way to secure and isolate data between apps and multiple operating systems on the same device, said Qualcomm.
In June, Qualcomm announced an upgrade in processing and AI performance with the launch of the Snapdragon 888 Plus 5G mobile platform as a follow-on to the Snapdragon 888. Compared to its predecessor, the Snapdragon 888 Plus offers an increased Qualcomm Kryo 680 CPU Prime core clock speed at up to 3.0 GHz and the 6th generation Qualcomm AI Engine with up to 32 TOPS AI performance, which is more than a 20% improvement. It also feature the full Snapdragon Elite gaming features, along with the Snapdragon X60 5G Modem-RF System and the Qualcomm FastConnect 6900 Mobile Connectivity System.
At the Qualcomm 5G Summit in May, Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. announced the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 778G 5G Mobile Platform, built on the ultra-efficient 6-nm process technology. It uses the Qualcomm Kryo 670 CPU, which delivers up to a 40% increase in overall CPU performance.
Targeting high-tier smartphones, the Snapdragon 778G is designed for mobile gaming with select Qualcomm Snapdragon Elite Gaming features, including VRS and Qualcomm Game Quick Touch. Enabled by the Qualcomm Adreno 642L GPU, which delivers up to 40% faster graphics rendering compared with the previous generation, VRS allows developers to specify and group the pixels being shaded within different game scenes to help reduce the GPU workload to provide greater power savings while still maintaining the highest visual fidelity, said Qualcomm. Game Quick Touch offers up to 20% faster input response for touch latency.
A key feature of the Snapdragon 778G is the 6th generation Qualcomm AI Engine with the Qualcomm Hexagon 770 processor delivering up to 12 TOPs and 2× performance with an improvement in performance-per-watt compared to the previous generation. This enables use cases like AI-based noise suppression and better AI-based camera experiences. The platform also includes the 2nd generation Qualcomm Sensing Hub.
For the camera, the Snapdragon 778G features a triple ISP to capture three photos or videos simultaneously, including wide, ultra-wide, and zoom. Other features include 4K HDR10+ video capturing and staggered HDR image sensors.
The Snapdragon 778G also includes the integrated Snapdragon X53 5G Modem-RF System with mmWave and sub-6 5G capabilities and the Qualcomm FastConnect 6700 Connectivity System, which supports multi-gigabit class Wi-Fi 6 speeds (up to 2.9 Gbits/s) with 4k QAM and access to 160-MHz channels in both the 5-GHz and 6-GHz bands.
Earlier this year, Samsung Electronics unveiled its flagship Exynos 2100 mobile processor at its first virtual event, Exynos On 2021. The new mobile processor is the company’s first premium 5G-integrated mobile processor built on the advanced 5-nm extreme ultraviolet process node that allows up to 20% lower power consumption or 10% higher overall performance than the 7-nm predecessor.
Touted as the company’s most advanced mobile processer, the 5G chip features an octa-core CPU in an improved tri-cluster structure made up of a single Arm Cortex-X1 core that runs at up to 2.9 GHz, three Cortex-A78 cores, and four power-efficient Cortex-A55 cores, delivering more than a 30% enhancement in multi-core performance than the predecessor.
The Arm Mali-G78, which supports the latest APIs such as Vulkan and OpenCL, improves graphic performance by more than 40%, enabling immersive on-screen mobile experiences including gaming and AR/VR or mixed reality. The Exynos 2100 also integrates advanced multi-IP governor (AMIGO) technology, which optimizes power usage of the CPU, GPU, and other processes.
The Exynos 2100 also integrates a newly designed tri-core NPU with architectural enhancements. The processor can perform up to 26 TOPS with more than twice the power efficiency than the previous generation. The on-device AI processing and support for advanced neural networks delivers more interactive and smart features as well as enhanced computer vision performance, said Samsung.
The advanced ISP supports camera resolutions of up to 200 MP. It can connect up to six individual sensors and is able to process four concurrently for richer multi-camera experiences. With a multi-camera and frame processor, the ISP can combine feeds from multiple cameras to improve zoom performance and enhance image quality for ultra-wide shots. With AI acceleration, the ISP offers a content-aware feature that seamlessly recognizes scenes, faces, and objects and optimally adjusts the camera settings to capture the image with fuller detail, said Samsung.
The integrated 5G modem supports 5G sub-6 GHz and mmWave spectrums from 2G GSM/CDMA, 3G WCDMA, and 4G LTE. The modem delivers a maximum downlink speed of up to 5.1 Gbits/s in sub-6-GHz and 7.35 Gbits/s in mmWave, or up to 3.0 Gbits/s in 4G networks with 1024 quadrature-amplitude–modulation support.
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