Qualcomm's next Snapdragon chip suggests 2020 really will be the year of 5G phones

Phones with processors that have 5G built inside won't appear on store shelves until next year, raising raising critical questions about when to buy a 5G phone.

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Qualcomm just provided another reason why you should wait until at least 2020 before investing in a 5G phone. We already know the carriers won’t be able to deliver anything close to widespread 5G mobile service this year. The infrastructure just won’t be ready. But Qualcomm’s first Snapdragon processor with integrated 5G support won’t appear in phones until 2020, either.

The first wave of 5G-capable phones will include Qualcomm’s 855 processor paired with the company’s separate X50 5G modem chip. The two chips sit alongside one another, meaning that smartphone vendors have to design larger, bulkier, more power-hungry phones to accommodate them both. The LG V50 and Samsung Galaxy S10 5G are just two phones that use this first-generation technology.

But even as we wait for the first generation of 5G phones to arrive, Qualcomm has already announced that an integrated Snapdragon chip—one with a 5G modem built inside—should be ready to appear in shipping phones by the second quarter of 2020. “The new integrated Snapdragon 5G mobile platform features Qualcomm 5G PowerSave technology to enable smartphones with the battery life users expect today,” Qualcomm said.

In essence, Qualcomm is promising that the integrated 5G Snapdragon will offer the same battery life as current LTE phones. That’s important, as phones with discrete modems would either have to include larger batteries, or simply suffer shorter battery life.

Qualcomm isn’t exactly throwing the bleeding-edge solutions under the bus, instead positioning its upcoming chip as the next generation. “The integration of our breakthrough 5G multimode modem and application processing technologies into a single SoC is a major step in making 5G more widely available across regions and tiers following the wave of flagship 5G devices from the more than 20 OEMs and 20 mobile operators who have committed to launching 5G networks and mobile handsets based on our 5G modems this year,” said Cristiano Amon, president of Qualcomm Inc., in a statement.

What we don’t know is whether Qualcomm will be able to live up to its promises. We don’t even know what the name of the new integrated Snapdragon will be. We also don’t know how the Snapdragon will perform, or just how compatible it will be with the 5G networks of the time.

What this means to you: Qualcomm’s announcement provides a clearer answer to the question, “When should you buy into the 5G hype?” This year looks like a transition between 4G and 5G, while the first 5G phones and networks find their footing. But 2020 is when we should expect 5G technology to start hitting its stride, before it becomes relatively mature in 2021 and beyond. 

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