Component giant Qualcomm has unveiled its latest 5G modem, the Snapdragon X60, which you can expect to power 5G phones and other devices from next year. That might not sound all that exciting at first blush, but as the first 5G modem capable of aggregating mmWave and sub-6 frequencies it could mark a major improvement in 5G coverage… eventually.

You won’t see the X60 in the Galaxy S20 or any of the new 5G handsets announced over the next few weeks amid the detritus of a cancelled MWC - while 5G is about to become ubiquitous, it’s all through phones using the Snapdragon 865 chipset and 2nd-gen X55 modem Qualcomm announced last year. The X60 will be next year’s modem of choice.

Without getting too far into the woods, 5G signals essentially sit at either end of the frequency spectrum. Sub-6 connections - which make up most of the world’s current 5G networks - sit at the low end (below 6Ghz). Sub-6 offers wider coverage from network masts, but at the price of lower bandwidth and capacity, which means slightly lower speeds.

mmWave signals sit at the high end of the frequency spectrum. They don’t travel as far from masts, not least because they can be blocked by pesky things like walls, which means they don’t offer great coverage - but speeds can be much higher. mmWave is available now in the US, and will be rolling out in Europe and parts of Asia this year, with more of the world to follow next year. Read our 5G explainer for more on the two frequency types and the ongoing coverage rollout.

Samsung's new Galaxy S20 5G series uses last year's X55 modem

So where does the X60 come in? Well, it’s the first 5G modem that can support the aggregation of those signals, meaning phones can enjoy mmWave speeds when they’re available and still get sub-6 when they’re not. It’ll even be able to handle things like using mmWave for download and sub-6 for upload, as it’s the latter that drops off first as you move out of mmWave range.

So how fast can it go? Qualcomm is touting download speeds of up to 7.5Gbps (with uploads at 3Gbps), a modest boost on the 7Gbps that the current X55 can handle. Those are both still well above anything you’ll see out and about though - even in optimised lab conditions the world record, set last week by Ericsson, is ‘only’ 4.3Gbps downlink.

But peak speed records aren’t the point of the X60. This chip isn’t about pushing forward the theoretical bounds of 5G, but rather the practical ones, with better coverage and compatibility with networks in more countries. In addition to aggregating mmWave and Sub-6 frequencies it will also support aggregating multiple carriers at Sub-6, essentially doubling potential sub-6 speeds to 4-5Gbps according to Qualcomm.

It’s also the first modem that’s been designed using a 5nm process - the X55 is 7nm - which makes the chip smaller and more power-efficient. The same is true for Qualcomm’s new QTM535 mmWave antenna, and taken together the result should be support for thinner, lighter, and more power-friendly devices.

Finally, there's support for voice-over-NR. You may not have realised it, but 5G phones so far drop down to 4G for actual phone calls, which the X60 won't have to - all part of helping push the industry along to standalone 5G, which won't require piggybacking on existing 4G infrastructure.

The X60 should be included with the successor to the flagship Snapdragon 865 chipset

Qualcomm wouldn’t confirm when the X60 modem will be available to manufacturers, so right now we don’t know if it will appear in any 2020 flagships - the X55 debuted in some variants of the Note 10+ 5G last autumn - or whether we’ll have to wait for the first Snapdragon 875 phones in 2021.

In all honesty though, it likely won’t matter too much. As impressive as some of the chipset’s developments are, they won’t have any effect until network infrastructure catches up. mmWave and sub-6 aggregation won’t be available until 2021 at the earliest, which is when many of the X60’s improvements will really kick in.

So until then, the X60 is mostly a guide to where Qualcomm - and the industry at large - see the 5G priorities. Unattainable peak speeds are out, expanding reliable coverage is in. And since finding a working 5G signal still puts needle-haystack hunts to shame, that can only be a good thing.

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