Samsung introduces new affordable 5G smartphones

Samsung has added 5G to two of its A-series smartphones, aiming to bring 5G smartphones to the mainstream segment.

Though it is becoming more popular, 5G smartphone is still viewed as premium for early adopters. However, the two new products launched by Samsung today are of a distinctly different category. The A-series in Samsung’s Galaxy portfolio is positioned as more value for money and targeted at the lower-end segment. Products of this series come with decent enough specs but not priced at the top end.

“Our ambition with the Galaxy A series portfolio is to deliver must-have innovations, and powerful experiences, at a varied range of prices but without compromising on features” said YeonJeong Kim, Vice President, Head of Innovative Product Planning Group, Mobile Communications Business at Samsung Electronics. “I’m excited today to be announcing the next step in our journey with the Galaxy A71 5G and Galaxy A51 5G. These devices are designed for the era of 5G, and are part of our ongoing commitment to deliver next-generation connectivity to more people, by building 5G into our diverse smartphone portfolio, at more accessible price points.”

The specs of the two new phones are rather similar, albeit that the Galaxy A71 5G (pictured) comes with a slightly bigger and better display, slightly more powerful main camera, and faster charging. Both are built on existing chassis: the LTE versions of the A71 and A51 were launched in December 2019.

The new 5G iterations of the products use Samsung’s own first generation 5G SoC, the 8nm Exynos 980 launched in the second half of last year (while the LTE version was using Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 730 platform).

Both new phones will come with Samsung services and applications preinstalled, including Bixby (Vision, Lens Mode, Routines), Samsung Pay where applicable, and Samsung Health. They will also be equipped with Samsung Knox, the company’s own security software. Samsung does not specify when and where the products will be available, nor their prices.

There are quite a few 5G smartphone launches that we haven’t seen, due to the onslaught of COVID-19. Companies like Huawei and Xiaomi have moved their events online, but these were mainly for flagship products. Meanwhile, more and more OEMs are bringing 5G to the affordable, mainstream segment. Only a couple of days ago the Chinese phone maker TCL launched a £399 5G smartphone of its own, built on Qualcomm’s mid-range 5G SoC, Snapdragon 765.

The affordable 5G segment is further bolstered by the competing solution from MediaTek, the Dimensity 800. These mid-range 5G SoC’s, including Samsung’s own Exynos 980, are likely to bring the mainstream 5G smartphones down to the $500 retail price point, which will be “the sweet spot for 5G Android smartphone takeoff,” as Neil Mawston from Strategy Analytics told Telecoms.com separately.

“This is when 5G phones become affordable to more than half of consumers in developed markets like Europe,” Mawston said.

MediaTek defends itself after benchmark cheating accusations

After reports emerged suggesting MediaTek has been cheating the benchmarking system, the chipset manufacturer has vehemently defending its position.

It has been alleged in AnandTech that MediaTek has been cheating the mobile enthusiasts with some clever code. In the firmware files, references were found tying benchmark apps to a so-called ‘sports mode’. When triggered (if a benchmark app has been initiated), features on the phone were ramped up to give the impression of better performance.

AnandTech claims the cheating was brought to light thanks to testing two different OPPO Reno 3 devices. The Reno 3 Pro (the European version) beat the Reno 3 (the Chinese version) in the PCMark benchmark utility, despite its Helio P95’s Cortex-A75 CPU cores being two generations older than the Dimensity 1000L’s Cortex-A77 CPU cores. And not only did the Reno 3 Pro has older MediaSet chipsets than the Reno 3 devices, it had half as many.

The difference in the test results were slightly unusual, though when a ‘stealth’ benchmark apps were used, the lower results were confirmed.

Why those in the industry feel it is necessary to cheat benchmarking tests is anybody’s guess. The negatives of being caught far outweigh the gains of impressing a few hyper-geeks, and the cheaters eventually get caught. It is embarrassing and some might ask whether they are a reliable partner. The chipsets in questions have been used in OPPO, Vivo, Xiaomi and Sony devices.

Following the original statement, which you can see at the foot of the article, an expanded blog post was offered to the industry.

“We do find it interesting that AnandTech has called into question the benchmarking optimizations on MediaTek powered devices, when these types of configurations are widely practiced across the industry,” MediaTek said. “If they were to review other devices, they would see, as we have, that our key competitor has chipsets that operate in the exact same way – what AnandTech has deemed cheating on device benchmarking tests.”

Although this is a very reasonable explanation, it is still a bit fishy. It is perfectly understandable for performance to be ramped up for some applications, but the fact the ‘sports mode’ has been linked to the initiation of a benchmarking app as well as other functions (gaming for instance) suggests the aim is to fool the tests. Most reasonable individuals would assume these tests are performed in ‘normal’ mode.

Whether this is an adequate explanation, we’ll let the court of public opinion decide, but it is somewhat of a flimsy excuse.

Original MediaTek statement:

MediaTek follows accepted industry standards and is confident that benchmarking tests accurately represent the capabilities of our chipsets. We work closely with global device makers when it comes to testing and benchmarking devices powered by our chipsets, but ultimately brands have the flexibility to configure their own devices as they see fit. Many companies design devices to run on the highest possible performance levels when benchmarking tests are running in order to show the full capabilities of the chipset. This reveals what the upper end of performance capabilities are on any given chipset.

Of course, in real world scenarios there are a multitude of factors that will determine how chipsets perform. MediaTek’s chipsets are designed to optimize power and performance to provide the best user experience possible while maximizing battery life. If someone is running a compute-intensive program like a demanding game, the chipset will intelligently adapt to computing patterns to deliver sustained performance. This means that a user will see different levels of performance from different apps as the chipset dynamically manages the CPU, GPU and memory resources according to the power and performance that is required for a great user experience. Additionally, some brands have different types of modes turned on in different regions so device performance can vary based on regional market requirements.

We believe that showcasing the full capabilities of a chipset in benchmarking tests is in line with the practices of other companies and gives consumers an accurate picture of device performance.

What a Wonderful World of 5G Devices

Many brands have already brought to market large numbers of 5G devices, such as smartphones and hotspots. According to the latest tracking done by the GSA (Global mobile Suppliers Association), an industry organisation, over 250 devices had been announced by mid-March 2020, with 67 of them commercially available, including 40 smartphones. Half a year previously, the same tracking recorded only 100 public device announcements, with only nine 5G smartphones commercially available. The pace of new 5G device launches has clearly been accelerating.

(Here we are sharing the opening section of this Telecoms.com Intelligence special briefing to look into how 5G operators and device makers can work together to deliver a win-win solution to grow the 5G ecosystem.

The full version of the report is available for free to download here.)

Consumers Love 5G Smartphones, or Do They?

Even in the midst of the ongoing uncertainty of COVID-19, the smartphone marketplace has been busy. A number of flagship 5G smartphones have been launched by companies like Samsung and Huawei as well as their challengers, most of which had been meant to be unveiled at this year’s Mobile World Congress that did not happen. Many companies have moved their launch events online.

Consumers have signed up to 5G services faster than they did 4G. South Korea clocked up 5 million 5G subscribers by the end of 2019, eight months after the three operators switched on their 5G networks. China’s total number of 5G subscribers topped 10 million by the end of 2019, only two months after the three operators launched 5G in the world’s biggest smartphone market. China Mobile, the world’s largest mobile operator by subscriber number, reported that it had attracted 15.4 million 5G customers by the end of February, four months after launch. Despite that few if any other operators have published their 5G subscriber numbers, the momentum is there.

So far, 5G device shipment numbers have been strong. The research firm Strategy Analytics estimated that 19 million 5G smartphones were shipped in 2019. This was higher than most analysts had expected. So, at the first sight at least, consumers have shown strong enthusiasm in embracing 5G smartphones. Meanwhile, some evidence is showing that consumers have bought 5G smartphones not necessarily for 5G, or at least not the 5G the industry professionals would define it.

A research recently published by the software company Amdocs found that over a third of British consumers are interested in upgrading to 5G devices this year, but most of them are not sure what 5G is all about. The minority of consumers that claimed to know 5G would primarily cite faster internet. However, if the consumers take operators’ “gigabit speed” promise literally, they will be disappointed.

The network benchmarking and testing firm Global Wireless Solutions conducted a field test of the 5G networks in the centre of London towards the end of last year. The highest download speed of 470 Mbps was recorded on EE network, while the lower speeds of 330 Mbps and 320 Mbps were recorded on O2 and Vodafone networks respectively. These numbers, in addition to falling far short of “gigabit”, could only be achieved if the customer stood next to the base stations. Even those consumers well versed enough to quote buzz words like “low latency” would also be disappointed. The Global Wireless Solutions tests have found no meaningful improvement in latency from 4G connectivity.

This is an indication that the success to expand 5G adoption from early adopters to early majority is far from certain. While operators are honing their skills to convince consumers of 5G benefits, device makers, in particular smartphone brands, would also have much to lose if consumer enthusiasm should dampen by the underwhelming experience and patchy coverage.

To explore the topic further, the rest of this report first discusses what operators are looking for in 5G devices. We then analyse the key drivers for higher consumer adoption of 5G devices, including the underlying technologies. The report concludes by looking at the leading trends in the 5G device market in the next two to three years.

The rest of the report include these sections:

  • Do Not Ask What Operators Can Do For You, Ask What You Can Do For the Operators
  • What Is Happening Under the Hood?
  • Plenty To Look Forward To
  • Q&A with Daniel Gleeson, Principal Analyst, Omdia
  • Additional Resources

The full version of the report is available for free to download here.

MediaTek adds momentum to 5G mid-tier with Dimensity 800 launch

After launching its assault on the premium market in November, MediaTek has unveiled its Dimensity 800 Series 5G chipset for mid-tier devices.

The 5G euphoria is of course very exciting, or at least we have been told to be enthralled, but in reality, it means next to nothing without the devices to connect the data-frenzied consumer to the freakishly-fast digital super-highway. MediaTek’s announcement is a step in the right direction.

Announced at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the Dimensity 800 Series 5G chipset is MediaTek’s answer to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 765; a product for mid-tier smartphones, the segment critical to fuelling mass market adoption in the 5G world.

“MediaTek already launched its flagship 5G smartphone solution, the Dimensity 1000, and with the 800 series 5G chipset family, we are bringing 5G to the mid-tier and mass market,” said TL Lee, head of MediaTek’s wireless business unit.

“Everyone should have access to great technology. The Dimensity 800 Series will power the New Premium segment for 5G, bringing consumers flagship smartphone features and performance at midrange price points.”

While most people in the developed markets would turn their nose up at the prospect of buying a mid-tier smartphone, such are the eye-watering prices of today’s 5G-compatible smartphones, few would consider the small loan which would be needed to purchase one. 5G compatible, mid-tier devices will be crucially important in fuelling momentum towards mass-market adoption of 5G smartphones.

The chipset supports two carrier aggregation for, what MediaTek claims offers, 30% wider high-speed layer coverage and improved handover, as well as both stand alone and non-standalone sub-6 GHz connectivity. Four big Arm Cortex-A76 cores operating up to 2 GHz, have been paired with four power-efficient Arm Cortex-A55 cores operating at up to 2 GHz to improve performance for intensive applications such as mobile gaming.

While this chipset might not have the horsepower of the flagship Dimensity 1000 Series, it is not supposed to. This is a product which is designed to accelerate the launch of devices in the mid-tier market, a critical area to drive through widespread adoption of 5G data connectivity.

Intel reduced to using MediaTek modems for 5G PCs

Remember when Intel was Apple’s 5G secret weapon to break Qualcomm’s modem stranglehold? Well, now not so much.

It turns out Intel can’t even cobble together a modem for its own products and has been reduced to calling on the help of MediaTek to bring 5G to PCs containing its chips. The resulting effort is, of course, being positioned as ‘a 5G solution’, which long-time Intel partners Dell and HP will be dutifully whacking into some of their laptops when it becomes available.

“5G is poised to unleash a new level of computing and connectivity that will transform the way we interact with the world,” proclaimed Gregory Bryant, GM of Intel’s Client Computing Group. “This partnership with MediaTek brings together industry leaders with deep engineering, system integration and connectivity expertise to deliver 5G experiences on the next generation of the world’s best PCs.”

Note the uncharacteristic absence of superlatives in that otherwise by-the-book canned quote. That’s because everyone knows Qualcomm is the 5G modem leader, even Apple. Relations between Qualcomm and intel are presumably strained since the latter tried to help Apple strong-arm the former and as a result Intel partners get an inferior modem in their 5G solutions.

“Our 5G modem for PCs, developed in partnership with Intel, is integral to making 5G accessible and available across home and mobile platforms,” said MediaTek President Joe Chen. “5G will usher in the next era of PC experiences, and working with Intel, an industry leader in computing, highlights MediaTek’s expertise in designing 5G technology for global markets.”

Does it really though, Joe? Anyway, the extent to which there will be any demand for laptops with built-in 5G built in remains to be seen. With tethering now so easy, it’s hard to see why anyone would pay a premium for any kind of embedded modem in their lappy, let alone a 5G one. But it would have looked bad for Intel to not even give it a go, and that’s what this announcement seems to be about, as much as anything else.

Qualcomm dominates smartphone applications processor market

The latest smartphone component data from Strategy Analytics reveals that, despite its legal challenges, Qualcomm remains dominant in the smartphone chip market.

Applications processors are essentially the CPUs of a smartphone and are represented at Qualcomm by the Snapdragon brand. Qualcomm’s main competitor in this area is Chinese chip maker Mediatek, but after a strong year for the latter in 2016, Qualcomm seems to be pulling away again.

“After a successful 2016, Qualcomm continued its momentum and gained market share with the help of a strengthened portfolio across the board from flagship to mid-range,” said Sravan Kundojjala of SA. “After missing the initial 14 nm FinFET AP wave, Qualcomm made sure it is one of the first companies with a commercial 10 nm smartphone AP.

“Qualcomm’s semi-custom 10 nm flagship 64-bit AP Snapdragon 835, which integrates a gigabit-class LTE modem, has seen greater success than its predecessor Snapdragon 820 / 821. Strategy Analytics believes that Qualcomm is poised for further share gains through 2017 with its strengthened Snapdragon 600-series of APs.”

“MediaTek hit a rough patch in 1H 2017, after registering a robust growth in 2016,” said SA’s Stuart Robinson. “MediaTek’s weak portfolio coupled with increased competition from Qualcomm contributed to its share losses in 1H 2017. MediaTek’s flagship Helio X series has not seen much success so far while the mid-range Helio P series of chips performed strongly.

“Understandably, MediaTek is set to de-emphasis Helio X in favor of Helio P to optimize its investment and to recover market share in 2H 2017. Strategy Analytics believes that MediaTek’s recovery will take time as its modem technology is still generations behind market leader Qualcomm.”

Here’s the SA market 1H 2017 applications processor chart. Apple makes its own APs, as many other vendors like Samsung and Huawei often do too, so Qualcomm has done well to keep such a lead. The legal disputes faced by Qualcomm are largely focused more on its modems, but the AP side of things could still be adversely affected if thing go against it.

SA AP chart