Going under the hood of Qualcomm Snapdragon 855: plenty to like

More details of Qualcomm’s first 5G chipset have been released, bringing all-round improvements, and a 5G chipset for PCs was also announced.

On the first day of its annual Snapdragon Technology Summit, Qualcomm announced its 5G chipset for mobile devices, the Snapdragon 855, but released limited specs. On the following two days more details were disclosed. An SoC for 5G-connected PCs, the Snapdragon 8cx was also unveiled.

In addition to the X50 modem for 5G connectivity (on both mmWave and sub-6GHz frequencies) and X24 modem (to provide LTE connectivity), at the centre of the Snapdragon 855 is ARM’s new flagship Cortex A76 CPU, marketed by Qualcomm as Kryo 485. It contains 8 cores with the single core top performance at 2.84 GHz. Qualcomm claims the 855 is 45% faster than its predecessor 845, though it did not specify what exactly this refers to. More importantly for Qualcomm, the top speed is 9% faster than the Kirin 980 from HiSilicon (a Huawei subsidiary), another 7-nanometre implementation of the ARM Cortex A76.

Also included in the 855 is the new Adreno 640 GPU rendering graphics. Qualcomm has focused 855’s marketing messages on gaming performance, and the GPU is at the core to deliver it. Qualcomm claims the new GPU will enable true HDR gaming, as well as support the HDR10+ and Dolby Vision formats. Together with the display IP, the Adreno 640 GPU will support 120fps gaming as well as smooth 8K 360-degree video playback. Another feature highlighted is the support for Physically Based Rendering in graphics, which will help improve VR and AR experience, including more accurate lighting physics and material interactions, for example more life-like surface texture, or material-on-material audio interaction.

The key new feature on Snapdragon’s Hexagon 690 DSP is that it now includes a dedicated Machine Learning (ML) inferencing engine in the new “tensor accelerator”. The Hexagon 690 also doubles the number of HVX vector pipelines over its predecessors the Hexagon 680 and 685, to include four 1024b vector pipelines. The doubled computing power and the dedicated ML engine combined are expected to improve the Snapdragon 855’s AI capability by a big margin.

The integrated new Spectra 380 image signalling processor (ISP) will both improve the Snapdragon’s capability to deepen acceleration and to save power consumption when processing images. Qualcomm believes the new ISP will only consume a quarter of the power as its predecessor for image object classification, object segmentation, depth sensing (at 60 FPS), augmented reality body tracking, and image stabilisation.

On the OEM collaboration side, in addition to Samsung, on day 2 of the event we also saw Pete Lau, the CEO of Chinese smartphone maker OnePlus come to the stage to endorse the new 5G chipset and vow to be the “first to feature” the Snapdragon 855. Separately, the British mobile operator EE announced that it will range a OnePlus 5G smartphone in the first half of 2019.

On the same day, thousands of miles away, more Chinese smartphone OEMs including Xiaomi, OPPO, Vivo, and ZTE (in addition to OnePlus) also embraced the new Snapdragon chipset at the China Mobile Global Partner Conference in Guangzhou, southern China. China Mobile will also launch a customer premise equipment (CPE), likely a fixed wireless access modem, using the same platform.

Back in Hawaii, on day 3 of the Snapdragon Tech Summit, Qualcomm launched a new chipset for PC: the Snapdragon 8cx (“c” for computer, “x” for eXtreme). This is Qualcomm’s third iteration of chipset for PC, built on ARM v8.1 (a variant of Cortex A76). Similar to the Snapdragon 855, the 8cx also has the X24 integrated cellular modem with for LTE connectivity, and the X50 modem with 5G connectivity can be paired with it. The CPU also has eight cores, with a top speed of 2.75 GHz. The new Adreno 680 GPU is said to process graphics twice as fast as the GPU in the previous generation ARM for Windows chipset (Snapdragon 850) but 60% more efficient in power consumption.

Perhaps the most meaningful change is its memory architecture. The Snapdragon 8cx will have a 128-bit wide interface, enabling it to provide native support for much more software and applications, including Windows 10 Enterprise and Office 365, which clearly is a sales pitch to the corporate IT departments.

Unlike the OEM support garnered by Snapdragon 855, there was no public endorsement by PC makers yet. Lenovo did come to the stage but was only talking about its Yoga 2-in-1 notebooks that have used earlier generations of Snapdragon chipsets for Windows on ARM. On the other hand, Qualcomm does not position Snapdragon 8cx as a replacement for the 850 but rather as a higher end contemporary, with 850 mainly targeted at a niche consumer market.

In general, this year’s Snapdragon Tech Summit has delivered more step change with the new product launches. More concrete industry support was also on show, indicating that, depending on how fast and extensive 5G is to be rolled out, we may start seeing true 5G smartphones in the first half of next year. We may need to wait a bit longer before a reasonable line-up of always-on 5G connected PCs can hit the market.

Three completes 5G outdoor trials in Hong Kong

3HK, the third largest mobile operator in Hong Kong have completed 5G trials on both the 3.5 GHz and 26 GHz bands.

The trials have been going on since the operator obtained temporary permits from the government of China’s “special administrative region”, for indoor and outdoor tests on the two frequencies in May and June respectively. The trial on the 26 GHz band used 400 MHz frequency resources and achieved a downlink peak speed of 3.2 Gbps, while the 3.5 GHz trial used 100 MHz resources, hitting speeds of 2 Gbps. The latter trial was on Massive MIMO technology, which enabled 3HK to claim to be the first to conduct live outdoor broadcast via a 5G network in the 3.5GHz band, although the operator hastened to add a footnote that the “first” claim was made “based on publicly-available information”.

“Three Hong Kong took the initiative to carry out end-to-end trials in various 5G bands in preparation for a new era of mobile communications,” said Kenny Koo, CEO of Hutchison Telecommunications Hong Kong, of which 3HK is a subsidiary. “We welcome the government’s decision to allow various of its premises to accommodate 5G base stations, and we hope the application and approval processes can be simplified and accelerated to help Hong Kong’s 5G development.”

3HK explained the rationale behind trialling out on both 3.5 GHz and 26 GHz. It believed that long-term development of 5G technology requires different spectrum bands to complement one another. The mmWave band (for example the 26GHz and 28GHz bands) delivers high-speed service but the cells’ coverage is limited. To achieve greater coverage the mmWave band needs to be complemented by the 3.5 GHz band. Such an arrangement enables operators to extend coverage and provide a seamless 5G experience and to meet all the various demands on 5G applications.

While China may not be the first country to go live with 5G – its mobile operators are more likely to by-pass the non-standalone mode and go full blown to standalone mode – Hong Kong is often among the leading markets to adopt the latest technologies, as was the case in 3G and 4G. Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, and the site of 3HK’s massive MIMO trial, Causeway Bay, is right in the centre of the commercial and business district.

AT&T and Verizon compete for yet more 5G ‘firsts’

US carriers AT&T and Verizon have completed what they both claim to be the world’s first data transfer to a smartphone form factor device over mmWave 5G live networks.

If we put together all the 5G ‘firsts’ claimed by the industry players it would make a long read, especially if we included cases where similar firsts have been claimed by different companies. In this most recent case, both AT&T and Verizon called themselves the world’s first to successfully transfer data over live 5G networks to purpose-built mobile devices, in Texas and Minnesota respectively.

Temporally, AT&T might have stolen a step ahead of its competitor. The AT&T test took place “over the weekend”, while news coming out of Verizon on Monday declared the success happened yesterday, but they were essentially the same kind of tests. Probably the most intriguing part of the story is that both carriers used Qualcomm’s terminals on networks supplied by Ericsson.

Even the technical details disclosed look very similar. Both tests were using smartphone form factor test devices from Qualcomm integrating the latter’s Snapdragon X50 5G modem and RF subsystem (see the picture), both were going through Ericsson 5G-NR capable radios connected to 3x virtual core networks.

These announcements followed hot on the heels of a couple of other 5G firsts in the last few days: last week Verizon and Nokia claimed to have completed the first over-the-air data transmission on a commercial 5G NR network in Washington DC, though the receiving end was not exactly a smartphone-like device. On Monday Nokia announced its demo with Sprint to conduct the first (in the US though) 5G NR connection over Massive MIMO.

Ericsson and Qualcomm claimed to have completed the first 5G NR ‘call’ to a smartphone-like device (which was pretty similar to the ones used in the AT&T and Verizon tests). That announcement itself came a couple of days after Ericsson announced another similar test with Intel. These two slightly earlier tests were conducted in lab environment while the latest AT&T and Verizon cases were done over live networks, or as AT&T emphatically stressed, “Not a lab. Not preproduction hardware. Not emulators.”

We understand the marketing departments of these companies must be busy generating as big a buzz as possible in the run-up to the Mobile World Congress America (starting tomorrow). Meanwhile we cannot discount that tests and announcements (and claims) like these do show the wider world 5G potentials when the commercial networks roll out in the coming months and years, though at the moment all these firsts still do not mean anything for consumers as no 5G terminals are available yet.

Another interesting angle to look at these tests is how active the US carriers are in pushing ahead 5G on mmWave, which contrast with how slow the European operators and regulators are moving. The European Commission launched a project to look into the feasibility of using mmWave for 5G deployment in the EU. A reporting session was organised in Brussels in June this year. The views were divided, and conclusions elusive. The main doubt from the industry looked to be the lack of compelling business case and the wrangling between the telecom industry and the satellite industry on the utilisation of the lower mmWave spectrum, hence the lack of contiguous bands for 5G buildout.

It may be a worthy reminder that we can never tell with full confidence what new technologies can do. Andre Fuetsch, AT&T Communications’ CTO was bang on when he said “… yet to be discovered experiences will grow up on tomorrow’s 5G networks. Much like 4G introduced the world to the gig economy, mobile 5G will jumpstart the next wave of unforeseen innovation.”

Qualcomm claims 5G NR mmWave antenna breakthrough

A new set of antenna modules announced by Qualcomm promise to bring the power of millimetre wave to devices soon.

The catchily-named Qualcomm QTM052 mmWave antenna module family is designed to join forces with the Snapdragon X50 modem to enable smartphones, tablets etc to live the 5G dream. Qualcomm also launched the QPM56xx sub-6 GHz RF module family to offer devices the use of a full range of 5G spectrum.

“Today’s announcement of the first commercial 5G NR mmWave antenna modules and sub-6 GHz RF modules for smartphones and other mobile devices represents a major milestone for the mobile industry,” said Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon. “Qualcomm Technologies’ early investment in 5G has allowed us to deliver to the industry a working mobile mmWave solution that was previously thought unattainable, as well as a fully-integrated sub-6 GHz RF solution.

“Now, these type of modem-to-antenna solutions, spanning both mmWave and sub-6 spectrum bands, make mobile 5G networks and devices, especially smartphones, ready for large scale commercialization. With 5G, consumers can expect gigabit-class Internet speeds with unprecedented responsiveness in the palm of their hands, which stand to revolutionize the mobile experience.”

The physics of these chips seems to be where the biggest breakthroughs occurred, specifically their size and thermal properties. Making mmWave chips viable in the very tight physical environment of the smartphone is a significant challenge and chip analyst Charlie Demerjian reckons this launch puts Qualcomm very much in the 5G driving seat.

Qualcomm QTM052 cent

Samsung gets down to some myth busting at 5G World

For the most part, presentations at industry trade events are relatively predictable; vendors say look how amazing we are, operators say they doing as badly as you think, but Samsung actually tried something which turned out to be interesting.

Swaggering onto the stage like a man who knew he was going to nail it, Wonil Roh, Samsung’s Head of the Technology Group, busted some mmWave myths.

mmWave does promise an upgrade on speeds, but delivered on narrower wavelengths. This means the strength of the signal can be vulnerable against gas, rain and humidity absorption, while also being subject to blockages. Trees are the enemy of superfast cat videos, or so the naysayers would have you believe…

Roh’s presentation was certainly an interesting one, addressing many of the larger concerns surrounding the use of mmWave, not only with theoretical technological advances, but hard evidence from trials around the world to beat back the negative misers.

First and foremost, coverage. Many would have you believe the distance mmWave signal can propagate is less than 50 metres, effectively writing off many of the proposed use cases. Roh’s trials in London and Korea demonstrate effective performance up to 800 metres, and even 1.2km when there is a direct line of sight. MYTH BUSTED.

Staying with the line of sight argument, foliage is considered to be a major hindrance to the development of mmWave. The naysayers would have you believe mushroom shaped topiary and other garden decorations could prevent your Netflix binge session, but Roh, once again, begs to differ.

“We have found there are still multiple paths to deflect around obstructions to get reasonable quality signal at the receiver,” said Roh. Even with obstructions, Samsung have performed tests with the signal being transmitted 2 metres above ground level, with reasonable performance 800 metres away. MYTH BUSTED

This kindly leads onto the third point, as the naysayers believe the reduced signal strength and coverage of mmWave would lead to operators having to worry about an increased number of sites. There might be some cases where this is true, however, another set of Samsung trials in Seoul demonstrated 19 base stations transmitting mmWave delivered 99% of the outdoor coverage of LTE, and 94% of the indoor coverage. There might be a slight drop in performance, but Roh noted speeds on devices increased from an average of 19 Mbps to over 1 Gbps when using mmWave. This criticism of mmWave might be slightly true, but the trade-off is certainly positive. MYTH COMPENSATED

Myth

Another worry for the naysayers is the mobility of mmWave; can it support handover between base stations and high speed mobility. Some vendors might have had an employee run around the block a few times to test this theory out, but not Samsung. Along with KDDI, Samsung headed down to the Everland Speedway in Korea, fitted a car with a 5G device and sped between base stations at speeds exceeding 190km/h. Not only is it a good excuse for a day out, Roh pointed towards the successful demonstration and incredibly efficient adaptive beam forming to complete the handover. MYTH BUSTED

Alas, this is where Roh’s good news ran out as addressing outdoor to indoor penetration is a minor win for the naysayers. “This could be an issue I have to admit,” Roh coyly stated.

Acceptable levels of performance can be achieved with an indoor CPE, however there are certain building materials which offer problems. There are of course materials which can be used to improve the performance, but Roh admitted sometimes the easiest solution is the best one; just use an outdoor CPE. MYTH CIRCUMNAVIGATED

Nokia takes 5G to the edge in Brooklyn

Networking vendor Nokia is using a 5G event in New York to show off some of its latest shiny things.

The Brooklyn 5G Summit describes itself as a ‘5G technology summit hosted in Brookly, NY’, which seems hard to argue with. The listed contact from the event is a Nokia email address so we’re going to assume Nokia runs the whole thing unless advised otherwise, and there don’t seem to be any other vendors involved.

The big thing Nokia is looking to bring attention to this year is its Edge Cloud datacenter solution, which is inevitably being positioned as 5G-ready. Nokia has been putting a lot of effort into the datacenter side of things in recent years via its AirFrame portfolio, which looks like an increasingly wise bet as edge computing becomes ever more prominent in the telecoms world.

This announcement concerns a server specifically designed for edge computing. It puts an emphasis on open architectures and software for fast deployment (it’s OPNFV compatible), and support for ultra-low latency to support things like automation and Cloud RAN. All this stuff plays a big role in 5G so that juxtaposition seems fair enough in this case.

“The edge cloud will play an essential role in delivering the compute power required for 5G,” said Marc Rouanne, President of Mobile Networks at Nokia. “By expanding our AirFrame and 5G Future X portfolio we can provide a network architecture that meets the needs of any operator and their customers.

“Used with the Nokia ReefShark chipset and our real-time cloud infrastructure software, the Nokia AirFrame open edge server will deliver the right decentralization of 4G and 5G networks. We can work with operators to ensure that data center capabilities are deployed exactly where they are needed to manage demands as they expand their service offering.”

“The edge cloud is an integral part of 5G network architecture, bringing more processing capabilities closer to where data is generated and consumed,” said Dan Rodriguez, GM of the Communications Infrastructure Division at Intel. “Nokia’s new AirFrame open edge solution is built on Intel Xeon Scalable processors, which offer the needed balance of compute, I/O and memory capacity for the edge cloud to work seamlessly across the wide range of workloads deployed on the edge.”

And that’s not the only piece of 5G-related goodness Nokia has bestowed on the grateful residents of Brooklyn this week. Nokia Bell Labs has persuaded NTT DOCOMO to get involved in some demo some millimetre wave tech involving a phased-array chip solution for the 90 GHz band to increase radio coverage in higher frequency bands and deliver multi-gigabit speeds at scale.

The main point of this demo seem to be to show the viability of 5G at these very high frequencies, including the use of a large number of antennas and also show how dynamic offloading relocation in a 5G core will enable low-latency networks.

“At Bell Labs, we work with leading operators such as NTT DOCOMO to develop disruptive technologies that will redefine human existence,” said Bell Labs President Marcus Weldon. “At the Brooklyn 5G Summit, we will show the world’s first RF solution that addresses the challenge of delivering optimized coverage for future mmWave frequencies, using a pioneering RFIC design that can be scaled to any array dimension and deliver optimized connectivity to any set of devices.”

Huawei and NTT Docomo reach 4.5 Gbps in 5G mmWave trial

Huawei and NTT Docomo have jointly announced a field trial on the 28GHz millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum cruising past 4.5 Gbps.

Taking place in Tokyo Skytree in downtown Tokyo, the trial consisted of a base station working over 28GHz was located on Tokyo Skytree’s viewing deck at a height of 340 metre above the ground, while user equipment was placed on the roof of a shopping facility at Asakusa Station. During the test the pair achieved a 4.52 Gbps downlink throughput and a 1.55 Gbps uplink throughput with a coverage range of 1.2km.

“The high-speed and long distance support is one of important technical challenges for 5G mmWave conditions,” said Gan Bin, VP of Huawei 5G Product Line

“This successful long distance live-demo on a 5G mmWave is a ground breaking achievement in our joint effort with NTT DOCOMO to build a fundamental 5G commercial environment. This success makes us more confident in realizing the goal of commercializing 5G by 2020.”

The base station supported Massive MIMO and beamforming technologies, to support long distance data transmission over the 28 GHz mmWave. As part of the trial, visitors experienced next generation video communication using a Microsoft HoloLens over the end-to-end 5G network. Huawei has said during the demonstration the voice calls were clear, and the video footage was free of any freezing.

This is not the first time the pair have worked together though. Last year, another field trial was conducted in Yokohama Minato Mirai 21 District over the 4.5GHz spectrum band, where 11.29 Gbps throughput speeds and latency of less than 0.5 millisecond were achieved.

DT and Facebook TIP the scales for mmWave

Deutsche Telekom and Facebook has jointly announced a new working group, Millimetre Wave (mmWave) Networks Project Group, to address the growing demand for bandwidth in dense, highly-populated cities.

Nestled in the wider Telecom Infra Project, the objective here is to make use of the much heralded millimetre wave spectrum, airwaves which have been billed as the saviour of 5G. The news will be welcomed by operators such as AT&T and Verizon, as well as urbanites who might struggle for connectivity in coming years, as data trends continue to spiral upwards.

“The mmWave group will focus on advancing networking solutions that use the 60 GHz frequency band, which many governments are allocating for 5G and other high-bandwidth applications,” said Andreas Gladisch of Deutsche Telekom, and Salil Sawhney of Facebook, (the project groups co-chairs) in a blog entry.

“This large slice of unlicensed spectrum can support the bandwidth required by virtual reality, augmented reality, 4K video streaming, smart city sensors and other emerging bandwidth-intensive applications.”

For those who want a bit of a recap. TIP is an open-source telco project, aimed at reducing the price point of operating mobile networks. It has been led from the beginning by Facebook, who might have thought it was about time to get back into the good books of the operators. There is only so long Facebook and other over-the-top content providers can use their infrastructures at no cost, without receiving passive aggressive digs.

On the business side of things, Facebook does need networks to get better as well. Video has been targeted as a massive growth area for the social media giant, but if the networks aren’t there to support the experience for the user, it is hardly going to be a successful venture. Finding cost effective solutions for the operators to roll out more advanced and cost effective infrastructure is very much in the interest of Zuckerberg and co.

TIP

The focus of this group will primarily be the design of nodes that combine radio transmitters and receivers, which make use of a mesh configuration, with traffic hopping from node to node to reach the reception point. Think of the signal bouncing around off nodes on utility poles, street lamps and the sides of buildings, before hitting a Wi-Fi access point, small cell or a building.

Using this method coverage could be provided to a pretty large area, but with a small number of nodes hooked up to the fibre infrastructure. In a perfect world, it is considerably more cost effective, much quicker to deploy and more flexible. Think about it this way, the less fibre which is going into the ground, the happier operators (and their investors) will be. Whether you’re talking about smart city applications, or mobile backhaul, there are certainly use cases for the group to target.

In terms of the work points for the group, this will be split into four areas. Firstly, a cost economics model, which will help operators determine whether the strategy is one which is orientated towards cost savings or revenue generation. We would assume this decision would have been made beforehand, but validation to build a business case for sign-off is always a useful tool to have.

Secondly, there will be a test and measurement module. You need to know whether the performance and capabilities of 60 GHz networking is actually worth it of course. There will also be network planning tools to help optimize the deployment of the nodes. And finally, best practise papers which range from obtaining spectrum covering permits and rules for attaching nodes to utility poles.

Qualcomm unveils 5G NR mmWave smartphone prototype

Mobile chip maker Qualcomm has come up with a testing platform designed to enable 5G New Radio OTA trials within weeks.

As with all ‘pre-5G’ announcements, this one is qualified with ‘3GPP-based’ in case you think they’ve gone mad and decided to invent their own version of 5G. This 5G NR platform operates in spectrum bands above 24 GHz, which Qualcomm is referring to as millimetre wave despite that generally accepted as 30 GHz up.

This being Qualcomm the press release is littered with statements that amount to “this all just goes to show how great we are”. While it’s understood that this is the essence of most press releases, a bit of subtlety never hurt anyone. Among the generic self-promotion is the revelation that this system is designed to road-test 5G NR communication in a smartphone form-factor, dealing with challenges such as hand-blocking of the signal with technologies such as beam tracking/steering.

“We are delivering on the promise of developing 5G NR mmWave technologies to enhance mobile broadband services,” said Cristiano Amon, President of Qualcomm CDMA Technologies. “Our 5G NR mmWave prototype system is proving that sustained mobile broadband communications and smartphone form-factor devices are progressing for 2019 launches — another powerful testament to Qualcomm Technologies’ continued leadership in developing next generation wireless technologies that push the boundaries of what is possible.”

Qualcomm has decided to share some of this awesomeness with Nokia, joining forces to try to accelerate 5G NR interoperability testing. Qualcomm did a survey recently that concluded half of consumers want a 5G phone, which it’s using as evidence that we need to get a move on. The testing will see the above Qualcomm prototype play nice with the ‘Nokia 5G FIRST solution’ to show off the full range of NR cleverness.

“The appetite for 5G technology is clear, amongst both consumers and communications service providers,” said Marc Rouanne, president of mobile networks, Nokia. “We firmly share Qualcomm’s view that the demand for wide-scale mobile 5G is accelerating, and that is why we are so enthusiastic to work jointly with Qualcomm on developing and driving commercial technology and applications based on 5G NR using our 5G FIRST.”

Amon also commented on this but it was more of the same. The testing is going to kick off later this later this year and is expected to involve operators around the world next year in the build up to the big Release 15 announcement in the second half of 2018. Here’s the latest 3GPP timeline that sort of clarifies things, we suppose.

3GPP release 15 timeline