Oppo zooms into Europe with the Reno 5G smartphone

Chinese smartphone maker Oppo has joined the likes of Xiaomi in seeking its fortunes further afield.

Oppo held its official European launch yesterday, with its new Reno 5G smartphone leading the charge. As well as a 5G modem, the main USP seems to be a camera that promises ‘lossless’ 10x hybrid zoom. Digital zoom tends to result in a loss of resolution, while optical zoom requires the physical movement of the lens, something that’s difficult to achieve to any great extend in a smartphone camera. Oppo seems to be saying it has achieved the best of both worlds.

On top of that (literally) is a front camera that pings out from the upper edge of the phone, thus enabling it to provide a screen uninterrupted by holes, notches, etc. Oppo has decided to equate this gimmick to a shark’s fin for reasons best known to its marketing department. The screen is a hefty 6.6” 1080p AMOLED and it comes with 256GB storage, so this is a pretty top-specced device.

In the UK EE will be the exclusive supplier of the Oppo Reno 5G, initially at least. “EE customers with an Oppo Reno 5G will be able to get the most from our new super-fast, high capacity 5G network,” said Sharon Meadows, Director of Devices, Partnerships & Business Development at EE. “Whether they are watching 4K content, trying out AR experiences or gaming with their friends, the Reno 5G will let them tap into the game-changing speeds and connectivity that 5G will bring.”

EE hasn’t committed to a price or release date but we would expect it to cost £800-900 SIM-free. Oppo has been a top five global smartphone brand for some time but has been slower than fellow Chinese vendors Huawei and Xiaomi to expand internationally. The European launch of the Reno 5G changes that and seems like a fairly aggressive statement of intent by Oppo. Here’s a vid of the launch.

 

Full-year global smartphone market declines for the first time

For five consecutive quarters the global smartphone market has registered year-on-year decline, marking the first time it has shrunk on annual basis since the first iPhone defined the category in 2007.

The size of the contraction is believed to be around 4-5%, according to some research firms. Among the leading smartphone makers, Huawei was the only one that has bucked the trend by increasing its sales volume and vastly improving its market share. By some estimate it is almost neck and neck with Apple.

“Huawei grew 35 percent and shipped a record 205.8 million smartphones globally in full-year 2018,” said Woody Oh, Director at Strategy Analytics. “Huawei is now just a whisker behind Apple, who shipped 206.3 million iPhones last year. Huawei is massively outgrowing the iPhone and we expect Huawei to overtake Apple on a full-year basis worldwide for the first time in 2019.”

In general, the leading Chinese brands, including OPPO, vivo, and Xiaomi (in addition to Huawei) have been aggressively expanding overseas to compensate the weak domestic market. According to the estimates by Counterpoint Research, 46% of the Chinese brands’ total volume was shipped outside of China, up from 33% a year ago. “The collective smartphone shipment growth of emerging markets such as India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Russia and others was not enough to offset the decline in China, which was responsible for almost 1/3 of global smartphone shipments in 2018. With China showing little or no sign of recovery due to various politico-economic factors, Chinese brands are looking to expand overseas,” said Shobhit Srivastava, an analyst from Counterpoint. “To increase market share, Chinese brands have been aggressive in both hardware/software design and marketing.”

Despite being badly hit in the smartphone market in 2018 (and foreseeing continued difficulties in 2019), Samsung was still able to hold on to the overall market leader position. “Samsung shipped 69.3 million smartphones worldwide in Q4 2018, dipping 7 percent annually from 74.4 million units in Q4 2017. Samsung remains the world’s number one smartphone vendor, despite intense competition from Apple, Huawei and others across core markets of India, Europe and the US,” commented Neil Mawston, Executive Director at Strategy Analytics.

Calculating Q4 was made further complicated as this was the first quarter that Apple would not publish the iPhone shipment volume (though it continues to publish iPhone revenues). We sampled three research firms’ published numbers on the market size and vendor share, each of them making their judgement call on Apple as well as other firms that do not publish their shipments.

Both Counterpoint Research and Strategy Analytics believed Apple sold 66 million iPhones in the final quarter of 2018, presumably by applying the announced year-on-year 15% decline of iPhone revenues directly on the volume. This is a crude methodology, as it would assume the average selling price (ASP) of the iPhones has remained constant from a year ago. The new models released in 2018 were sold at much higher price points than their predecessors from 2017. To couple this with Apple’s decision to discontinue some older, cheaper models, the iPhone ASP should only go up, which means its volume decline should be bigger than 15%, though by how much is anyone’s guess.

On the other hand, Canalys estimated that 71.7 million iPhones were sold in Q4, or a 7% decline from Q4 2017. As a matter of fact, the firm, based on this estimate, declared that Apple overtook Samsung to be the market leader in Q4. This calculation implies Apple must have vastly discounted the iPhones to drive up volume. This is not entirely impossible, but it has not been reported broadly.

Smartphone 2018

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.

Turns out Qualcomm’s Chinese buddies oppose Broadcom’s takeover bid

Qualcomm seems keen to enlist the services of its new set of Chinese allies in some of its many other fights.

A report in the FT (sub required) claims “Qualcomm has won the backing of a group of Chinese smartphone manufacturers in its fight to fend off a $130bn hostile bid from rival Broadcom.” Those vendors are: Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo, and by staggering coincidence the three of them have just pledged their undying loyalty to Qualcomm as customers of its 5G chips.

“When we first heard of [the Broadcom bid], our biggest concern was, if it happened, would there still be era-defining communications products?” said Lin Bin, President of Xiaomi, and the FT didn’t seem to get any other quotes from smartphone vendors.

As well as the ongoing Broadcom thing Qualcomm still hasn’t had its acquisition of NXP approved, with the Chinese being the last set of regulators to make up their mind on the matter. With that in mind Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon has been buttering up the Chinese government while he’s over there, and apparently reckons all the friends it has made in China will give it brownie points with the regulators.

“The remarks by Qualcomm’s partners will certainly influence any future decision by Chinese regulators over the Broadcom bid,” said Cui Kai, an analyst at IDC, in the FT piece. “China is trying to upgrade its manufacturing. These manufacturers highly rely on Qualcomm, and that will be an important consideration for the regulators.”

Amon concluded that, since US companies like Apple are giving it such a hard time, then China suddenly looks like a more rewarding place to hang out, even going so far as to praise China as a good place to do business with intellectual property. This would appear to put Qualcomm squarely at odds with the US government and may yet end up being a case of: out of the frying pan, into the fire.

Qualcomm tries to make friends and influence people in China

Embattled chip giant Qualcomm is so keen to acquire new allies it has held a special event in China to court its smartphone vendors.

In common with the rest of the industry it’s all about 5G this year, and for the foreseeable future, for Qualcomm. We’re already all too aware how aroused telcos’ marketing departments are at the prospect of slapping 5G on everything, on the assumption that they’ll flog loads more of it as a consequence. This trend is likely to be most conspicuous among smartphone vendors.

A lot of these are Chinese, so it makes sense for Qualcomm to make a bee-line for them, especially since the only other two of note are Samsung, which has an ambivalent chip relationship with Qualcomm, and Apple, which seems to actively despise Qualcomm. The result is the ‘5G Pioneer Initiative’, which involves Oppo, Vivo, Xiaomi, Lenovo, ZTE and Wingtech. What, no Huawei?

“5G will bring massive new opportunities to the mobile industry, and we are excited to work with these manufacturers on this 5G Pioneer Initiative,” said Cristiano Amon, president of Qualcomm. “Qualcomm Technologies has close relationships within China’s mobile and semiconductor ecosystem, and we’ll continue to work with this ecosystem to drive innovation as we move from the 3G/4G era to the 5G era.” Everyone else said stuff too, but it was more of the same. Suffice it to say they’re all pleased, excited and committed.

On top of that Lenovo, Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi all signed a memorandum of understanding (where’s the photo? How do we know it happened unless there’s a photo of loads of people in suits standing behind a desk with a bit of paper on it?) for the multi-year purchase of RF front-end solutions.

Apparently all this MoU amounts to is a statement of intent to purchase some gear from Qualcomm, but with no obligations, so you have to wonder what the point of it is. Our guess would be that this is some bullish messaging directed at investors currently being courted by Broadcom as part of its hostile takeover bid. Lots of spokespeople said things, again.