Up until COVID-19 cases began to spread across the globe, 2020’s 5G device sales estimates were universally strong — much higher than 2019, and well on the way to establishing the next-generation cellular standard as a must-have smartphone feature. Though the pandemic has chilled retail sales in some countries, all signs continue to point to strong 5G uptake in China, so it’s no surprise that key chipmakers Qualcomm and MediaTek are debuting new 5G system on chip (SoC) solutions to win over masses of new users.
As one of the decade’s top transformative technologies, 5G is expected to reshape individual industries and the global economy, enabling everything from high-bandwidth communications to remote-controlled factories and wirelessly connected autonomous vehicles. But in most countries, 5G’s ascendance depends on both infrastructure and consumer devices, such that growing demand for 5G devices will support greater investments in network hardware. Even in China, which has raced ahead of other countries in infrastructure thanks to government-coordinated, widespread 5G network deployments, affordable 5G devices are still needed to win over price- and spec-conscious Chinese users. Market leaders Huawei and Samsung make their own 5G chips, while rivals primarily use Qualcomm and MediaTek parts, increasingly seeking great performance at consumer-friendly $300 to $500 retail price points. The new chips may seem iterative, but they’re laser-focused on rapidly growing 5G’s consumer market share, paving the way for massive network deployments across the world.
If you followed Qualcomm’s December announcements of the flagship Snapdragon 865 and midrange 765/765G, today’s newly announced Snapdragon 768G may seem like a pretty obvious alternative in the middle — an affordable all-in-one Android SoC with integrated 5G. By contrast with the 765G, however, 5G phones made with the 768G will look and feel noticeably faster. Qualcomm has boosted the Kyro 475 CPU cores from 2.4GHz to 2.8GHz to achieve a 15% general processing boost, while the Adreno 620 GPU gains up to 15% faster performance — on top of the 765G’s 10% gain over the stock 765. Additionally, Adreno graphics driver updates are supported, a first for the Snapdragon 7 series, expanding Qualcomm’s PC-like benefit for graphics fiends using the Android platform.
As its “G” naming suggests, the Snapdragon 768G is built to appeal to gamers, but the performance improvements will benefit both games and high-bandwidth videos. Unlike the 765G, which supports only 60Hz screens, the 768G supports 120Hz displays — closer to the 144Hz frame rate of the more expensive Snapdragon 865. If you look carefully at the specs, you’ll notice that the Bluetooth has been bumped from 5.0 in the 765G to version 5.2 in the 768G, taking a step beyond even the flagship 865’s Bluetooth 5.1. That said, most of the 768G’s other specs are the same as the 765G’s, including a Snapdragon X52 integrated 5G modem with 3.7Gbps download and 1.6Gbps upload peaks, plus the same fifth-generation AI engine as before.
For Qualcomm, which heavily markets its premium flagship-class chips, the Snapdragon 768G offers device makers a way to win customers who want high-end features but don’t want to pay through the nose for them. The first phone to use the new chip is the Redmi K30 5G Racing Edition, which sounds like it should be expensive, but will actually retail for only 2,000 Chinese yuan ($282). That’s cheap enough to help 5G make further inroads everywhere the phone is released, starting with sales in China on May 14.
MediaTek generally supplies low- to midrange smartphone makers, so the Dimensity 1000+ is something of a step up for the company: another way to compete with Qualcomm’s deluxe Snapdragon SoCs without matching their full performance. Dimensity 1000+ is based heavily on the previously announced 1000, but adds support for 144Hz screen refresh rates, 4K HDR video quality improvements, and HyperEngine enhancements to benefit games — multi-peripheral support, better networking performance, and processor power management.
On the 5G side, there aren’t any changes, but MediaTek is still claiming “best-in-class” power efficiency due to the integrated 5G modem, plus “superfast” speeds thanks to carrier aggregation technology, and dual SIM support. We’re not likely to see major 5G component improvements from either MediaTek or Qualcomm until 2021, when the Snapdragon X60 modem and MediaTek’s corresponding competitor become available.
Rumors suggest that the Dimensity 1000+ will appear first in the Z1 5G, a phone from iQoo — a gaming-focused sub-brand of Vivo, sold largely to customers in China and India. There’s no price yet for the Z1 5G, which is scheduled to debut on May 19, but iQoo phones tend to be very affordable. Collectively, the new MediaTek and Qualcomm chips suggest that affordable gaming and high frame rate video performance are emerging as major potential marketing points for smartphone makers, though only time will tell whether spec-bumped chips with support for these features wind up in enough popular phones to move the industry’s needle.