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The Qualcomm Snapdragon 690 brings 5G to cheaper smartphones.

Qualcomm

Qualcomm on Tuesday introduced the newest 5G chip in its lineup, and this one’s targeted at cheap smartphones

The processor, called the Snapdragon 690, marks the first time Qualcomm has offered 5G toward the lower-end of its smartphone chip lineup. It’s had 5G modems for premium smartphones since 2016 (though they didn’t start appearing in devices until a couple of years later), and it followed up with processors for mid-range devices late last year. Those devices haven’t come cheap. 

The Galaxy S10 5G — introduced last year — cost $1,299, while the regular S10 started at $900. Newer 5G premium phones are slightly less expensive (the Galaxy S20 from earlier this year starts at $999), but they’re still not accessible to everyone. Qualcomm’s 7-series chips, arriving in phones this year, will bring down costs a lot, but it’s the 6-series that gets into what many people dub inexpensive.

Phones based on the Snapdragon 690 will cost in the $300 to $500 range when they launch later this year, and they will include some features normally found only in premium devices. By comparison, Apple’s new iPhone SE, which only runs on 4G networks, starts at $399. The Snapdragon 690 will appear in cheaper phones from companies like Nokia handset maker HMD, LG, Motorola, Sharp and TCL, which sells phones under Alcatel and TCL branding. 

“We want to bring more flagship experiences … to billions — things like immersive camera experiences, intensive and interactive gaming, [and] fast responding AI voice assistants,” Deepu John, senior director of product management at Qualcomm, said during a briefing with reporters ahead of the company’s news. 

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5G is the new, super-fast wireless technology that’s been rolling out across the world. It’s live in many major cities in the US, as well as places in China, South Korea and the UK, among other countries. The technology is poised to change the way we live and is expected to power everything from self-driving cars to advanced augmented reality experiences.

This year was supposed to be the year 5G went mainstream. But the spread of the novel coronavirus has caused doubts about how widely the technology will be used this year. The new coronavirus, which causes an illness called COVID-19, was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. Since that time, it’s become a full-blown pandemic, infecting over 8.1 million people around the globe. The outbreak has caused cities and entire countries around the globe to issue lockdowns, shuttering stores, canceling events and forcing citizens to stay at home to help contain the coronavirus. 

As a result, smartphone shipments saw their biggest ever drop in February as the novel coronavirus ravaged China, one of the world’s largest markets and a vital manufacturing hub. And sales should hit a 10-year low this year

Cheaper 5G phones

While the pandemic has hurt phone sales in places like the US, Qualcomm, Swedish networking gear maker Ericsson and others have said it ultimately won’t stop the expansion of 5G around the globe over the coming years. Phones are considered must-have devices. Still, people watching their spending may increasingly opt for cheaper devices, like those enabled by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 690. 

The Snapdragon 690 includes 4K HDR support to capture more than a billion shades of color and shoot photos at up to 192 megapixels. It also supports 120Hz displays for fast refresh rates and smooth scrolling. The Snapdragon 690 comes with Qualcomm’s latest AI engine for smart cameras, voice translation, AI-based imaging and AI-enhanced gaming. 

The processor also packs in Qualcomm’s new X51 5G modem, which delivers multigigabit speeds. The modem can download data at up to 2.5Gbps over 5G networks and 1.2Gbps over 4G LTE. And its upload speed peaks at 660Mbps over 5G and 210Mbps over LTE. 

It only supports one flavor of 5G, though. The X51 runs only on lower-band airwaves, not the ultra-fast millimeter wave network favored by carriers like Verizon. Those lower bands have been favored in places like China and Europe, as well as by US carriers like T-Mobile

“There’s absolutely no doubt in our commitment to millimeter wave and making it ubiquitous,” Kedar Kondap, vice president of product management, said during a briefing with reporters. “It’s all a function of timing … and prioritization right now.”

While the Snapdragon 690 will push 5G into less expensive phones, it’s not the lowest-end chip lineup offered by Qualcomm. The company also offers its 4-series and 2-series processors, which don’t yet have 5G. It hasn’t provided a timeline for when the new wireless technology will come to those processor families.