Enlarge /. The Snapdragon 865.
Qualcomm really got a grip on the flagship SoC market for 2020 with the Snapdragon 865. The new chip was a major departure from previous years, thanks to Qualcomm's aggressive push for 5G, which comes with design requirements that make phones bigger, hotter and more expensive than in previous years. While we've seen Samsung and many Chinese OEMs use 865 super flagships, which are more expensive than ever, the cost for some OEMs just seems too high. Two recently published reports show that both Google and LG will do without the Snapdragon 865 this year and opt for a cheaper chip instead.
For Google's next flagship smartphone, the Pixel 5, some signs have emerged that indicate that the Snapdragon 865 is not being used. Pixel phones always appear in the Android code repository with fish-like code names before release, and in January, XDA developers spotted them Three devices code-named "Sunfish", "Redfin" and "Bramble". A recent demolition of the Google camera app gave us definitions for each of these code names. "Sunfish" was called "photo_pixel_2020_midrange_config", also known as Pixel 4a, while Bramble and Redfin were called "photo_pixel_2020_config", which should be Pixel 5 and Pixel 5 XL.
As reported by XDA in January, the Pixel 5 and 5 XL do not use Qualcomm's flagship Snapdragon 865. In the Android code base, the Snapdragon 765G runs on both, a chip that is one step below the 865 in the Qualcomm product range. There is no Snapdragon 865 Google phone in the Android repository.
The Korean site in Naver reports that LG is taking a similar approach to its flagship 2020, the LG G9 ThinQ: Instead of delivering the 865, the company also opts for the cheaper 765G. HMD recently did the same with the launch of the Nokia 8.3.
The cost of smartphones is damn high!
There weren't many yet, but the Snapdragon 865 flagships we've seen so far have been more expensive than ever. The Samsung Galaxy S20 costs $ 1,000 for the smallest version and $ 1,400 for the S20 Ultra. Last year, the Galaxy S10e started at $ 750, the S10 at $ 900, and the S10 + at $ 1,000. The Sony Xperia 1 II will cost € 1,199 ($ 1,287) in Europe, while the Sony Xperia 1 will only cost € 799 ($ 857) from 2019.
There are several reasons for the higher price. First, the Snapdragon 865 has taken a step back in terms of SoC integration compared to previous years. The SoC does not have an integrated modem. Instead, 4G and 5G connectivity will be moved to a separate chip called the X55 modem. Qualcomm requires that the 865 be bundled with the X55 modem, so 5G is required for every Snapdragon 865 phone. The additional chip takes up more space in the phone, costs more, and requires a more complicated motherboard design. If OEMs want to keep the 5G speed promise, they need mmWave, which requires placing several additional RF modules around the phone. The mmWave functionality is optional, and for the relatively cheaper or smaller 5G phones like the base model Galaxy S20, mmWave is omitted.
It's not just the additional Snapdragon 865 hardware that leads to higher phone costs. The space and power requirements are causing OEMs to make phones even larger than last year, which will encourage larger screens and larger batteries. In many cases, you can't compare the price of 5G from apple to apple because everything else has gotten bigger as well. So the cost of the 865 is not just the cost of the chip package itself, but also the larger, more power-hungry phones.
According to reports, both Google and LG opt for the Snapdragon 765G, a chip one step below the Snapdragon 865. Instead of being a little worse in every way, the Snapdragon 765G actually outperforms the 865 in one area: It is Qualcomm's first SoC with an integrated 5G modem. Instead of the 865's two-chip design, everything in the 765G comes in a neat single-chip package. With this design, OEMs can maintain the simpler one-chip SoC solutions that were common in 4G phones in 2019. Not only is this design cheaper directly, it should also help reduce costs while taking up less space and using less power.
The 765G is a bit slower than the 865, but not dramatic. The 865 is a 7 nm SoC with eight cores, four A77 cores and four A55 cores. The 765G uses two older A76 cores and six A55 cores. For companies like Google with strong software optimization, this may not be noticed at all.
If you've been looking for a phone upgrade this year and the outrageous prices of the 2020 flagships scared you away, cheaper phones might be on the way later this year.