Qualcomm's lead in the mobile SoC and modem market is no longer as unassailable as it once was, but the company continues to be out in front when it comes to pushing new LTE technologies. Case in point: its new Snapdragon X16 modem, which together with the WTR5975 transceiver boasts Category 16 LTE download speeds of up to 1Gbps. Most of today's phones top out at 300Mbps or 450Mbps, and the upcoming Snapdragon 820 will only go up to 600Mbps. The X16 will also support upload speeds of up to 150Mbps, which is equal to or only slightly higher than upload rates supported by current LTE modems.
Most recent LTE speed increases have come via carrier aggregation, which essentially combines multiple chunks of spectrum across multiple antennas to improve bandwidth. Most of today's high-end phones use two or three chunks of 20MHz spectrum to achieve download speeds of up to 300 or 450Mbps, respectively. The Snapdragon X12 achieves its 600Mbps speeds by using three chunks of 20MHz spectrum plus a higher 256-QAM rather than 64-QAM, increasing the amount of data that can be transmitted over the same link from 75Mbps to 100Mbps (albeit at the cost of higher interference). The X16 uses a combination of technologies to hit its 1Gbps theoretical peak. From the press release:
The Snapdragon X16 LTE modem is designed to reach Gigabit Class LTE speeds using the same amount of spectrum as Category 9 LTE devices. By using carrier aggregation and 4x4 MIMO, the Snapdragon X16 LTE modem can receive 10 unique streams of data using only three 20 MHz carriers. Its support for 256-QAM boosts the peak throughput of each stream from ~75 Mbps to ~100 Mbps, with additional gains possible with modem data compression.
To increase the number of 20MHz chunks of spectrum available for use, the modem can also use licensed and unlicensed LTE spectrum simultaneously.
At first, this modem will only be available as a separate chip to implement alongside some other SoC—it's built on a 14nm process (presumably Samsung's) to save power relative to older modems. Apple uses separate Snapdragon modems alongside its A-series SoCs, and Samsung has been known to ship Qualcomm modems in certain versions of its phones even when they use Exynos SoCs. A Snapdragon SoC with one of the X16 LTE modems integrated will presumably follow at some point later in 2016 or perhaps 2017.
More speed is always nice, though Qualcomm's press release should be taken with a grain of salt. That gigabit figure is a theoretical number you're not likely to hit even if you're near a fully compatible network, and less-capable LTE networks won't be able to approach these speeds. The modems are sampling now and will be available in consumer devices in the second half of 2016.
Qualcomm also announced a handful of low-end phone SoCs and a new chip purpose-built specifically for wearables like Android Wear smartwatches. The lowest-end Snapdragon 425 is a 28nm chip that combines four 64-bit 1.4GHz ARM Cortex A53 CPU cores, an Adreno 308 GPU, a 150Mbps down/75Mbps up LTE modem, and 802.11ac Wi-Fi. It's obviously intended for low-cost phones, since its display support tops out at 1280×800, but it's nice to see formerly high-end features like LTE and 802.11ac making it into cheap chips.
The Snapdragon 435 and 625 are both a bit more interesting and will probably find a lot of success in mid-market, premium-ish phones from Chinese OEMs. The 435 is a 28nm chip that combines eight 1.4GHz Cortex A53 cores with an Adreno 505 GPU—500-series GPUs support new graphics APIs like Vulkan, which should boost performance as well as open up possibilities for GPU-accelerated computing in other apps. It has 1080p display support, a 300Mbps down/100Mbps up LTE modem, and incremental improvements for everything from camera support to RAM speed compared to the 425.
The 625 provides a relatively small jump in capabilities from there, but it's built on a 14nm process which ought to help it save some energy and allows Qualcomm to boost the clock speed of the eight Cortex A53 CPU cores to 2.0GHz. An Adreno 506 GPU, a 300Mbps down/150Mbps up LTE modem, 1920×1200 display support (making it a better fit for some tablets and convertibles), USB 3.0 support, and support for better cameras and faster RAM round out its most notable improvements over the 435.
Finally, the Snapdragon Wear 2100 is a new SoC that seems ideally suited for Android Wear (though it will no doubt find its way into other things as well). It combines four 32-bit ARM Cortex A7 CPU cores, an Adreno 304 GPU, and support for up to 640×480 displays. It will come in two flavors: a "tethered" version that supports 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1 and is designed primarily to be paired with your phone, and a "connected" version that adds a basic LTE modem for standalone devices. Qualcomm says that both versions should use "25 percent less power," presumably compared to the cut-down Snapdragon 400 that many smartwatch OEMs are using in their designs now.
The Snapdragon 425, 435, and 625 should all show up in phones in the second half of the year. Availability of the Wear 2100 hasn't been announced, but Qualcomm says "numerous wearables powered by the Snapdragon Wear 2100 processor are already in development."