Intel unveils XMM 8160 5G modem for a 2H 2019 arrival

Intel is shaking up its plans for its rollout of 5G modems today. Just under a year ago, the company took the wraps off its XMM 8060 modem. The XMM 8060 promised support for the 5G New Radio (5G NR) standard in both Standalone (SA) and Non-Standalone (NSA) forms, as well as backward compatibility with 2G, 3G (including CDMA), and 4G networks. Today, the company announced that it plans to pull in the launch of its new XMM 8160 modem to the second half of 2019, or by more than six months, according to its press release. The XMM 8160 claims support for 5G speeds of up to 6 Gbps.

Past that, though, the XMM 8160 doesn't seem to unveil many new capabilities versus those announced for the XMM 8060. It has the same multi-mode chops promised by the 8060 across 2G, 3G, and 4G legacy networks, in addition to support for 5G NR SA and NSA across sub-6-GHz and mmWave spectra. Intel highlights the fact that the XMM 8160's backward and forward capabilities are all wrapped up in a single chip, though, and that could be an important distingushing point for the blue team.

In contrast, Qualcomm's Snapdragon X50 modem has to piggyback on Snapdragon SoCs that have modems for LTE and other legacy standards baked in to let a Snapdragon smartphone cover all its bases. Intel's purported single-chip approach could be important for companies who want to integrate a complete backward- and forward-compatible modem into products that don't necessarily have LTE support to begin with. That covers most every non-Qualcomm notebook PC sold today, to name just one attractive market that Intel might want to help itself to.

Intel also anticipates that implementing the XMM 8160 and its supporting transceivers in products might be less demanding of board area than other early 5G implementations, an important consideration in smartphones and tablets. The company produced a not-to-scale graphic to demonstrate that a complete XMM 8160 implementation will need just the modem itself, a 5G mmWave transceiver, and a seven-mode RF transceiver to cover sub-6-GHz operation. Whether the company's supporting graphic is meant to show the advantages of the XMM 8160 versus what would have been required to implement the XMM 8060 isn't made clear, however. It's also not whether Intel might be illustrating what it thinks would be required for Qualcomm's partners to implement the Snapdragon X50 modem alongside another Snapdragon SoC.

It's hard not to see this graphic as a dig at Qualcomm, however, as that company's recently-introduced QTM052 5G RF transceivers only claim support for the mmWave spectrum, not sub-6-GHz bands. Early Qualcomm 5G phones might need separate RF transceivers for sub-6-GHz 5G operation and another legacy networking standards as a result, but until real devices hit the market, we won't know for sure. It is clear that Intel is fudging a bit by leaving the primary SoC of any mobile device that implements the XMM 8160 out of the picture, though, while the legacy modem for Snapdragon devices is already part of the board area occupied by those SoCs. That omission might make Intel's graphic more dramatic than actual implementations will be.

Whatever its implementation details may be, the timeline for the introduction of the XMM 8160 is fascinating on its own. Apple is Intel's largest client for modems, and it regularly releases new iPhones in the fall of most years. Intel's second-half-of-2019 release window for the XMM 8160 could suggest that the first 5G-capable iPhones are coming in that time frame. As with so much else about 5G, we'll just have to wait and see.

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