As far as 5G smartphone chipsets go, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 may be the best known, but there’s one problem: It’s as expensive as it is powerful. The company’s new Snapdragon 690 chipset is a little different – instead of powering new flashy flagships, it goes into much more reasonably priced phones.
Smartphones using the high-quality Snapdragon 865, such as the OnePlus 8 and Galaxy S20 series, usually cost around $700 and above. The next 5G-capable step down from there, the Snapdragon 765, can usually be found in devices that cost between $500 and $700. (Outsiders, such as the $400 TCL 10 5G, do exist.) Meanwhile, phones with a relatively new, LTE-only Snapdragon 675 usually sell between $300 and $400. Although Qualcomm does not produce its own phones and cannot confirm what the typical Snapdragon 690 phone will cost, it seems clear that the age of the cheap 5G phone is almost here.
“Driving the expansion of 5G to the Snapdragon 6 series has the potential to make 5G accessible to more than 2 billion smartphone users around the world,” said Qualcomm president Cristiano Amon in a statement.
The great potential caveat here is what 5G this chipset supports. Unlike the Snapdragon 765 and 865, the 690 only fits nicely with sub-6 5G networks, not the mmWave networks that some wireless carriers have invested heavily in. However, this focus on sub-6 is far from unusual: The Global Mobile Suppliers Association discovered in April that only about 30 percent of “all announced 5G devices” support high-speed mmWave networks.
The 5G networks in the world still have a long way to go, so not everyone will be able to benefit from it all at once. However, Snapdragon 690 phones have other advantages: They will be able to make 4K HDR video on the cheap and can take pictures with a resolution of 192 megapixels. For those worried about pure horsepower, the chipset’s octa-core Kryo 560 CPU should be about 20 percent faster than its predecessor, and the GPU aboard the Adreno 619L should surpass the rifle found in the Snapdragon 675 by hand.
The most notable performance gain is due to the chipset’s improved AI engine, which is said to be 70 percent faster than the engine that came before. It may be difficult to come up with obvious ways in which an AI chip can help your daily workflow, but at least Qualcomm has an unexpected example: Zooming and switching between multiple rear cameras while recording video can be noticeably smoother. Throw in support for WiFi 6 and displays with 120Hz refresh rates, and it’s not hard to blur the line between midrange phones and their more first-rate cousins.
There’s no word on what the first commercially available Snapdragon 690 phone will be, but at least we have a sense of who’s going to make these things. HMD Global – Nokia brand stewards – have confirmed that they are working with the new chipset on a mid-range 5G device, just like LG, Motorola, TCL, Sharp, and the low-profile Wingtech. (You may not have heard of the latter company, but it quietly produces some of Samsung’s lower-end smartphones). However, don’t expect to wait much longer: Qualcomm says that the first of these devices will break cover in the second half of 2021.