Qualcomm’s Mid-Tier 5G Chipsets Expand Phone Design Possibilities

Phone-makers tap its mid-range platforms to cater to untapped segments

In a study of recent mid-tier 5G smartphones featuring Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 690 and Snapdragon 750G 5G system-on-chip (SoC), we noted a new trend in smartphone design made possible by the chipmaker’s freshly diversified mid-range SoC offerings.

In the past six months, the likes of OnePlus, Motorola, Nokia and Samsung have all introduced new 5G smartphones with a retail price of $300 to $400 and packed with attractive features such as triple cameras, biometrics, generous amounts of memory and displays larger than 6.5 inches. As providers of merchant silicon, such as Qualcomm and MediaTek, continue to more finely segment their 5G SoCs, smartphone-makers are taking advantage of the different chipset features and costs to create more exciting and marketable mid-range 5G devices.

Mid-range SoCs are often overlooked in wider conversations about smartphone design. Traditionally, affordable but middling smartphone designs offered little that was different other than a practical design. However, recent mid-range 5G devices show that this doesn’t have to be the case, presenting an exciting opportunity for leading mobile 5G chipset providers to play a major role in an increasingly segmented global smartphone market.

Features Trading and Design Compromises

The design ethos for flagship smartphones isn’t influenced by cost, but by the need to bring products to the market that capture consumers’ imagination. At the other extreme, designing low-end handsets is all about cost, so these devices are ultimately made up of design compromises to hit a particular price point. Somewhere in between these two extremes sits the mid-range segment, where historically products haven’t produced a visceral customer response, but aimed to tick the necessary boxes for the needs of the market.

However, this design model is now shifting as chipset suppliers such as Qualcomm start to offer more variety in mid-range chipsets. But why are they doing that?

The old norm in smartphone design was to scale down designs as price points shifted lower and lower. This meant that a flagship design could have a six-inch display or larger; a mid-tier model would be defined by a smaller display and a low-end phone by an even smaller screen. This physical scaling of features to price no longer works as the industry moves from 4G to 5G. Customers expect 5G smartphones to offer a much richer experience than with previous wireless generations, and a larger display to take advantage of the content that 5G unlocks.

This evolution means that 5G phone designs can’t scale simply in size, but instead must scale in quality of components according to cost. Today, even the lowest-cost $200 5G smartphone models on the market have 6.5-inch displays, albeit a lower-resolution LCD panel. This design shift forces smartphone-makers to consider new design combinations that produce a viable 5G design at specific price points. This change, along with efforts from Qualcomm and others to “waterfall” premium technologies into mid-tier devices, is driving a wave of new smartphone designs to serve consumers at every price point.

The growing diversity of 5G SoCs is therefore a natural outcome of this changing market and supply chain dynamic. Today, mid-range 5G smartphones are designed to appeal to a consumer’s sense of value as well as design virtue. The following table demonstrates this point with two mid-tier products on the market using Qualcomm’s latest mid-range 5G SoCs.

Typical flagship smartphoneSamsung Galaxy A42 5GOnePlus Nord N10 5GTypical low-cost smartphone
Price segment$800$400$300$200
DisplayFull high definition, 6.5-inch or larger OLEDHigh definition, 6.5-inch AMOLEDFull high definition, 6.5-inch IPS LCDHigh definition, 6.5-inch LCD
SoC platform (Qualcomm)Snapdragon 888Snapdragon 750GSnapdragon 690Snapdragon 480
5G and radio frequency capabilitiesMillimetre wave (800 MHz) and sub-6 GHz (200 MHz)Millimetre wave (400 MHz) and sub-6 GHz (100 MHz)Sub-6 GHz (100 MHz)Sub-6 GHz (100 MHz)
CameraTriple or quad camera with optical zoomTriple camera: 48 megapixel, 8 megapixel and 2 megapixelsTriple camera: 64 megapixel, 8 megapixel and 2 megapixelTriple camera: 13 megapixel, 5 megapixel and 2 megapixel
Memory and storage8GB and 128GB4GB and 128GB6GB and 128 GB4GB and 64GB
Biometrics3D face scanner and ultrasonic under-display fingerprint sensorCapacitive fingerprint sensorCapacitive fingerprint sensorCapacitive fingerprint sensor
Colour, materials and finishPremium glass and metal with high-quality finishGlass, plastic and metal frameGlass, plastic and metal framePrimarily plastic

These specifications show that despite the drastic difference in price, 5G smartphones are no longer differentiated in their size but in the quality of their components. This important change is bringing new challenges and opportunities to smartphone manufacturers in the transition to 5G. By enabling this industry evolution, chipset providers such as Qualcomm are playing a large role in supporting the industry as it adjusts to a new age of smartphone design.

A New Model for 5G Phone Design

Our teardown analyses of the OnePlus Nord N10 5G and Samsung Galaxy A42 5G identified two interesting design approaches taking advantage of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 600 and 700 series 5G SoCs. Specifically, the Snapdragon 690 5G platform, which represents the top end of the company’s mid-tier SoCs, and the Snapdragon 750G, the lowest-priced option in its premium-segment 700 series.

At a retail price of $300, the OnePlus Nord N10 is clearly the most affordable of the two phones, yet it comes with a stronger set of triple cameras and larger DRAM configuration. The Samsung Galaxy A42 offers an average memory density of 4GB of RAM, but uses bill-of-materials savings to add millimetre-wave 5G radio frequency, as well as include Samsung’s brand-defining and more premium AMOLED screen.

Each of these mid-range phones are targeted at specific sub-segments of the market. The OnePlus device courts value-seeking young consumers who want a solid phone performance and a good experience with photography features, whereas Samsung’s phone is designed mainly for business or enterprise users looking for technology that improves worker productivity, such as OLED screens and ultrafast millimetre-wave 5G.

As the global smartphone market matures, phone-makers will set their sight on using major components such as SoCs to help their products stand out and compete in untapped market sub-segments. To meet their customers’ needs, leading mobile chipset providers such as Qualcomm are diversifying their product offerings to help manufacturers succeed in an evolving and hypercompetitive marketplace.