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New Round of iPhone X Modem Testing Shows Qualcomm Beating Intel

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When Apple launched the iPhone 7 last year, it broke with its usual tradition and adopted two different modems for different versions of the device. Testing then showed that performance wasn’t equivalent between the two, with Qualcomm modems generally outperforming Intel, particularly in lower signal areas. After the iPhone X launch, it looked like Intel’s performance might have improved or even bested Qualcomm, at least on some carriers, but more careful testing suggests that’s not the case.

PCMag reports on extensive testing by Cellular Insights and focused on testing LTE Band 4, the band used by every major US carrier but Sprint. While both Qualcomm and Intel fielded new modems for the iPhone X (Intel’s XMM7480 versus Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X16), the performance rankings still favor Qualcomm overall.

ModemPerf

Intel has, however, improved its performance relative to 2017, and now trails Qualcomm by a smaller amount. But the low-signal area — arguably the point where you want a smartphone to perform the best — still favors Qualcomm.

ModemPerf23

In some ways, the iPhone is the worst platform for examining raw modem performance. Apple puts a great deal of emphasis on guaranteeing the same performance no matter what hardware model you buy, though its efforts to maintain parity haven’t always been completely successful. The X16 supports features that the XMM 7860 lacks, including 4×4 MIMO antennas and four-way carrier aggregation. Cellular service providers in the US currently use both of those features, but Apple locks them out because the XMM 7480 doesn’t support them.

Still, there’s a larger issue in-play here. Qualcomm and Apple are locked in a vicious battle over patents and royalty payments, with Apple arguing it shouldn’t have to pay what it views as extortionate rates, and Qualcomm defending its licensing practices as fair and reasonable. Courts in other countries have not agreed with Qualcomm thus far, though this has no impact on US judicial decisions.

But whether Apple wins a lawsuit against Qualcomm, it’s clearly looking for a new modem supplier, and Intel has been maneuvering itself to step into that gap. If Intel keeps improving, it should close the feature and performance gap with Qualcomm by 2018 or 2019. Don’t be surprised if Qualcomm modems go away thereafter. Apple would like to be leading with headline-quality modem support, and Intel’s the only other player in town that might be able to provide it, at least until 5G modems start shipping.

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