Next year's iPhone: Does the modem really matter?

Qualcomm, MediaTek, or Intel—it's hard to care about who will make the modem in the 2019 (or 2020) iPhone.

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Update 07/06/18: An update to the original CTech report has clarified that “Sunny Peak” is only a Wi-Fi and Bluetooth product., not a 5G wireless product.

Do you know which company makes the modem in your iPhone?

If you’re a hardware geek like me, maybe. Apple sources modems from both Qualcomm and Intel, using slightly different modems in different models by carrier and region. The U.S. version of the iPhone for Sprint, Verizon, and U.S. Cellular uses a modem from Qualcomm (the X16), as does the carrier-unlocked version. The version sold by T-Mobile and AT&T uses an Intel modem (the XMM 7480). The biggest difference is that the Qualcomm modem supports both CDMA and GSM networks while the Intel one only supports GSM.

Recently, a report from CTech claimed that Apple was considering using Intel’s upcoming “Sunny Peak” wireless chip in the 2020 iPhone, but has since canceled its order. Should you care? Does it really make a difference? (Update: “Sunny Peak” is a Wi-Fi and Bluetooth chip, not 5G wireless, according to an update to CTech’s original report.)

The modem matters (sort of)

For most users, the company that makes the modem in your iPhone doesn’t really matter. To be sure, there are some feature differences between the cellular modems Apple selects for use in its iPhones. Currently, for example, the Intel modems don’t support CDMA networks, so if you want to jump ship to Sprint using your AT&T iPhone X with an Intel modem, you may have some connectivity problems.

There are some performance differences, too. As PCMag’s testing confirmed, the Qualcomm modem delivers slightly better performance, especially when the signal is very weak. Frankly, the difference between a download speed of 12 Mbps and 18 Mbps under challenging conditions is not likely to make a big difference in how you use your iPhone.

As a consumer, what matters most to you is a cellular modem’s supported wireless features, performance, and power utilization. For current iPhones, the Qualcomm chip is the better choice.

But for future iPhones—whether in 2019 or 2020—there’s just no way to know which company’s cellular chip is going to be the king of the hill. Every modem maker is rushing to incorporate emerging 5G standards in order to reduce power consumption and deliver better performance at a given signal strength. Even the spec sheets of future modems are of little use: There are so many variables in phone design, modem firmware, and operating system support that it’s nearly impossible for consumers to know what the “best” modem will be until it’s independently tested in a shipping product.

In other words, by the time the 2019 or 2020 iPhones ship, perhaps Intel will make the modem that would be the highest performing and most compatible. Maybe Qualcomm will. Maybe the best modem will come from MediaTek. Speculation at this point is almost pointless. You should care about the which brand of modem is in a shipping iPhone, but not so much about future iPhones.

Investors are the ones who should really care

If Apple was planning to buy Intel’s 5G modem and changed its mind, that would be big news—to Intel investors. Intel is pushing hard to bring 5G technologies to market (just like every other cellular modem manufacturer) and landing an iPhone contract would mean at least tens of millions of sales.

What’s more, if the canceled order were to change priorities of 5G development within Intel (as the original CTech report suggested), that too would be important to Intel investors.

When PCWorld’s Mark Hachman contacted Intel about these reports, the company provided the following statement:

Intel’s 5G customer engagements and roadmap have not changed for 2018 through 2020. We remain committed to our 5G plans and projects.”

That statement could mean that Apple and Intel are still on track to use Intel’s 5G modem in the 2020 iPhone. It could also mean no deal was ever finalized, and thus nothing has changed. However, it does seem to suggest that overall 5G development at Intel hasn’t changed at all. “Sunny Peak,” the product first referenced as a 5G modem in CTech’s story, is actually a Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radio that includes 802.11ad Wi-Gig. Maybe Apple had plans for that product, but is scrapping them (which is unrelated to Apple’s 5G wireless plans).

So yes, you should care about the modem in your iPhone. You want your phone to support the latest advanced wireless technologies. You want it to have a stable connection in challenging conditions. You want the battery to last longer. The particular modem in your iPhone impacts all these things.

But you shouldn’t care which company Apple uses to deliver those things. And for phones that are still one or two years down the road, trying to predict which company will offer the best combination of features and performance is a fool’s errand.

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