5G Phones Are Crazy Expensive, But This Chip Could Change That

The first 5G phones that started arriving in the U.S. this month share at least one trait beside the ability to connect to faster 5G networks — they're also pretty expensive. But a new 5G chipset just unveiled by MediaTek could broaden the range of 5G-ready phones starting next year.

At the Computex trade show in Taiwan, MediaTek announced a new integrated system-on-chip meant to power 5G-capable phones. The chipset includes the Helio M70 5G modem the chip maker showed off during Mobile World Congress earlier this year.

As significant as the 5G modem is, it's not the only noteworthy thing about MediaTek's new smartphone chipset. The 7-nanometer 5G SoC will feature the latest Cortex-A77 CPU and Mali-G77 GPU designs unveiled by ARM at Computex earlier this week. The chipset has a new AI processing unit — the third-generation of MediaTek's AI efforts, the company says — that's capable of more tasks like de-blurring photos captured by a phone's camera. MediaTek's new SoC can also support 80-megapixel cameras while offering 4K video encoding and decoding at 60 frames per second.

But since we're living at the dawn of the age of 5G, it's that integrated modem that catches the eye. It's capable of delivering 4.7 Gbps download speeds and 2.5 Gbps upload speeds on networks capable of providing that. It also works with sub-6GHz 5G networks, which figure to be more widespread than the mmWave-based networks that have popped up initially.

The modem on MediaTek's new SoC also supports standalone and non-standalone network architectures, something that increases its appeal to wireless network operators. The modem also offers multimode support, meaning it can connect to anything from 2G to 4G networks for whenever 5G isn't available.

Contrast that with Qualcomm's X50 modem found in current 5G phones like the Galaxy S10 5G. That modem can only connect to 5G, requiring the phone to include a separate LTE modem. Qualcomm's X55 5G modem integrates compatibility with other networks, and adds  standalone/non-standalone support among other features. You'll find the X55 in phones later this year.

MediaTek's 5G SoC should extend 5G support to different types of phones beyond high-priced premium handsets.  Russ Mestechkin, MediaTek's senior director for sales and business development in the U.S. and Latin America, described the new chipset as "flagship quality. You could build a best-in-class phone with it." But he also acknowledged that MediaTek is "very much in the mainstream company" when it comes to mobile chips, so expect to see this chipset in a less pricey category of phones.

MediaTek says the 5G SoC will be available in the third quarter of 2019. Look for phones powered by the chipset to arrive by early next year.

Image Credit: MediaTek

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.