Market Insight

Years in the Making, Intel modem chip finally returns to iPhone

September 21, 2016


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After months, if not years, of whispers about a significant LTE thin modem design win, Intel’s 3rd generation XMM7360 CAT-9 modem was discovered inside certain models of the latest Apple iPhone 7 and 7 Plus.  This was the first time since the iPhone 4 in 2010 that Intel (then Infineon) had a design win in the premier smartphone brand; back in a time when the iPhone was still a carrier exclusive device to AT&T. While not a complete displacement of the existing Qualcomm thin modem slot, this design win nevertheless represent a significant come-back story for the troubled mobile unit of Intel and instant makes Intel a viable competitor in the LTE modem space.  Earlier this year, Intel made a strategic shift away from their mobile SoC product portfolio as the company re-organized to focus on key revenue generators like microprocessors for PCs and servers.  While the exit of the mobile x86 SoC represents an implicit acknowledgement of the dominance of mobile computing using ARM architecture in the marketplace, Intel was not ceding the market opportunities in the communication chips required for IoT as well as the 5G (see May 2016 Market Insight). The thin modem win in the Apple iPhone 7 represents a huge moral victory for the semiconductor bell weather as it gears up for a long battle ahead in 4G LTE and 5G modem futures.

The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus is rated at maximum 450mbps LTE speeds.  This means that the entire baseband and LTE RF Front End is capable of CAT-9 speeds which leverage 3 channel carrier aggregation technologies.  Apple used the Intel XMM7360 in models which supports GSM based voice networks while reserving the Qualcomm MDM9645 design for all other markets which required CDMA voice capabilities (i.e. US, China, Japan).  IHS believes that the portions of overall Intel based iPhone 7 and 7 Plus can make upwards of 40% of total lifetime shipments of the product.  While the Qualcomm MDM9645 is technically a faster CAT-11 LTE modem, the common RF front end design caps its performance to CAT-9.  However, the transition from CAT-9 to CAT-11 can be accomplished over firmware.  That means that Apple can issue a software upgrade that improves the LTE data throughput of the Qualcomm iPhone 7’s at a later time.  However, given past history, Apple is unlikely to do this at the risk of create 2 different classes of iPhone 7 and 7 Plus.

 

MDM9645

XMM7360

LTE Category

Up to CAT-11

Up to CAT-9

Higher Order Modulation

Up to 256QAM

Up to 64QAM

MIMO

Up to 4x4 MIMO

Up to 2x2 MIMO

Max speed

600mbps

450mbps

Table 1 - Comparison QCOM MDM9645m and INTC XMM7360 (both designs used in iPhone 7 & 7Plus)

Another future-proof capability of the MDM9645 [over that of the Intel XMM7360] is the support for 4x4 LTE MIMO.  Additional LTE antennas allow for spatial multiplexing which scales with the available LTE bandwidth and adding to the overall data throughput. While the RF front end design of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus is limited to 2x2 MIMO, the MDM9645 is inherently capable of handling 4 spatial streams simultaneously.  This capability, however, is simply designed out of the Qualcomm based iPhone 7’s and therefore cannot be upgraded or activated.

This mis-match of LTE modem capabilities represents Apple’s habit of taking a “mature” LTE baseband design that is at least been proven for 1 year.  Previous iPhones from the 5 to the 6s contained thin modem designs that have been well on the market for over a year before Apple incorporated them in the newly released iPhones.  Likewise, the generational gap between the Intel and the Qualcomm LTE thin modem design represents the considerable lead that the market leader Qualcomm has on the rest of the industry.  Also due to stringent carrier network testing required, very few competitive LTE modem designs have made it to mainstream LTE phones.  A rare exception was the inclusion of the Samsung Shannon design in the Galaxy S6.  However, Samsung is using a vertically integrated hardware solution and not a merchant solution like that of Qualcomm and Intel. 

Beyond the LTE generational gap that Intel current has relative to market leader Qualcomm, Intel has been investing strategically to close capabilities gap with the acquisition of Via Telecom’s CDMA assets.  Therefore, in the not too distant future, Intel may be able to completely replace Qualcomm in global flagship designs such as the iPhone.

Winning the Apple iPhone 7 and 7 Plus LTE modem slot required a significant effort on Intel’s part.  In fact the RF transceiver design in the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus is likely a custom development just for Apple.  Previous reference designs of the XMM7360 included 3 discrete RF transceiver chips to handle the 3 carrier aggregation.  However, in the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, there were only 2 – just as in the Qualcomm MDM9645 design.  This willingness to win this significant design demonstrates Intel’s seriousness in competing in this very technologically challenging market place.  Overall, the market has been utterly dominated by Qualcomm for LTE modems in the past 5 years.  Any new entrant into this marketplace can only bode well for the entire supply chain and electronic componentry ecosystem.

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