Kris Carlon / Android Authority
If you’ve ever looked at smartphone spec sheets, you might have come across the name Qualcomm. As one of the biggest semiconductor companies in the world, you’ll find Qualcomm’s Snapdragon SoCs in many midrange and high-end Android smartphones, alongside weak competition from MediaTek and Samsung. The company is even developing 5G modems for the iPhone and was recently recognized for helping to make satellite-to-phone connectivity a reality.
In other words, if you own a smartphone, you have probably used Qualcomm technologies in one way or another. But it doesn’t stop there: the company is targeting emerging technologies such as augmented reality, artificial intelligence, Wi-Fi 7, and more. Here’s everything you need to know about Qualcomm and why it’s so important.
What is Qualcomm and what does the company do?
Qualcomm is an American company that primarily designs semiconductor and wireless communication technologies and products. The company’s Snapdragon SoC line, for example, powers the majority of Android smartphones on the market — up to 65% in some segments, according to a recent Counterpoint report.
Since Qualcomm is not a hardware manufacturing company, a significant portion of its revenue comes from licensing patented technologies. As for the manufacture of SoCs and Snapdragon modems, it relies on third-party chipmakers like TSMC, Samsung Foundry, and GlobalFoundries. Qualcomm then sells these products to smartphone manufacturers like Samsung, Xiaomi, Oppo and others.
A brief history of the company
Based in San Diego, Qualcomm was founded in 1985 as a contract research and development company. The name of the company comes from the combination of the words “Quality Communications”. Qualcomm started working only on defense and military communication projects. Then, in 1988, the company raised $3.5 million to develop Omnitracs – a satellite tracking system for trucking companies. The project was a resounding success and gave Qualcomm enough funds to begin research into CDMA cellular technology.
The chip giant played an important role in the development of the first cellular industry in the United States. Most operators have adopted the CDMA standards developed by Qualcomm for 2G networks. The company has also helped operators in international markets such as India, Latin America, Canada, Russia and China integrate its CDMA technology. Simultaneously, it also licensed patents and technologies to handset manufacturers such as Nokia, Sony, Motorola and others.
Qualcomm started as a contract research company and eventually led CDMA cellular deployment across the world.
Over the past decade, the company has also developed and acquired a number of patents related to 4G LTE and 5G cellular technologies. Besides cellular technologies, Qualcomm also began developing its own semiconductor designs based on the Arm architecture family in 2006. The first Snapdragon SoC, released in 2007, was the first mobile SoC to operate at 1 GHz clock. The Snapdragon series lives on to this day and we’ll dive into the company’s current-gen chips in a later section.
Over the past decade, Qualcomm has also developed semiconductor products for emerging applications such as AR/VR. The Snapdragon XR2, for example, powers Meta’s popular Quest 2 and Quest Pro headsets. When it comes to AI and machine learning, the company’s latest SoCs include a dedicated Tensor Accelerator chip. In the computing space, Qualcomm is developing the Arm-based Snapdragon 8cx line for ultraportable laptops. In 2021, the company also acquired Nuvia, a startup co-founded by former Apple engineers, to improve its footing in the IT industry.
Is Qualcomm the best mobile chipmaker?
Robert Triggs/Android Authority
As mentioned above, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon SoCs lead the Android smartphone market in terms of market share. However, this does not necessarily mean that the company produces the best chips on the market.
The closest competitor, MediaTek, also develops and sells chips that compete with Qualcomm’s high-end, mid-range and entry-level offerings. The performance crown often goes back and forth between these two companies, but the real-world differences are often minor and inconsequential. Qualcomm’s competitors also include Samsung and Apple. The latter manufactures its own SoCs for nearly its entire product line, including the iPhone, iPad, and Macbook.
See also: Mediatek vs Qualcomm Snapdragon — Is there a big difference?
While Apple’s SoCs also rely on the Arm architecture, the company has a license to build its own chips from scratch. This allowed Apple to extend a considerable lead over other smartphone chipmakers, due to their reliance on Arm-supplied cores. However, Apple does not sell its chips to third-party manufacturers, allowing Qualcomm to establish a dominant position in the Android industry market.
Qualcomm’s best chips: Snapdragon 8 Gen 1, Snapdragon 778G and more
Robert Triggs/Android Authority
Qualcomm’s mobile SoC portfolio can be divided into three distinct categories based on performance and price. The Snapdragon 8 series sits at the top of the pile. The latest Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 and Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1 are powering high-end and flagship smartphones in 2022. Some examples include Samsung’s Galaxy S22 series, OnePlus 10T and Oppo Find X4 Pro.
The Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 has an octa-core CPU design, with the latest arm featuring 1x Cortex-X2, 3x Cortex-A710, and 4x Cortex-A510 cores. It also features the company’s Adreno 730 GPU, which easily outperforms other Android SoCs. However, Apple’s A16 Bionic in the iPhone 14 Pro is Qualcomm’s best in terms of CPU performance and sustained performance. In May 2022, Qualcomm announced the Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1 – a mid-cycle refresh that boosted clock speeds and improved efficiency.
See also: Should you buy a Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1 phone?
Some Android smartphone makers are also opting for previous generation flagship Snapdragon SoCs to compete in the sub-flagship price range. The Snapdragon 870, for example, has become a popular choice for manufacturers like Xiaomi, Realme, and Motorola.
In the midrange market, Qualcomm’s latest offering is the Snapdragon 7 Gen 1, followed by the Snapdragon 778G. This series powers smartphones like the Nothing Phone 1, Xiaomi 12 Lite, Samsung Galaxy A73 5G, and Motorola Edge 30. Qualcomm also offers entry-level and budget chips. The Snapdragon 6 Gen 1 and Snapdragon 4 Gen 1 have started to trickle into smartphones under $500 and will become more common in 2023 and beyond.
Qualcomm makes telecommunications products and semiconductors like modems and processors found in modern consumer electronics. The company also spearheaded CDMA research and development in the 20th century. To this day, Qualcomm licenses its patents and technologies to carriers and smartphone manufacturers around the world.
In the smartphone industry, Qualcomm competes with chips made by Apple, MediaTek, Samsung and a handful of smaller manufacturers. In the wireless segment, the company faces Broadcom, Intel and Texas Instruments.
Qualcomm does not manufacture its own chips. Instead, Qualcomm-designed chips and wireless infrastructure are manufactured in third-party semiconductor manufacturing facilities. The company has signed deals with Samsung Foundry, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), and GlobalFoundries in the past.
Even though Qualcomm’s Snapdragon series of chips dominates the Android industry, the company does not manufacture or sell its own smartphones.