MediaTek's New 5G-Ready Chip Is Exactly the Kind of Competition Qualcomm Needs

Image: MediaTek

We’re still in the early days of 5G, but if you take a quick look around the smartphone world, it’s clear Qualcomm has gotten a head start when compared to other chipmakers. Nearly every 5G phone on the market today is powered by a Qualcomm modem, and while Qualcomm recently got slapped for violating antitrust laws, with its next high-end mobile chip MediaTek could finally deliver some well-needed competition in the 5G space.

While the chip itself doesn’t have an official name yet, MediaTek claims that its upcoming SoC (system-on-a-chip, AKA processor) is the “world’s first fully-integrated 7 nanometer 5G SoC” and with it, the company hopes to bring down the price of future 5G smartphones and mobile devices. That’s an enticing idea, because anyone who has taken a look at the starting price of phones, like the $1,300 Galaxy S10 5G and $1,150 LG V50 5G, knows it’s hard to ignore the hefty premium that comes with today’s 5G-ready handsets.

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On top of that, MediaTek’s 5G SoC will also be the first chip to feature ARM’s recently announced Cortex-A77 CPU and Mali-G77 GPU. The Cortex -A77 is a follow up to ARM’s A76 CPU and features improved efficiency in addition to a newly redesigned architecture, and if past releases are any indication, this may be the same CPU core we see in Qualcomm’s next flagship chip later this year. Elsewhere, MediaTek’s 5G SoC will also come with support for camera sensors with up to 80-MP resolutions and speedier AI processing thanks to the chip’s third-gen APU.

It remains to be seen how MediaTek’s 5G SoC will perform in real life, but at least on paper, its features and specs look solid.
Photo: MediaTek

And when it comes to 5G performance, MediaTek boasts that its chip can hit sustained download speeds of 4.2 Gbps and uploads speeds of up to 2.5 Gbps. However, there is an important caveat regarding MediaTek’s chip, because while its integrated modem supports 5G on the sub-6GHz and 2.5-GHz bands (and all the way up to a max of 6GHz), the chip’s 5G support doesn’t extend to mmWave 5G. That means for carriers like AT&T and especially Verizon (which exclusively uses mmWave frequencies on its 5G network), MediaTek’s chip isn’t really an option, because in order to deliver optimal data speeds, 5G modems and their antennas often need to be tuned for a specific set of radio frequencies.

But that might be OK, because there are a couple of other carriers planning on using either the sub-6GHz or 2.5-GHz spectrums when they light up their 5G networks later this year: T-Mobile and Sprint. This puts MediaTek in a good position to compete with Qualcomm when it comes to supplying 5G chips for future T-Mobile and Sprint phones, particularly if T-Mobile and Sprint’s planned merger gets approved. Though in the end, it will ultimately fall on phone makers instead of end users to choose which chip is the best fit for their devices. At least there’s a choice.

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Either way, with only a handful of chipmakers worldwide having the ability to even make 5G-ready chips and SoCs, its nice to know that there might be at least one alternative to all those Qualcomm-powered 5G phones coming soon. That said, soon is somewhat relative, as even MediaTek doesn’t expect any consumer-ready devices featuring its new 5G Soc to be available until Q1 2020.

[Update: 5:25 PM] Updated the story with more info regarding the range of 5G bands supported by MediaTek’s upcoming SoC.

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About the author

Sam Rutherford

Senior reporter at Gizmodo, formerly Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag. Was an archery instructor and a penguin trainer before that.