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5G iPhone 2020: What to expect from the first 5G iPhone

(Image credit: Future)

It seems fairly certain that Apple will launch a 5G iPhone in 2020. We expect the 5G iPhone to be the next generation of the iPhone 'Pro' series so it stands to reason that the iPhone 12 Pro and the iPhone 12 Pro Max would both be 5G handsets. 

We don't think the standard iPhone 12 will be a 5G phone, but we could be wrong. 

The year's main iPhone launch normally takes place in the second week of September and we see no reason why 2020 should be any different. 

One factor hitting current iPhone supply is the coronavirus and, while it seems that Apple is announcing new products at the time it should (as borne out by the recent MacBook Air and iPad Pro refreshes in March), there may be an effect in September. 

The 5G iPhone to be the next generation of the iPhone 'Pro' series so as we expect the next iPhone to be iPhone 12, it stands to reason that the iPhone 12 Pro and the iPhone 12 Pro Max would both be 5G handsets. 

What hardware would it have?

While the iPhone 12 5G will use Apple's own A-Series platform including Apple-designed CPU and graphics processor, the crucial 5G modem component will be provided by Qualcomm. 

Qualcomm says that 5G phones featuring its completely new Snapdragon X60 modem are expected to launch in early 2021, but we think the new iPhone 12 Pro could be the first to use it. 

Even if the 5G iPhone didn't use the X60, there wouldn't be a problem with using Qualcomm's slightly older X55 modem which has been used in most of the 5G phones we've seen so far in 2019 and 2020. 

Having said that, Apple is known for its exacting standards and it is likely to want to use the very best hardware it can - as long as the price is right of course. The X60 is more power-efficient and so will produce less heat and draw less power from the battery. 

Qualcomm also introduced a smaller antenna module - the QTM535 - to go alongside the X60 and, again, we think this could well be for Apple's benefit primarily - even though Qualcomm has plenty of other partners making 5G phones, of course.

But Qualcomm wasn't always going to be the supplier of 5G modems for the iPhone 5G thanks to Apple and Qualcomm getting into complex legal disputes over licensing. 

At one point Qualcomm supplied the modems for the entire iPhone lineup. But the dispute meant Apple turned its attention to Intel, firstly for 4G modems (starting with the iPhone 7) and then worked with the chip company as it turned its attention to 5G. But, as you'll hear, things didn't work out with that relationship either. 

What happened to Intel's 5G modem? 

There were a lot of rumours during 2018 that Intel's work on 5G modems was running into problems of low yield and also that the modem itself was running incredibly hot. It was reasonably clear that Qualcomm - and others such as Samsung - were running a long way out in front. 

So Apple did what most would do - it settled its legal dispute with Qualcomm in April 2019 and then signed a six-year license agreement to use its technology, with an option to extend for two more years. There was also an agreement for Apple to buy chipsets from Qualcomm. 

On the same day in an even more shocking move, Intel said it was stopping work on the 5G modem it had designed. It seems that because it had lost its main customer and due to Qualcomm's domination with other vendors, the Intel board had been forced to can the whole project. 

However, the work on the 5G modem won't all be lost because in July 2019 Apple bought Intel's modem business for $1 billion with a view to working on its own 5G modem to replace Qualcomm in due course. We don't know whether this was, perhaps, part of the agreement that saw Apple end its deal with Intel because surely the two companies would have been in contract for the supply of the 5G modem. 

Although the new agreement with Qualcomm is a six-year deal with an option for two more, it's likely that Apple will have its own modem long before the initial expiration of the deal - possibly built using some licensed Qualcomm tech because of the lack of other options.

It's worth noting that Apple remains a key customer for Intel through its supply of processors and graphics for Macs. 

Could there also be a cheaper iPhone this year? 

Before that though, there may also be a budget iPhone launched, too. This has been rumoured for years, ever since the demise of the iPhone SE.

However, any cheap new iPhone will almost certainly remain a 4G handset - at least for now. 

Reportedly called the “iPhone 9”, this rumour first surfaced on a Japanese tech blog MacOtakara, and Apple – as always – is remaining tight-lipped when it comes to corroborating the news. 

According to MacOtakara, the new device will be a follow-up to 2016's iPhone SE, and is said to be the smallest and cheapest in over a decade, and will apparently cost as little as £399 ($525). This will make it one of the cheapest 5G phones on the market.

The Japanese site MacOtakara has an impressive history of predicting a number of new iPhone features, so it could very well be right about the 5G iPhone 9. 

Fiona discovered her love for investing and making money from a young age. Since then this interest has grown and now she loves writing about investing and business, and follows the 5G market closely. She is also a technology enthusiast, and so they tend to be her favourite investments.