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5G iPhone 2020: what you can expect from the first 5G iPhone

(Image credit: Future)

We believe that Apple will launch a 5G iPhone in 2020. And 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 didn't originally think the standard iPhone 12 will be a 5G phone, but – according to the notrious Apple tipster Jon Prosser, of the Front Page Tech YouTube channel – both iPhone 12 models will include 5G at launch, even if it might be a different flavour. 

"Remember, even the base models this year for the iPhone 12 are getting 5G and OLED," Prosser explained in a recent YouTube video. "Although I'm being told that it's not millimeter wave 5G for the base models, but it's still 5G, just so Apple can say."

And Prosser also shared the following still, which highlights what the main specs for the two models might look like:

(Image credit: Front Page Tech.)

Launch dates

The year's main iPhone launch normally takes place in the second week of September, and although a new phone has launched within the same period for the last five years, some analysts now believe the 5G iPhone will face delays.

Ming-Chi Kuo is an analyst at TF International Securities, and via the MacRumors website he gathers intelligence "from his contacts in Apple's Asian supply chain, translating the information he gleans into research notes for clients".

According to Kuo, production and the subsequent launch of the mmWave 5G iPhone may be pushed back because of changes to the antenna package that were made in early April, and "delays in qualification process services".

"The mmWave ‌iPhone‌ will be pushed back because the design of the antenna in package (AiP) changes in early April," Kuo wrote on MacRumors. "Additionally, the test lab is closed and can't offer qualification process services. If the pandemic can't be controlled well until July, then we think that the shipment allocation of mmWave iPhones will decrease to 5-10% from 15-20%."

And because the mmWave 5G iPhone will be Apple's premium model, and therefore the most "complicated" design, Kuo now believes that the launch of this model will fall outside the September window.

"Apple decided to start the online qualification process remotely and delegate more tasks to local employees for new ‌iPhone‌ development. The change takes time; therefore, it had caused a one-month delay in entering the engineering verification test (EVT) for all new 2H20 iPhones," says Kuo. "We believe that there is a likelihood that new 2H20 6.1-inch and 5.4-inch iPhones will go into mass production in September. The mass production of the new 2H20 6.7-inch ‌iPhone‌ will be delayed to October because this model’s design is the most complicated."

What hardware will the 5G iPhone 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. 

A 5nm node in the iPhone 12

In a conference call with technology blog PhoneArena, TSMC - the world’s most valuable semiconductor company - hinted that the 5G iPhone expected from Apple within the next six months will not only include next generation networking, but will also be powered by a 5nm chipset.

According to TSMC, the new 5nm node will reportedly deliver a 1.8x greater density over 7nm, and 15% higher clock speeds at the same power; OR reduce power consumption by 30% (meaning processor designers will have to consider which elements are most important for their devices). 

And during a a quarterly earnings call with the PhoneArena team, TSMC suggested that Apple would be using 5nm nodes over the anticipated 7nm node chips, which will enable Apple’s engineers to have more flexibility, which will be essential in a 5G handset, considering the extra power consumption this will place on a handset.

“While talking about how the next mobile processor production node investments will dilute their earnings by a few percentage points in the next quarter, TSMC tangentially confirmed that 5nm chipsets are in our very near phone future. Now, where would those new processors go?,” wrote Daniel Petrov, or PhoneArena. “Why, the iPhone 12 series, of course, as TSMC tipped that 5nm will already be contributing to its revenue in the fall, albeit with just 8%. The bulk of these chips will go to Apple, of course, as the next A14 chipset is expected to be the first one done with the 5nm node.”

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.