Despite ongoing legal battles, Apple reinforces Qualcomm’s modem design leadership in new product line-up

11 Oct 2017

When Apple launched its new set of smartphones and watches last month, the company highlighted that its products are increasingly packed with its own custom-designed and upgraded processors and hardware. Now, attention has turned to the one area where Apple still needs a third-party partner: The modem.

While the new iPhones still have variants using either Intel or Qualcomm modems, it is Apple’s new Watch Series 3 products that are proving to be the most intriguing as, for the first time, LTE/UMTS cellular connectivity has been added to the line-up.

ABI Research’s Teardown service just uncovered that Apple is using a Qualcomm modem in the Watch 3 to fulfil this cellular obligation, reinforcing Qualcomm’s leadership in modem design. At first glance, only using a Qualcomm modem in the Watch 3 seems at odds with the modem selection used in the iPhone 7 and iPhone 8. For those, Apple chose to use Qualcomm modems to support CDMA networks and Intel modems to support most UMTS networks. In contrast, the cellular version of the Watch 3 does not support CDMA networks, which would seemingly make Intel the potential main supplier of the modem. However, it is the smaller form factor of the Watch that effectively makes Qualcomm the obvious modem choice. The high levels of integration found in the Qualcomm chip, notably for GPS and transceivers, provide significant advantages over other competing modem offerings.

“Apple’s latest Watch 3 has set new standards for integration density”, says Jim Mielke, Vice President at ABI Research. “Our Teardown analysis has revealed that the board area in the Watch 3 compared to the Watch 2 has barely changed, yet a multiband LTE modem has been added.  Aiding in tight integration were increase substrate layers on the PCB, and compact modules from Skyworks, Avago, and Qualcomm."

Additionally, this teardown analysis found that the Watch 3 has a smaller capacity battery, but longer life compared to its predecessor. This also suggests far more efficient components in the device as extra power consumption is needed to handle support for the cellular integration.

These findings are from ABI Research’s Teardown Analysis which includes high-resolution photos and x-rays, pinpoint power measurements, detailed parts lists, and block diagrams.

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