RF front-end module industry -What are the technical choices made by Apple?

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“In the iPhone series from 2016 to 2020, Apple’s strategy was to reduce the RF area size with a decrease of the board level at first until 2017.” asserts Stéphane Elisabeth, PhD, Cost Analyst in RF and Advanced Packaging at Yole SystemPlus, part of Yole Group. “But since, the board is increasing along with a stabilization of the RF share mainly even with 5G integration. Between 2017 and 2020, Intel was the only modem and transceiver (RxTx) supplier for Apple. Qualcomm who lost the market in 2017, is getting in the iPhone design in 2020 and is likely to be kept in 2021 because of the 5G. In 2022, in-house modem and RxTx could be expected from Apple.”

Titre du visuel

june 2021

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Thematic(s) :

In the iPhone 12 series just released in 2020, several innovations in communication have been implemented. The technical choices made by Apple have been deeply analyzed by the reverse engineering and costing company, Yole SystemPlus in its latest comparison report: RF Front-End Module Comparison 2021 – Vol. 1 – Focus on Apple.
These innovations include the NFC with an additional controller and NFC antenna at the rear of the phone for accessories identification, the GPS with the integration of the new band L5 (1175 MHz) with improved signal structure, higher transmitted power and wider bandwidth, and the 5G communication with the integration of several band compatibility like n260 and n261 in the mmWave frequency band.

Yole SystemPlus and its partner, Yole Développement (Yole), both part of Yole Group of Companies, investigate disruptive RF technologies and related markets in depth. All year long, both companies point out emerging technologies and underline business opportunities.
Released today, the RF Front-End Module Comparison 2021 – Vol. 1 – Focus on Apple report provides insights into technology and cost data for RF front-end modules and a selection of components found in 18 smartphones from the Apple iPhone series since 2016. This includes a detailed technical and cost analysis of the main RF modules and components and a comprehensive overview of the related architectures available on the market.

“Apple’s dependency on specific component manufacturers is clearly underlined in this report, along with the different choices for integration of communication technology, even millimeter wavelength (mmWave) signal support in the latest generation. Our study also reveals how Apple maintains its leadership on the premium market”. comments Stéphane Elisabeth from System Plus Consulting.

In parallel, the market research and strategy consulting company Yole has released the 5G’s Impact on RF Front-End and Connectivity for Cellphones 2020 report, end of 2020. The 2020 edition gives detailed analysis of each RF technology’s strengths and weaknesses and delivers a detailed ecosystem snapshot. Including market trends and forecasts, market shares, ecosystem and US/China trade war analysis, Yole’s study also points out COVID-19’s impact on the RF front-end and connectivity business.

What are the technical choices made by the RF front end module manufacturers and OEMs? What are the cost differences between the modules? What are the different manufacturing process steps? How can the smartphone maker’s choices and supplier tendencies be explained?

System Plus Consulting and Yole present today their vision of the latest innovations in the RF front-end module industry.

As analyzed by Yole SystemPlus’s team in the new RF Front-End Module Comparison 2021 – Vol. 1 – Focus on Apple report, 5G Sub-6 and mmWave integration in the 12th generation of iPhone lead to an increase of the module area. Compare to other players like OnePlus, the RF area is almost 40 % larger. Among the player who benefit from the 5G, System Plus Consulting lists Broadcom, Murata, Qorvo and Qualcomm.
On the packaging side, disruptive solution like DSBGA became to be the standard packaging for FEM. But in 2020, module supplier goes further with DSMBGA following Murata’s path. Since 2016, Murata remains the main supplier followed by Qorvo, Skyworks, and Broadcom. More than 90 % of the components are integrated devices. Apple rely on highly integrated US supplier like Qorvo, Broadcom or Skyworks but each for a unique position in the design. Moreover, using Qorvo’s Antenna tuners, Apple is able to offers a smartphone with a low number of Antenna.

As part of the RF front end module industry, the SAW filters are playing a key role. This has been examined in the SAW Filter Comparison 2020 report from Yole SystemPlus. IHP SAW filter appears in 2018 with the iPhone Xs Max. Since it’s only used in Murata’s components in small production.
But, with the last generation i.e iPhone 12 Series, the BAW filter had a huge increase in the dedicated area (x6). Indeed, with the rise of 5G and WiFi6 almost all market leaders are looking for BAW solutions.
Stéphane Elisabeth from Yole SystemPlus and Cédric Malaquin, Technology & Market Analyst, RF devices & technologies at Yole had the opportunity to deliver their expertise in a dedicated article for Microwave Journal on i-Micronews.
Also, IPD device has double its area. This is mainly due to the 5G and UWB implementation. Indeed, 5G is commercially available in many countries around the world. IPD solution seems to be preferred to discrete filter in the new design.
According to Cédric Malaquin in the 5G’s Impact on RF Front-End and Connectivity for Cellphones 2020 report:“Decades of experience in the design and manufacturing of all major RF components explain the leading positions of Murata, Skyworks, Broadcom, Qorvo and Qualcomm. All major mobile device manufacturers rely on the expertise of one or more of these five as a first choice, as these companies provide state of-the-art RF components. However, a variety of other companies from China, South Korea, Japan and Europe complete the RF front-end offering”.

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