RF Front-End Module Comparison 2021 – Vol. 1 – Focus on Apple

  • Forecast Period: 2021
  • Published On: Mar 2021
  • By:  Yole
  • Type: PDF
  • Customizable: Yes

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. 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 (Rx/Tx) 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 Rx/Tx could be expected from Apple.

System Plus Consulting and its partner, Yole Développement (Yole), both part of the 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.

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 the company, System Plus Consulting 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.

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 costs 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 underlined in this report, along with the different choices for the integration of communication technology, even millimeter wavelength (mmWave) signal support in the latest generation. Our study also reveals how Apple maintains its leadership in the premium market. 

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 a 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.

As analyzed by System Plus Consulting’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 benefits from the 5G, System Plus Consulting lists Broadcom, Murata, Qorvo, and Qualcomm.

On the packaging side, a disruptive solution like DSBGA became to be the standard packaging for FEM. But in 2020, the 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 relies on highly integrated US suppliers like Qorvo, Broadcom, or Skyworks but each for a unique position in the design. Moreover, using Qorvo’s Antenna tuners, Apple can offer 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 System Plus Consulting. 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 WiFi 6, almost all market leaders are looking for BAW solutions.

Also, the 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.

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.