iPhone 7's Qualcomm, Intel soap opera dumps a carrier lock-out on us

Teardown reveals chips in new iThings, confirms love struggle in Cupertino


Analysis Love rat Apple two-times its long-suffering squeeze Qualcomm with dishy Intel – and it's going to keep the baby but only let some of us see it.

Over a cheap bottle of chardonnay one dark night in Cupertino, Intel wooed Apple with flimsy promises. The pair felt a connection (around the 1.9GHz mark) after the iPhone maker opened up about its long-distance relationship with San Diego's Qualcomm.

"I don't want to get too tied down," Apple sighed. "I'm not ready for the commitment."

"Baby, I'm here for you," said Intel.

"But you don't know anything about mobile."

"I've changed, baby, I've changed."

Apple's heart melted like a Galaxy Note 7 in a child's hand. Now, thought Intel, if only it could scheme its way further into the MacBook maker's life to wreck any plans to move from x86 to ARM.

I just can't understand why my screenwriting career hasn't taken off.

A peek inside the iPhone 7 has confirmed that Apple is using a mix of Intel and Qualcomm radio modems in the new handsets. Typically, Qualcomm provides these communications chips, which are used to connect the device wirelessly to the cellular network for calls, texts and mobile internet. Apple hates being tied down to a single component source, so it decided to give Intel a shot.

There's also the interesting dynamic of Qualcomm providing Snapdragon system-on-chips and modems to Apple's arch-rival Samsung. Couple that with Intel's desire to get its radio modem business a slice of the massive mobile world – while Intel's traditional PC world diminishes – and that Apple relies on Intel x86 processors for its desktop and laptop products, you can see why Apple let Intel in through the backdoor to its iPhone production.

We all knew it was coming. In a conference call with investment analysts in April, Qualcomm CEO Steven Mollenkopf said he was "assuming" that a major customer – cough, cough, Apple – would use a second supplier. And in July, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said he was "concerned about getting the leading-edge momentum going for us with the 7360" – that's the XMM 7360 modem that launched in 2015.

And true enough, the XMM 7360 has turned up in some iPhone 7 and 7 Plus handsets. There's a catch: this chip doesn't support CDMA networks. So if you buy an Intel-modem phone, and you want to switch to a CDMA network, such as Sprint or Verizon in the US, you'll be out of luck. Qualcomm's X12 radio modems support CDMA so iPhones using those chips will work universally.

Luckily, there's a handy guide on Apple's website listing the two variants of the iPhone 7/7 Plus. The A1660/A1661 works with GSM and CDMA networks, sports a Qualcomm MDM9645M X12 modem chipset, and works with Verizon and Sprint in the US. The A1778/A1784 supports GSM, sports an Intel modem chipset, and works with AT&T and T-Mobile US in America.

What the Apple website doesn't mention is that if you carrier unlock an A1660/A1661, you'll be able to use it on AT&T and T-Mobile US because the Qualcomm modem inside will support those networks. But if you carrier unlock an A1778/A1784, you won't be able to use it on CDMA networks.

Basically, if you want a phone that works everywhere, get the A1660/A1661. If in doubt, check the model number against the aforementioned webpage for carrier compatibility. For what it's worth, in the UK, Apple will sell you an A1778/A1784 that supports 3, EE, O2 and Vodafone.

Intel isn't insane for leaving out CDMA support, by the way: the standard is dying, and Qualcomm owns a load of CDMA patents, so Chipzilla decided to skip it.

To further complicate things, potentially, Apple can switch out Intel's XMM 7360 in its GSM-only A1778/A1784 for the tried-and-tested Qualcomm X12 but use firmware to limit the phone to non-CDMA networks. This could happen if something goes wrong with the Intel supply – such as if the XMM 7360 isn't up to the X12's performance.

One final thought: the new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus won't support the expensive AWS-3 radio bands, aka LTE band 66, which were cleared to make way for greater mobile broadband coverage in the US.

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