Circuit board inside the 4G Samsung Galaxy Attain

Teardown - 4G Samsung Galaxy Attain

As the first phone handsets take advantage of the new 4G infrastructure, we take a look at what's under the hood.

As "the UK's most advanced digital communications company", EE begins its roll-out of 4G LTE services in the UK (at least across major urban areas). However, one question that hovers over its introduction is"How low can you go?"

We know that devices such as the iPhone 5, Nokia Lumia 920 Windows phone and Samsung Galaxy S3 are available in LTE (long-term evolution)-enabled versions, and that if you want to buy one it will cost you a fair few quid, subsidised or not. It is also clear that, assuming no successful last-minute challenge, EE is both bootstrapping and cost-controlling its move into LTE. The use of existing spectrum pre-empts the formal licence auction (and fees), and gives the operator more space to focus at launch on early adopters willing to pay a premium for both handsets and network access.

But, given that those licence costs will eventually kick in and that even this strategy involves sizeable infrastructure costs (EE cites a minimum £1.5bn investment), all UK operators will fairly quickly need to take LTE to the masses.

That's where entry-level handsets like the Samsung Galaxy Attain come in. Already offered by pre-paid 4G carrier MetroPCS in the USA, it sells for $250, contractless but network-locked.

As was once the case with Nokia, Samsung has the breadth of product line to easily make a few tweaks to a design, leverage massive buying power and build new phones from old building blocks used across platforms.

"The design looks a little tired. It's composed of building blocks that we have been seeing in Samsung designs for, in some cases, up to three years now," says Andrew Rassweiler.

"But this is how you make a cheap LTE phone that a carrier like MetroPCS needs. Remember that the total cost from Samsung, once sold to MetroPCS and other carriers, is significantly higher than the basic bill of materials and manufacturing costs we provide." The Attain is a 3.5in diagonal smartphone running Android 2.3.6 (Gingerbread). It features the least expensive (but palatable) combination of features while still providing LTE functionality. So, there are several design compromises.

The modest camera module combines a main 3MPx unit with a 1.3MPx secondary one. The combo (Wi-Fi/Bluetooth) function is only BT V2.1 to leverage a legacy Broadcom chip (BCM4329). The core of the device is the Samsung-designed, ARM Cortex A8-powered 'Hummingbird' processor (S5PC110xxx), which has been around for several years, and operates at 1GHz. For the LTE itself, Samsung uses its own CMC22000, an in-house discrete bolt-on solution married to a Qualcomm QSC6075 baseband IC.

This is all very much what one might see as first-generation design, but in the short-term, that is necessary for models that offer a lower retail entry point.

"Though costs erode over time, we are starting to already see better integrated second-generation LTE solutions in other phones," says Rassweiler. "But make no mistake, second gen is still pricey, although it stands a better chance ultimately of providing lower total cost solutions.

"For now, though, the second-gen chips also pack in a lot of features that would be superfluous in making the phone low-cost, and hence Samsung has just employed a set of chips it has been making or buying for years and should have secured very competitive pricing on."

One other notable thing about the entry-level Attain is that it has been developed as a smartphone for the US market. This also breaks the model where such designs would initially target emerging territories.

A final note on design complexity in terms of the component countthe Attain has a total of 1,085 components excluding box contents. As 900-1100 is considered to be the average range for smartphones, this still puts the Attain at the high end of 'average'. Even when you try to design as tightly as possible, there is still a price to pay now for LTE functionality.

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