The 5G Phone Decision Matrix

It’s that time of year when I weigh upgrading my smartphone. I’m not fooling myself: I am getting an iPhone 12 Pro, and this year I think I’m going to go big with the Max version. As they say, your best camera is the one that’s with you. Much as I would love to shoot all the time with a Nikon or Canon, I’m not going to lug a DSLR around the streets of Manhattan. So the camera on my phone needs to be the best it can be.

The biggest, baddest iPhone camera is on the most expensive model, of course, so, iPhone 12 Pro Max, here I come. I’ll have to pony up even more for a charger since Apple skipped that and earphones for the first time, claiming environmental responsibility. I’m for preserving the environment as much as the next guy, but it’s not like eliminating a charger from the box is going to obviate the need for a charger altogether. I’ll see how long my current one carries me.

In the past, choosing my iPhone model was my major quandary of the fall tech season. I’d dither over things like whether I should get the bigger model (not until this year), or the one with the most storage (not such a big deal anymore with cloud storage), or a cool new color (a non-issue since a case covers it anyway).

But with the phone model settled now, my big question is which carrier do I ride into the 5G era? This is where it gets tricky. Some might say confounding.

I have been a loyal Verizon customer since I first joined the iPhone cult in gen 4. Obviously, I’m happy with new generations of phones, and for the most part, I’ve been satisfied with my cellular service. I upgraded to unlimited service a few years ago to avoid the overage game. I’ve paid handsomely for it and have had few complaints.

Verizon isn’t as loyal to me as I’ve been to it. Last week I got a promo in the mail — a “special offer for mobile customers” — offering me a Fios Gigabit connection for $69.99 a month, $10 off the typical price, if I choose automatic payments. The offer Verizon is offering me is not actually available to me. I’m already a Fios customer, and the fine print tells me I’m not eligible.

I have two questions: 1) why doesn’t Verizon cross-check customer lists, and 2) am I being punished for being a Verizon customer?

I scoured my Fios bill, trying to sort out my real costs since I have internet, voice and TV service. While I’m anxiously counting the billing cycles until I can cancel my TV contract next summer, for now, I’m paying $214.68 for the three services. There’s a $10 discount for having both wireless and internet, so at least someone in Verizon knows I have both services. Glad to know I’m not being punished by $10 a month. I think we’re even.

I also inspected my wireless bill, which includes a “$10 Verizon Loyalty Discount” (as though they were reading my mind) that takes my monthly fee down to $96.18. Verizon tells me that my October bill was 6 cents higher than September, but instead of just fessing up about why, it directs me to another URL, where I see I was tariffed 4 cents for a federal universal service charge increase, a penny for a gross receipts surcharge bump and a penny for New York City sales tax-telco hike. How often do they do this nickel and pennying, I wonder….

The Beyond Unlimited plan I’m on is $85. Taxes and government fees ($2.77), $3.41 in surcharges, plus $15 for insurance take that up to $106.18. The loyalty discount takes it back down a sawbuck. A subscription to Apple Music is tossed in, and I got a free year of Disney+ in a promo that ended yesterday.

The iPhone Pro 12 Max isn’t on any of the three major carriers’ websites just yet so for now I’m shopping plans. Verizon has five flavors of Unlimited, which seems disingenuous: Start, Play More, Do More, Get More and Just Kids. It seems to me that an unlimited plan should have no limits. The entry-level unlimited plan, Mohamed the chat specialist, tells me, “is just slower” and doesn’t have hotspot data included. I call that a limit.

Beyond Unlimited isn’t listed so I asked Mohamed if it has been replaced by another plan. It has not but it [is] just not offered. We have newer plans. He tells me Get More is most comparable to Beyond. Hmm. That’s the most expensive plan, and it’s not like me to get the most expensive plan. I think someone was shining me on.

When I look closer, I see that the $55 Get More includes Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+, plus Apple Music, 600 GB of Verizon cloud storage, and half off connected device plans. The last two don’t matter to me since I have iCloud storage and no other cellular connected devices. The $45 Play More Unlimited plan also has the three free Disney channels but only a six-month teaser sub to Apple Music. The $45 Unlimited plan has 15 GB of “unlimited mobile hotspot data” vs. 30 GB of “unlimited mobile hotspot” data for $55. Clearly, Verizon and I have different ideas of what unlimited means.

Screeecchh! That’s not $55 for one line. That’s $55 if you have four lines on a plan. It’s really $70 for Starter and $90 for Get More for a single line To that, I say, “Get out!” That’s a trick all the carriers are playing by defaulting to the multiple-line price. Buyer beware.

I went to T-Mobile to see what they’ve got and clicked on “See exactly what you’ll pay.” Before you can get that critical information, they want address, phone number and last four digits of the social security number—TMI for me so I backed out.

T-Mobile’s freebies are Netflix, which is good, and Quibi, which isn’t good, because that service has been cancelled. Looking at the fine print, it’s only Netflix basic with standard-def video that’s included in the $60/month Magenta plan. HD on two screens costs you $4/month; 4K on four screens is a $7 add-on.

T-Mobile has a deal with GoGo for in-flight texting and an hour of Wi-Fi per flight, which goes up to unlimited on the $70/month Magenta Plus plan. That would be good if I wanted to fly anywhere right now. HD streaming is included, too. I appreciate that T-Mobile includes tax and fees in their monthly charges. Their included hotspot data is lower than Verizon’s at 5 GB for 4G LTE, before dwindling to 2G. T-Mobile gives away stuff on Tuesdays, a fun perk.

AT&T’s add-on streaming service is HBO Max, available only with its premium tier $85/month plan. When I first looked, the website showed that tier for an attractive $45/month for unlimited talk, text and data, with HD streaming and “premium data.” Like T-Mobile and Verizon, AT&T’s website defaults to a multiple-line plan so you think you’re getting a really good deal when that was really the five-line price. There’s a lot of detail to sift through in these cutthroat wireless wars. I’d appreciate more transparency.

I’m not sure if AT&T and T-Mobile offer enough to make me a switcher. I’ll have to see what the trade-in deals are when the 12 Pro Max goes on pre-order next week. I didn’t even touch on the games carriers are playing with 5G coverage. I know 5G won’t be a game changer for another year at the least, some say two. My phone may be ready for 5G, but the networks aren’t.

That’s okay. I may still be combing through the fine print by then.

More Living with Tech:

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Minecraft-Themed Pumpkin and Jack-o-Lanterns #3DThursday #3DPrinting

What’s great about Minecraft Jack-o’-Lanterns? They don’t roll away! Shared by Alek09 on Thingiverse:

Custom-designed Minecraft-themed pumpkin, jack-o-lantern, and light-up jack-o-lantern. Light up jack-o-lantern was designed to use the flickering LED and battery (CR 2032) from a tealight/votive candle.

Download the files and learn more

Every Thursday is #3dthursday here at Adafruit! The DIY 3D printing community has passion and dedication for making solid objects from digital models. Recently, we have noticed electronics projects integrated with 3D printed enclosures, brackets, and sculptures, so each Thursday we celebrate and highlight these bold pioneers!

Have you considered building a 3D project around an Arduino or other microcontroller? How about printing a bracket to mount your Raspberry Pi to the back of your HD monitor? And don’t forget the countless LED projects that are possible when you are modeling your projects in 3D!

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5G iPhone: What’s Apple’s Next Step in RF, Antenna?

There is no better entertainment than speculating about Apple’s next step in its silicon development in order differentiate its iPhones from others. Here’s my latest sleuthwork.

For reasons from economic to the technological to even the political, the 5G rollout is a big milestone for 2020. Considering many other events of this forgettable (hopefully soon) year, I could even call it a feel-good story. And it is an opportunity for those who cover technology because new generations of cell phone infrastructure and devices are on a decade-long introduction cycle. It won’t be new for long, and there are things to think about early in the cycle before the technology matures.

Speaking of maturing, though, the sign that 5G is really here was that Apple finally has a phone for this new generation of mobile connection. Apple is known for setting many trends but sometimes likes to take a wait-and-see approach (think OLED, wireless charging etc.).

Mobile phones — especially flagship brands — depend on the latest components from the chip manufacturers. Apple has famously brought a great deal of chip design in-house, but didn’t quite get the job done for 5G. Rather, it depends on some of the usual suspects. Or should I say the usual suspect — Qualcomm.

Prior to the launch of their A-series processors, Apple was completely outsourcing the job to chip vendors. At some point, the applications processor became their own design. But they continued to rely on off-the-shelf components for a host of other devices. The most significant piece of non-memory silicon is the baseband processor. Historically, Qualcomm had the iPhone modem socket, but eventually, Apple moved to the Intel baseband and RF transceiver designs for the iPhone 8. Although the deal had not yet been finalized, Apple’s acquisition of the Intel smartphone chipset group was well underway by the time the iPhone 11 launched (2017).

Modem-transceiver questions
The switch to Intel may have been an opportunity to collaborate on design and perhaps with an eye to bringing some of the RF chain under the Apple umbrella. Having presumably worked closely with the Intel baseband unit (the baseband business was acquired from Infineon) for several generations, Apple made the decision to bring that in-house as well by acquiring it.

But getting 5G into the product lineup needed to happen on a different timeline than internal development that was going on. The iPhone 12 models have now switched back to Qualcomm. The iPhone 12 contains the SDR865 and SDX55 modem-transceiver combination which is the most advanced on the market.

Click the image above to enlarge. Apple iPhone 12 main circuit board (source: iFixit)

Now, we know that Apple is probably developing a modem-transceiver to go with its A-series processor for some future iPhone generation.

But who else is in the game?

Apple’s main competition is Samsung, which was actually a chip company before it got into the smartphone game, rather than the other way around. And yes, Samsung has a broad portfolio of 5G-related RF products for both sides of the 5G system, handset and base station.

Can we assume Samsung is using their own chipset in their latest phones?


Qualcomm is there as well. According to iFixit again, the Galaxy S20 Ultra has the Qualcomm modem and transceiver combination as well as a Snapdragon 865 processor (Samsung’s own Exynos processors are used in some markets).

Is Qualcomm going to own 5G? At least for now, it seems that way.

In addition to Samsung, the other 5G modem vendors that have announced are Huawei and MediaTek. Although it is possible that Samsung will deploy its own branded modem for phones, there is a very good chance that Qualcomm will remain the winner as Samsung shows no favoritism to their semiconductor group. We will have to wait and see.

Samsung’s RF component division will probably be counting on internal sales to its small cell base station products much more than for the smartphone.

MediaTek has been making major inroads into the cellphone space for a while. The MediaTek applications processors will certainly find their way into more modestly priced 5G handsets as the technology filters down to the people that don’t treat phones as a luxury item. I expect the lower end phones will use the new MediaTek chipset including the Helio M70 modem.

Although I don’t have any direct knowledge of Huawei’s skill set for baseband and beyond in the RF signal chain, its modems may beat the others to market considering the restrictions on US chip technology supplies to China. What choice will it have?

Qualcomm’s current dominance in the 5G market is telling and it makes me wonder how long it might stay that way. But perhaps a more interesting part of the 5G rollout is the hardware beyond the transceiver. As the Qualcomm CEO noted at last year’s Electronics Resurgence Initiative Summit plenary, the RF guys are “back in charge” because physics is starting to have more impact than coding and other digital domain issues. Where does that take us?

Antenna questions
Beam-forming antennas are a good place to start.

I will continue to lean heavily on the iFixit team for information on the iPhone 12. The iFixit teardown noted that the antenna module carries the brand of USI (Universal Scientific Industrial Shanghai Co., Ltd.), but my initial reaction to the photograph was that it was actually just the Qualcomm QTM525 product that appears in 5G models from Apple’s competitors. But first, a quick diversion.

iPhone 12 USI 5G Antenna Module (source: iFixit)

The iFixit comment that the iPhone 12 5G antenna was “Apple-y and shiny” caught my attention.

Shiny, yes, but this is not an Apple exclusive. The “shiny” is just the result of the metallic conformal EMI shield coating over the epoxy mold compound that appears on many other RF components in any manufacturer’s phone.

However, Apple differs in its specification for the use of this coating on the flash memory chip. One can quickly determine that the same memory component from Toshiba or Samsung will not have the shiny EMI shield in Samsung or LG models. But Apple demands it for its iPhone. Use of the EMI shield is necessitated by the many sensitive, complex radio systems crammed into a small space alongside sensitive, complex, high speed digital electronics. Apple wants to add that layer of electromagnetic interference isolation to the storage device as well. I will save speculation on that for another day.

To the iFixit team’s credit, I wasn’t standing in line or waiting around for iPhone 12 units to appear so I could launch into a livestreamed teardown providing my own real time color commentary. The pandemic means my only live audience at the moment is two unapologetically lethargic dogs.

Getting back to the antenna, the design of the module in the iPhone 12 looks identical to the Qualcomm QTM525 module that appears in other phones from LG, Samsung, and Motorola-branded Lenovo phones. The iFixit teardown shows that the iPhone 12 model is actually a USI branded component with Apple part numbering. USI typically shares the WiFi / Bluetooth module socket as a second vendor to Murata in iPhones (and other brands). Both companies do system integrations for WiFi and other wireless modules using chipsets from Cypress or Qualcomm as well as a few others.

Considering what we know about the current state of vendors for 5G, I would say that the USI antenna module for the iPhone 12 is using the two Qualcomm chips found in the QTM525 module. There appears to be a lot of commonality between the USI antenna module in the iPhone 12 and the Qualcomm version.

The Qualcomm antenna module is a critical component for 5G. MIMO (multiple input multiple output) techniques are not new with 5G, but so-called massive MIMO and beamforming are critical to this new generation. The Qualcomm antenna module enables beam forming on the user equipment side to maximize the signal strength given back to the cell tower which is also using beamforming antenna arrays. This kind of military-spawned technology deployed at the cell tower might not be that surprising, but having it in your hand seems just a little exotic. And it is a significant portion of the bill of materials. It is a relatively expensive component, and their effective deployment requires two or sometimes three units per handset.

Qualcomm QTM525 Antenna Module

The Qualcomm antenna module has a controller IC as well as an RF chip with a signal path for each of the antennas that allows the signal magnitude and phase for each antenna element to be controlled, thereby forming a controllable directed antenna propagation lobe to focus the available RF energy where the user needs it to take maximum advantage of the speeds available in the 5G technology.

The two integrated circuit die are mounted onto an organic printed wiring board with multiple antenna elements built in. These antenna-in-package (AiP) designs are quite topical. ASE does not appear to be involved in the current 5G modules but give a nice overview of their AiP offerings. The RF guys really are in charge because the limits of some of these lower-cost organic substrates for the frequency bands in use are being pushed hard.

Speaking of the substrate, the iFixit images were not quite clear enough to precisely compare the USI module’s antenna patterns with the known Qualcomm QTM525 antenna. There are four distinct elements as in the QTM525, but the patterning appears to be different. For now, this is inconclusive.

What can be precisely compared is the connector due to the clearer photograph of the encapsulated chip side of the USI module. In the iFixit image, we can see that the connector has six pins plus a ground. However, the QTM525 uses 10 connections in addition to a ground connection. This seems to represent a significant difference in connectivity, and one would expect functionality as well.

Alas, this story may end with more questions than answers.

With their internal 5G modem late to launch, getting 5G capability into the iPhone 12 meant Apple needed to use the Qualcomm X55 modem and SDR865 transceiver.

It would be logical to assume that Apple would continue its reliance on Qualcomm 5G expertise out to the edge where the signal chain meets free space at the antenna.

From what has been published, however, we must assume that Apple is doing something different at the most extreme end of the RF chain at the beamforming antenna. That’s where it gets interesting. Is Apple doing something significantly different with the antenna? It’s a critical area for ensuring handset performance in the 5G era.

More analysis is definitely warranted.

More SemiSerious from Don Scansen



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App note: TQFN package thermal pad via design guide

TQFN footprint pad via design guide for proper thermals from Diodes Incorporated. Link here (PDF)

TQFN packages have exposed pads to provide excellent electrical grounding paths to the PCB and transfer the device heat through thermal vias on the PCB thermal landing to the internal copper planes. In order to maximize the removal of heat from the package, the number of vias, the size of the vias, and the construction of the vias must be considered for the thermal landing pattern. The exposed pad must be soldered down to ensure adequate heat conduction from the package.

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DIY Contactless Temperature Monitor System with RFID

Here at SparkFun, we’ve done our best to find ways to safely show up to the office and warehouse throughout the pandemic, to ensure that our products are built to our high standards. And really, everybody has their hand on a product at some point in the process, whether that’s engineering, marketing, shipping, kitting, or any of the other half-dozen departments working hard to make the best possible version of a product.

Working in the office also means that we’ve had to take extra precautions to ensure our safety throughout the workplace. One of the methods is daily check-ins, in which everybody entering the building has their temperature taken and documented to monitor if anybody might have a fever unknowingly. This entails one of our employees spending a few hours each morning just taking temperatures and recording employees' names and associative temperatures. While I’m a strong proponent of the human presence each morning, as it’s an outlet for me to talk to somebody outside my house, I was also curious if I could build a system that might automate the process so that they don’t have to sit there for so long.

We already use RFID cards as a means to enter the building, so I thought the easiest system might be to scan our employee cards, which would trigger an infrared temperature sensor to take body temperature, and record the information in an Excel spreadsheet.

I picked up the RFID kit as a method to experiment with multiple cards, and not just my singular employee card.

SparkFun RFID Qwiic Kit

added to your cart!

SparkFun RFID Qwiic Kit

21 available KIT-15209

The SparkFun RFID Qwiic Kit is a simple, yet all-in-one I2C based RFID starting point for the ID-3LA, ID-12LA, and ID-20LA re…


I also wanted to use the IR Thermometer Evaluation Board because it comes with the MLX90614-ABB - a single-zone infrared thermometer, capable of sensing object temperatures between -70 and 380°C. It uses a SMBus, which is like an I2C interface, to communicate with the chip. That means you really only need to devote two wires from your microcontroller to interface with it.

SparkFun IR Thermometer Evaluation Board - MLX90614

added to your cart!

SparkFun IR Thermometer Evaluation Board - MLX90614

In stock SEN-10740

This is an evaluation board for the MLX90614 IR Thermometer. The sensor is connected to an ATmega328 running at 3.3V with a S…


Using these two boards means we'll use three different libraries:

#include <Wire.h> // I2C library
#include <SparkFunMLX90614.h> // SparkFunMLX90614 Arduino library 
#include "SparkFun_Qwiic_Rfid.h"

There are three discrete parts of the code that ultimately make this kind of system. First, there's creating a function that scans RFID cards and saves the tag. Second, that function triggers another function to record the temperature of the body in front of the RFID scanner. And third, all of this data is recorded and sent to an Excel spreadsheet.

Both the IR temperature function and the RFID scanning function initialize Serial and each of the sensors, and then read the data to Serial. If you are interested in this code, let us know in the comments and we'll share it! What becomes really helpful, though, is when we can export the serial monitor data to Excel so we can track temperature trends in real life.

With PLX-DAQ, we can send the real-time data collected by Arduino into Excel, where it's much easier to process data. First, make sure to download the PLX-DAQ software here.

DATA specifies that the rest of the serial output will be labeled as data and recorded in the column.

void Initialize_streamer()

void Write_streamer()
    Serial.print(","); // Move to next column using a comma
    Serial.print(RfidReading); //employee tag
    Serial.print(TempReading); //from IR temp sensor
    Serial.println(); //End of the row, move to next row

When you open the PLX-DAQ software, you'll have to choose the correct port in Arduino as well as the correct baud, click "connect," and the data should show up in the Excel file.

alt text

This is a simple example of combining RFID scanners with an IR temperature sensor, but it ultimately provides a very useful, real-world tool. What other ideas do you have for implementing RFID in creative ways? Check out RFID and start experimenting yourself with the RFID Starter Kit, and happy temperature tracking and hacking!

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Woven fabric becomes on-skin wearable interface

Researchers at Cornell University’s Hybrid Body Lab have been pursuing a novel woven interface that attaches to the user’s skin. Their aptly named WovenSkin integrates electronics into a fabric pattern, including capacitive sensing materials, shape-memory alloys (SMAs), and thermochromic materials to allow for both input and output functionality.

The “second skin” is connected to Arduino Mini, small LiPo battery, and a capacitive touch controller, enabling it to perform tasks such as transforming the woven output from a visible “8” to “9” after being touched just after 0:40 in the video below. Bluetooth can also be implemented for phone or laptop interactions.

The Hybrid Body Lab team’s full research paper is available here if you’d like to delve deeper into the WovenSkin project.

Weaving as a craft possesses the structural, textural, aesthetic, and cultural expressiveness for creating a diversity of soft, wearable forms that are capable of technological integration. In this project, we extend the woven practice for crafting on-skin interfaces, exploring the potential to “weave a second skin.” Weaving incorporates circuitry in the textile structure, which, when extended to on-skin interface fabrication, allows for electrical connections between layers while maintaining a slim form. Weaving also supports multi-materials integration in the structure itself, offering richer materiality for on-skin devices. We present the results of extensive design experiments that form a design space for adapting weaving for on-skin interface fabrication. We introduce a fabrication approach leveraging the skin-friendly material of PVA, which enables on-skin adherence, and a series of case studies illustrating the functional and design potential of the approach. To understand the feasibility of on-skin wear, we conducted a user study on device wearability. To understand the expressiveness of the design space, we conducted a workshop study in which textiles practitioners created woven on-skin interfaces. We draw insights from this to understand the potential of adapting weaving for crafting on-skin interfaces.

Images: Hybrid Body Lab (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

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This mechanical clock tells time using steel balls

There’s certainly no shortage of DIY clocks in the Arduino community; however, Eric Nguyen has come up with a rather unique way of showing hours and minutes: steel balls arranged as seven-segment displays.

For each time change, the face rotates down and a tray of arranged balls is lifted up to meet it via a servo motor assembly. Inside, a series of 28 servos capture and release the balls using magnet and linkage systems, plus another for the colon.

The device is powered by a Nano along with an RTC module for accurate timekeeping, and two PCA9685 driver boards control the motors directly.

As illustrated in the videos below, it’s an incredible build from a mechanical standpoint. Making it even more impressive, this is actually Nguyen’s first Arduino project!

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Linkdump: August 2020

Microchip synapses 29 – Between the now and the infinite by LEONARDO ULIAN

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Connect a Commodore with thermal printer

Connect a thermal printer to vintage Commodore computers using the IEC bus @

Since a couple of months I have fascination for vintage computers like Commodore or Nintendo. I’m in the process restoring and pimping a Commodore SX64 and realized I did’t have a printer for it. After all it is an executive machine and how do I otherwise print my quotations and invoices? The solution was in a thermal printer I had lying around for years without a real purpose.

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