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Hybrid Beamforming vs. Other Types of Beamforming

Key Takeaways

  • Hybrid beamforming combines analog and digital techniques. It is pivotal in 5G mmWave networks for focusing electromagnetic energy in precise directions.

  • Digital beamforming overcomes analog limitations by dynamically determining phase shifts in the baseband domain, though it increases system cost and complexity.

  • In PCB layouts for hybrid beamforming systems, segregating analog sub-arrays can simplify routing and placement.

Diagram of hybrid beamforming

Diagram of hybrid beamforming

Beamforming is a mechanism that leverages antenna arrays to focus electromagnetic energy in a specific direction. Hybrid beamforming merges the elements of analog and digital beamforming in RF communication channels, a technique that has gained significant traction in 5G mmWave networks. It integrates both analog and digital methods, effectively generating multiple beams and enabling the targeting of multiple users with varying signal strengths. 

The essential component for beamforming is the antenna array, which is a systematically arranged set of antennas in a two-dimensional space. By adjusting the phases and amplitudes of the signals in the phased array, the direction of the beam can be controlled. The potential number of beams can be further increased through polarization or emitting electromagnetic waves in one direction from each antenna in the array.

Comparison of Analog, Digital, and Hybrid Beamforming


Analog Beamforming

Digital Beamforming

Hybrid Beamforming

Phase Shift Control

Analog phase shifters

Digital signal processing

Combination of both analog and digital

Carrier Frequency

Fixed for specific frequency, susceptible to beam squint

Flexible, dynamically adjustable

Flexible, benefits from digital control


Lower complexity, simpler design

Higher complexity, advanced design

Moderate complexity, integrates both systems

Power Consumption

Lower power consumption

Higher power consumption

Higher than analog but optimized compared to digital

Beam Direction

Fixed direction, less flexibility

Highly flexible and precise

Good flexibility, more than analog but less than digital

Channel Capacity

Limited by beam flexibility

Greatly enhanced by spatial multiplexing

Enhanced, but not as much as pure digital


Suitable for simpler, cost-sensitive applications

Ideal for high-capacity, advanced networks

Balances performance and cost, suitable for 5G mmWave networks

Signal Targeting

Single user or direction

Multiple users with varying signal strengths

Multiple users, not as precise as digital but better than analog

System Synchronization

Less complex, mainly analog

Complex, requires precise digital synchronization

Moderately complex, benefits from digital synchronization methods

Hybrid Beamforming

Hybrid beamforming is a strategy to mitigate the complexities inherent in digital beamforming. It integrates analog beamforming, thereby reducing the required RF chain components and simplifying the optimization process. Although a hybrid beamforming system may not reach the full capacity of a completely digital beamformer, its performance is relatively close, especially when considering channel characteristics.

In this approach, hybrid beamforming synergizes digital and analog techniques using subarrays. The process begins with precoding input data streams, similar to digital beamforming. However, instead of sending these precoded streams directly to the entire antenna array, they are routed to individual analog beamformers, or sub-arrays. Each sub-array then applies phase shifting to its stream, creating a beam that targets specific end users.

The antennas utilize precoding to construct a superposition of multiple beams for several data streams, enabling spatial multiplexing. This technique allows for higher throughput in RF systems broadcasting to multiple targets. By broadcasting at multiple orthogonal carriers simultaneously and employing beamforming for spatial multiplexing, the system efficiently manages multiple data transmissions.

PCB Layouts With Hybrid Beamforming

When considering PCB layout for a system utilizing hybrid beamforming, one might assume that segregating each analog sub-array into distinct regions of the PCB is necessary. While this isn't a strict requirement, such an arrangement can significantly simplify placement and routing. This ease comes from the fact that in this layout, the analog beamformer control unit only needs to establish a specific phase relationship among antennas within each sub-array, rather than across all antennas.

In a hybrid beamforming setup, the main system controller synchronizes multiple ADC/DAC + PA elements using a rapid digital interface and an embedded clock. This arrangement reduces the need to synchronize an RF oscillator throughout the entire system, as synchronization is primarily needed within the subarrays.

Beyond these specific considerations for placement and routing, it's also crucial to adhere to standard RF PCB design best practices. These include strategies for stackup design and  transmission line design.

Analog RF Beamforming

 Diagram of analog beamforming

Diagram of analog beamforming

Analog beamforming works by introducing phase shifters to each element of the antenna array, allowing the beam's direction to be adjusted. The phase shifters in this setup are typically designed for a predetermined carrier frequency. However, if the actual carrier frequency deviates from this specified frequency, a phenomenon known as beam squint occurs. Beam squint alters the angle of the main beam lobe, posing a challenge for wide bandwidth applications like mmWave networks. 

In analog beamforming, signals are distributed across multiple antennas within an array. Each antenna receives the signal with a specific time delay, creating a phase difference in the emissions from the antennas. These arrays, known as phased arrays, utilize this phase difference technique and have been a predominant method for beamforming in RF systems.

Digital Beamforming

Diagram of digital beamforming

Diagram of digital beamforming

Digital beamforming offers a solution to the limitations of analog beamforming by enabling dynamic determination of optimal weights (phase shifts) in the baseband domain. This process necessitates that each antenna is coupled with a dedicated baseband RF processing channel, which, although enhancing performance, also increases the system's cost and power consumption.

A significant advantage of digital beamforming is its ability to boost channel capacity substantially. By creating sufficiently narrow beams, spatial multiplexing can transmit multiple signals in different beam directions. However, optimizing this process is complex and non-trivial.

Digital Beamforming Signals

In digital beamforming, an array of antennas receives multiple modulated signals. The phases and amplitudes of these signals are then manipulated to form the desired beam pattern. A basic example involves using a single input data stream, like QAM constellation points, sent across multiple antennas, with the signal amplitudes adjusted to create the intended emission pattern.

Digital beamforming is a subset of a more advanced broadcasting technique known as precoding, where the beam pattern is conceptualized as the cumulative effect of a carrier wave and a spatial distribution function. 

Advancing RF Communication With Hybrid Beamforming

The intricacies of beamforming, whether analog, digital, or hybrid, are pivotal for advancing RF communication, especially in the realm of 5G networks. Understanding and effectively implementing these technologies can be challenging. This is where Cadence's AWR software comes into play. AWR provides a comprehensive suite of tools designed to simplify and optimize the design process of RF systems, making it an invaluable asset for engineers and designers working in this field. 

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