The European smartphone speed race: How Apple, OnePlus, Oppo, Samsung and Xiaomi compare

In this new analysis, we find that the overall speed experienced by 5G smartphones differs greatly by smartphone brand. However, across all brands we see that the overall speed for 5G devices is significantly higher compared with 4G smartphone models of the same brand. This increase highlights the importance of 5G technology to accelerate the mobile experience. Intriguingly, with the two market leaders — Apple and Samsung — we see a different ranking in each of the three early-to-launch 5G markets that we analyze here: Italy, Germany and the UK. 

Ahead of Samsung’s mid-year flagship launch event — typically held in August — it’s notable that Samsung sees a much smaller speed uplift for its 5G smartphones than other brands, ranging from 1.4 times faster for Samsung’s 5G models over its 4G models in Italy and Germany, to 1.6 times faster in the UK. However, Samsung continues to have numerous individual smartphone models performing well in each country, most notably its foldable models. Opensignal expects these to be refreshed in Samsung’s imminent mid-year launch event because we already see measurements from the SM-F926 (likely the upcoming Galaxy Z Fold 3) and SM-F711 (probably the next Galaxy Z Flip) among our users. 

The uplift in download speed we see for 5G smartphone models over 4G smartphone models is greatest for iPhone devices. This is significant because prior to the iPhone 12 Apple has long had a reputation, rightly or wrongly, for being behind its Android peers on supporting the latest  cellular standards. For example the first iPhone to support LTE Category 16 — often called “gigabit LTE” — was 2018’s iPhone XS, but Samsung, Sony and others had offered handsets with that capability since 2017. But now, in the UK, Italy and Germany, Apple has the greatest increase in overall download speed for the leading 5G smartphone brands in Europe ranging from 3.4 times faster in the UK to 1.9 times faster in Italy for 5G iPhone models compared with 4G iPhone models.

It’s especially impressive that Apple 5G iPhone models see the strongest speed uplift among the major European 5G brands because almost all iPhone models are premium flagship devices (only exception is the iPhone SE), this means the comparison is premium to premium devices. By contrast, other brands’ 5G models are mostly or exclusively premium devices — where speeds would typically be excellent — but their 4G device base is a mixture of cheap low tier, mid tier and premium devices. This means speeds typically would not be as good, so the 5G vs 4G overall speed comparison should be greater.

But when we compare the actual overall download speeds for 5G smartphones we see large differences across brands and markets. Samsung and the other Android brands experience fast speeds in Germany while Apple’s 5G iPhone 12 range lags. By contrast, in the UK Apple is the brand with the fastest overall download speed for its 5G models and Samsung is at the bottom. In Italy it’s a mixed picture: Samsung is again bottom like in the UK, Apple is mid-table, and OnePlus is top as in Germany.

The differences in the European market compared with the U.S. help to explain Samsung’s relatively poor ranking. The European smartphone landscape differs from the U.S. device experience, which Opensignal recently also analyzed, in three key ways:

  • Samsung uses its in-house Exynos chipset in Europe. In the U.S. Samsung uses Qualcomm chipsets for its smartphone cellular hardware, while in Europe Samsung mostly uses an in-house Exynos chipset and modem (with the notable exception of its foldable smartphones and the recent Samsung S20 FE 5G).

  • Chinese brands are more significant players. Oppo, OnePlus and Xiaomi are all headquartered in China. Of these, only OnePlus is also important in the U.S. Also, Huawei remains important in Europe for 4G devices, but is less significant for now for 5G smartphone adoption due to recent trade sanctions. 

  • Mobile operators have access to new spectrum capacity for 5G. In the U.S. most of the initial spectrum bands used for 5G has been spectrum that has previously been used for 4G. By contrast in Europe, most mobile operators have offered 5G using new 3.5 GHz spectrum that is exclusively available for 5G, adds tremendous new capacity, and supports a much faster 5G experience.

However, when we examine individual models Samsung is still a top performer. Of the top 30 5G smartphone models by overall download speed 57% in the UK and 53% in Germany are Samsung. However, in Italy Samsung slips to holding just 23% of the top 30 positions behind Oppo’s 27%. 

In the UK, Apple and Samsung dominate the top 30 rankings. All four of Apple’s 5G iPhone 12 range feature. While Samsung has the majority of models and two of its foldable models — both powered by Qualcomm chipsets — rank in the top three. Two smaller brands also feature: Google with its Pixel 5 and Sony’s compact Xperia 5 II.

There is a wider diversity of smartphone brands present in the top 30 5G devices in Italy. Other Chinese brands also feature, most notably Realme, which like Oppo and OnePlus is part of BBK group. Also, we see the only presence of a LG 5G smartphone in any of the three markets. Again, we see one of Samsung’s foldable models be present among Italy’s top 30 5G models for overall download speed.

In Germany we see a different picture again. No iPhone ranks among the top 30. Samsung is again strong, as it is in the UK. But multiple Chinese brands again feature, all of whom are using Qualcomm chipsets, unlike most European Samsung models. But it’s hard to draw clear conclusions from examining individual models because there are so many models in use.

When we compare the three markets and three leading chipset brands we see a clearer picture. We have normalised the results here so the fastest chipset brand in each market is 100 to highlight the difference with the second and third ranked chipset brand. 

Among 5G devices, Qualcomm-based devices see very slightly faster overall download speeds than do Samsung Exynos-based devices, but the difference is small. In Italy, there is very little difference between all three leading chipset brands, but in the UK Apple 5G devices see faster overall download speeds than the others while in Germany Apple 5G devices see very significantly slower speeds.

However, Apple’s 5G devices are much more competitive than their 4G devices. Among 4G device chipsets, Apple 4G iPhones lag behind Qualcomm and Samsung-based devices in all three markets. Samsung is a leader among 4G devices but this is less important than the 5G position because 4G is a mature technology and is no longer a key differentiator for smartphone brands in Europe.

Apple’s 5G iPhone 12 range uses a different modem vendor from older 4G iPhones which may explain some of this improvement: the iPhone 12 range uses Qualcomm modems paired with Apple’s in-house chipset for the processor and graphics while all recent European 4G iPhone models use Intel modems. However, the modem is only a part of a smartphone’s radio hardware, other parts of the radio design contribute to the experience too and Apple may have refined those parts of its design. Certainly, Apple appears to be focusing more on iPhone network experience in recent years because Apple has acquired most of Intel’s modem business and is rumoured to be developing its own 5G modem.

With Samsung’s mid-year launch imminent, we will soon see whether Samsung continues to use Qualcomm modems and chipsets for its foldable range and what kind of network experience they offer Europeans. And, as we look ahead to Apple’s next iPhone launch event (likely in September), we can see Apple is now making very significant progress with iPhone cellular hardware with the 5G iPhone 12. Once launched, we will analyze how future iPhone models compare and whether this cellular improvement continues.