On March 8, 2022 Apple announced a new 5G version of the iPhone SE — its cheapest iPhone — that will replace an older 4G-only SE model, first released in 2020. Notably, Apple prioritized including 5G and the modern A15 chipset over other potential enhancements such as adding Face ID or multiple rear cameras. Apple is not alone with this shift to 5G, other smartphone makers are now increasingly including 5G in mid-range and even in some entry level smartphone models.
To understand why wireless operators — and the smartphone makers that supply them — are keen to switch users from older 4G-only smartphone models to 5G capable versions, Opensignal has analyzed the real-world smartphone experience of 4G and 5G smartphones. We’ve compared users’ experience in six markets that launched 5G relatively early in 2019: Australia, Germany, Italy, South Korea, the UK and the U.S. Now, in early 2022, 5G services are well established in all six. Previously, Opensignal has analyzed the global 5G experience and found 5G to be an extremely fast and smooth experience for users and growing in reach.
When we examine the relative experience using different iPhone models we see a stark difference between the overall average download speeds seen by owners of 5G iPhone models — either from the iPhone 13 or iPhone 12 ranges — compared with older 4G iPhones. In all six early 5G markets, users with 5G iPhones saw much faster overall download speeds than those with 4G models mostly because of 5G’s contribution to the results. Users with the most recent 5G iPhone hardware — 2021’s iPhone 13 range — typically saw slightly faster speeds than those with 2020’s iPhone 12 models.
However, by contrast there was little difference in the download speeds experienced by users with a variety of 4G iPhone models — in many cases users’ scores were statistically identical. But the marked differences between users with 5G iPhones and those with 4G iPhone hardware highlights why operators much prefer to sell 5G smartphone models and why smartphone makers are rapidly making 5G a standard smartphone feature.
In the UK, average overall upload speeds were little different for users with 4G and 5G iPhone models. In the five of the other early 5G markets, there was a significant difference in the upload speeds 5G iPhone owners experienced but in absolute terms the gap was still smaller than for download speeds: the margin between 5G iPhone users and 4G iPhone users ranged from approximately 4 to 8 Mbps in overall upload speed.
Similarly to the download speed analysis above there was little variation in users’ upload speeds between owners of different 4G iPhone models. In most cases in these early 5G markets, users’ upload speeds between using the iPhone 11 range (4G), the second generation iPhone SE (4G) or older iPhone models (4G) were statistically the same or only very slightly different.
For the most popular smartphone brands in use in each market, we examined the ratio between the average overall download speeds seen by 5G device owners and compared them with the speeds from 4G models of the same brand.
Across all smartphone makers, users with 5G models enjoyed faster overall download speeds, typically seeing speeds 1.5 - 3 times faster than owners of 4G smartphone models from the same smartphone brand. In all six markets, all smartphone brands saw a significant jump in the overall download speeds experienced by users with their 5G models compared with owners of 4G models.
In four out of six early 5G markets, Apple saw the greatest boost, ranging from twice as fast (2.0 times faster) in Germany and Italy to almost four times as fast in South Korea (3.9 times faster). While Apple topped these charts in Germany, South Korea, the UK and the U.S., in Australia (2.9 times) and Italy it placed second behind Oppo (3.3 times) and Realme (2.4 times), respectively.
Looking at the absolute download speeds reveals a large difference between markets in the average speeds smartphone users experience. These differences in 5G device owners' overall download speeds mirror the results from Opensignal’s recent 5G global benchmark analysis where South Korea was top on 5G download speeds. This is largely because of the way operators have deployed 5G in each market. If there is a larger 5G roll out then as a result the proportion of time 5G devices spend connected to 5G will be higher, boosting overall download speeds. Likewise, if operators have large amounts of new spectrum deployed with 5G then actual average 5G download speeds tend to be much higher than 5G speeds in markets where there is less new spectrum.
Comparing users with different smartphone brands we see an extremely varied set of results. Samsung owners enjoyed the fastest overall download speeds in South Korea (222.6 Mbps), but ranked lower down in the U.S., Australia, Germany, Italy and the UK. Similarly, Apple ranged from third in South Korea and Australia to sixth in Germany. However, given LG has now withdrawn from the smartphone market and has stopped selling smartphones, in future Apple will expect to rank higher in both the U.S. and South Korea as existing LG models wear out and cease to be used.
These market differences reflect the overall portfolio strategy of each brand in each market — for example the share of low, mid and high tier models — and the relative age of each brand’s installed base, because older handsets tend to have less capable cellular connectivity.
The smartphone experience shift to 5G
As 5G becomes more ubiquitous the existing differences in the smartphone experience between those with 4G and 5G hardware will become less relevant. Instead, the area to watch is how the mobile network experience of owners of different 5G smartphones compares, especially between users with early 5G models from 2019 or 2020 and newer 5G hardware that supports more 5G capabilities. Opensignal will continue to use its independent standard methodology to track the real-world experience of mobile users globally and assess how it is evolving as we move further into a fully 5G world.
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