Owners of the newest, most popular iPhone don't experience the best speeds

Posted on February 15, 2019 by Ian Fogg

Two of the leading smartphone makers, Apple and Samsung, have both recently reported a slowing smartphone market because consumers are struggling to see the benefits of the latest models and are choosing to hold onto their existing smartphones.

But by choosing to keep a less capable older iPhone model – such as the iPhone 5s or 6 – consumers are unable to benefit from the latest network technologies launched by the carriers. In OpenSignal’s measurements they experience significantly slower mobile network speeds than those with newer iPhone models: in the U.S., iPhone 5s users experience 4G Download Speeds of just 10.2 Mbps compared with 21.7 Mbps for the latest iPhone XS Max.

For carriers, this slowing smartphone upgrade cycle also means the many millions spent deploying the latest mobile technologies only reaches a part of their customer base. The more consumers choose to postpone upgrading their phone, the greater the proportion of customers that own smartphones lacking the necessary technologies. For example, smartphones that only include older 4G standards – lower LTE Category numbers– cannot support the advanced techniques such as carrier aggregation that Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint are deploying.

While it may seem obvious that owners of newer, larger and more highly specified iPhone models would enjoy a better mobile network experience, this is not shown for all models in OpenSignal’s data:

  • iPhone XR owners – the newest and most popular iPhone – don’t experience the best speed. iPhone XS and XS Max owners enjoy a significantly superior speed experience to those with the iPhone XR or those with older iPhone models in our measurements. OpenSignal predicted this improvement in iPhone XS network experience in the analysis we published ahead of Apple's announcement of their 2018 models. This is because the iPhone XS models have a more capable modem than the XR and older iPhones. The design of LTE Category 16 modems aims to improve the efficiency of network performance as well as the maximum possible speeds.
  • iPhones launched between 2015 and 2017 see no network speed improvement. Users with iPhone 6S, 7 and 8 experienced statistically identical 4G Download speeds, despite improved device specifications as the LTE capability rose from Category 6 to Category 12. While speeds may appear different, they are within the range of our confidence intervals. As a result, consumers considering upgrading their iPhone must look beyond specifications to consider measures of real-world experience to guide their decisions.
  • Users with larger “Plus” iPhone models do not experience better 4G speed. This is counterintuitive because larger devices have more room to include high grade antennas and should be better able to support the rising complexity of mobile networks with the growing numbers of frequency bands in use. But for each generation, the iPhone Plus has a statistical draw with the smaller model. For example, both iPhone 7 Plus OpenSignal users and those with the iPhone 7 experienced effectively the same 4G Download Speed allowing for the confidence intervals.

When we examine OpenSignal’s mobile analytics data, it reveals three main groups of iPhone models based on the mobile network experience of OpenSignal’s smartphone users:

  • New iPhone XS models with LTE Category 16. The industry made a big push around the importance of this particular advance, marketing it as “gigabit LTE”. While we are far from seeing real world speeds reach a gigabit, OpenSignal’s data does show that owners of iPhone XS and XS Max models experience by far the fastest 4G Download Speeds, which are 26% faster than the middle grouping of iPhone 6s, 7, 8, X and XR, and a tremendous 83% faster than the slowest grouping.
  • “Middle aged iPhones” which support LTE Category 6 - 12. These models include all iPhones released between 2015 and 2017, excluding the iPhone SE and including 2018’s iPhone XR. Our data shows they experience average 4G Download Speeds of 16.82 Mbps which is 4.4 Mbps slower than the latest iPhone XS models.
  • “Senior iPhone models”. The group of iPhone models where users experience the slowest speeds includes not only the oldest models from 2013, but also 2016’s iPhone SE, which remains on sale in some markets. Owners of iPhone models in this group experienced average speeds of just 11.6 Mbps according to our data, or 9.7 Mbps slower than the XS range, and will see the biggest improvement if they switch to a more capable model.

When we examine 4G Upload Speeds, we see a very similar trend. Owners of an iPhone XS or XS Max experience measured by OpenSignal faster upload speeds than owners of older models. This means they will be able to share videos or photos more easily while using a mobile network.

With both 4G download and upload experience we see a difference between the iPhone XR and the iPhone XS. This highlights how the choice of modem, chipset and antenna design influence the mobile network experience that consumers receive.

See how your iPhone’s mobile network experience compares:

Download the OpenSignal or Meteor app for iPhone and run a test.

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