Understanding the US smartphone Mobile Network Experience

by Ian Fogg, VP Analysis, Opensignal

 

Key points

  • Users of smartphone models from OnePlus, LG and Samsung experienced the fastest download speeds in the U.S.: OnePlus 7 Pro, LG V35, LG G8, Samsung S10 and S10+ models tied for first place with average 4G Download Speeds above 36 Mbps.
  • Across the top 50 smartphone models ranked by the download speed their users experienced in the US, 36% were Samsung models, 20% were LG and 15% were made by Google. All the models featured in the top 50 were high-tier or mid-tier models. Just two iPhone models featured in the list, the iPhone Xs and Xs Max. Qualcomm chipset-powered models dominated all rankings in the U.S.

  • All smartphones are not created equal; they vary in network capability as well as cameras and displays. To analyze the differences, Opensignal split smartphone users into three groups — low, mid and high-tier — based on a smartphone’s mobile network capabilities.

  • Among mid-tier and low-tier smartphone users, which are often more affordable, different smartphone makers came out on top. Former market leader HTC led the mid-tier category, with BlackBerry first among low-tier smartphone users.

  • Apple iPhone users experienced higher speeds on upload — ideal for sharing photos and videos — than on download compared with Android users. While Apple users tied for first place on Upload Speed Experience, Apple was ranked just seventh on Download Speed Experience among high-tier smartphone users.

  • With the smartphone replacement cycle now approximately three years in the U.S., iPhone users with models released in 2015/16 experienced much slower download speeds than users with recent iPhone models. While iPhone 7 and 6s users experienced 4G Download Speeds between 16.7 Mbps and 18.3 Mbps, U.S. iPhone Xs and Xs Max users’ enjoyed 4G Download Speeds over 25 Mbps.

 

The type of smartphone model affects the quality of mobile network experience that users receive. Newer models, and those with higher LTE Category support more of the mobile carriers’ network features, which is likely to enable higher download speeds. In Opensignal’s comprehensive analysis of U.S. smartphone models, we found users with more capable smartphone models experienced significantly faster mobile download speeds. However, the difference in the upload speed experienced across handset makers and individual smartphone models were more modest. 

Users of smartphone models from OnePlus, LG and Samsung experienced the fastest download speeds in the U.S.: OnePlus 7 Pro, LG V35, LG G8, Samsung S10 and S10+ tied for first. All bar one smartphone models in the top 10 used chipsets and modems from Qualcomm — the exception being a lone Samsung S10 model that used Samsung’s in-house Exynos chipset that is more commonly found outside the U.S.

Smartphone replacement cycle is three years: iPhone models that age experience much slower speeds 

People are upgrading their smartphone model less frequently than they used to. The smartphone replacement cycle which tracks this trend is lengthening and is now estimated by Strategy Analytics to be around three years. This means that with 2019’s new iPhone models arriving, the existing iPhone users most ready to upgrade will own models bought in 2016, such as the iPhone 7, 7 Plus, or perhaps one of the previous years’ iPhone models that remained on sale in 2016, for example the iPhone 6s.

iPhone users with these older models experienced much slower download speeds than those with the latest iPhone Xs and Xs Max, with 4G Download Speeds between 16.7 Mbps and 18.3 Mbps for the three-year-old models, compared with 25 or 25.6 Mbps for 2018’s Xs range. Assuming Apple continues to improve the iPhone — as near a certain prediction as is anything in the mobile and technology markets (!) — then users with 2019’s iPhone models will be able to experience even faster speeds, widening the experience gap even further with older models.  

The lead smartphone brands for download speed vary across low, mid and high-tier smartphones  

Not everyone owns, or can afford to own, a premium smartphone, with prices of the latest top models now well over $1000. For this reason, smartphone makers create cheaper models with less capable modems and chipsets. Additionally, older smartphone models continue to be used by consumers, often these are less capable simply because the technology was not advanced at the time of their release. This leads to a wide variety of smartphone models in use.

All smartphones are not created equal; they vary in network capability as well as cameras and displays. To analyze the differences, Opensignal split smartphone users into three groups — low, mid and high-tier — based on a smartphone’s mobile network capabilities. Opensignal’s tiers are: High-tier model with at least LTE Category 16; Mid-tier with LTE Category between 5 and 15; and Low-tier models with LTE Category 4 or less.

When Opensignal examined each different smartphone tier in the U.S., we found the position and relative strength of handset makers varied in each tier:

  • High-tier smartphone users: OnePlus, Samsung and LG ranked highest while Apple, Motorola and HTC ranked seventh, eighth and ninth place respectively. Huawei users experienced the slowest speeds in this tier, most likely because Huawei smartphone models are not sold by any major U.S. carrier so there is less incentive for vendors and U.S. carriers to optimize their network technology to best support Huawei smartphone models.

  • Mid-tier: Users with HTC smartphones experienced the fastest download speeds, with Google’s Pixel range just behind. HTC users’ average mid-tier 4G Download Speed of 31.8 Mbps was faster than the speeds experienced by users of five high-tier smartphone brands. This tier features a greater number of handset makers including more Asian players such as ZTE, Asus, Kyocera and Xiaomi.

  • Low-tier: BlackBerry users experienced the fastest download speed. Note this represents only those BlackBerry models running Android. Apple users in this tier experienced the slowest speeds likely because the iPhone models included in this tier are very old, having mostly been launched in 2013 and 2014, and are far older than the almost all Android smartphone models that are still in daily use.

Across high-tier and mid-tier smartphone models, our users with Qualcomm-powered smartphones experienced the fastest download speeds in the U.S. with 4G Download Speeds of 33.7 Mbps among high-tier users compared nearest rival Samsung with 28.7 Mbps. There’s a similar difference in the mid-tier between Qualcomm users’ experience of 27.4 Mbps and Samsung chipset-powered users of 22.3 Mbps. It’s important to note that the vast majority of Samsung smartphone models sold in the U.S. use Qualcomm chipsets. Those Samsung models powered by Samsung’s in-house chipset are almost entirely sold internationally. In fact, almost all U.S. smartphone models use Qualcomm chipsets, but Opensignal still sees users with Samsung, Apple, MediaTek and even Huawei-owned HiSilicon chipsets in use in the U.S. 

iPhone users do better on upload speeds than download, relative to Android users

As well as downloading media and streaming video, U.S. smartphone users care about sharing photos, videos, messages and emails which rely on the quality of the upload experience as well as download. Across different smartphone tiers, there was considerably less difference in the Upload Experience, and for some handset brands it was negligible.

Intriguingly, Apple iPhone users experienced a relatively much better Upload Experience when compared with leading Android handset makers, than Apple users’ Download Experience compared to users of Android handsets. High-tier iPhone users experienced 9.2 Mbps 4G Upload Speed placing Apple fourth behind Google (9.5 Mbps), OnePlus (9.8 Mbps) and Huawei (10.8 Mbps). Android market leader, Samsung, ranked just seventh, with high-tier users experiencing 4G Upload Speeds of just 7.5 Mbps.

Premium high-tier smartphone models dominate the download top 50

Users with Android smartphone models dominate the top 50 smartphone models ranked on download speed in the U.S. There are multiple high-end models from Samsung, with 36% of the top 50 models, followed by 36% made by LG, 16% by Google and 10% OnePlus.

Just two Apple iPhone models made the top 50 on 4G Download Speed, with users of 2018’s iPhone Xs and Xs Max creeping in ranked at 47 and 43 respectively. With litigation over modem supply now behind them, Apple will hope to improve their users’ download mobile network experience with future iPhone models.

Apple is not the only well-known brand to have a limited presence. Users with Motorola smartphones represented just 6% of the top 50 models, and former smartphone market leader, HTC, had just one model in the list. Few Chinese smartphone brands had a presence in the U.S. top 50, despite their global success in recent years. The list included only OnePlus and Motorola users (although Motorola is now owned by China’s Lenovo, it originated as an American company).

Across the board, this top 50, and Opensignal’s analysis of U.S. network experience by smartphone model confirmed users with high-end, premium smartphones experience much faster download speeds than do those with low or mid-tier phones. But users with different handset makers’ models experienced very different 4G download speeds based on the specific smartphone model they used.

No low-tier smartphone users were included in the top 50, while 48% of users owned models with high-tier capabilities and 52% had mid-tier, which mostly represented premium smartphones released in previous years with capabilities at the very top of the mid-tier category.