Samsung beats Apple, Huawei on mobile network experience

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All smartphones are not created equal, says Opensignal.
All smartphones are not created equal, says Opensignal.

Just as different smartphones offer a variety of camera qualities or screen sizes, they also differ in the network communication features which enable faster download speeds and smoother video streaming.

Mobile analytics company Opensignal has, for the first time, quantified the experience of users with different kinds of smartphones in 73 countries, including SA.

To analyse the differences, Opensignal split smartphone users into three groups – low-, mid- and high-tier – based on a smartphone’s mobile network capabilities.

Because high-tier models include more network technologies, Opensignal says they are more sensitive to mobile network improvements and are, in effect, a leading indicator of what the mobile network experience will be in the future.

Analysing the three largest smartphone makers by shipment volume – Apple, Huawei and Samsung – the report highlights the degree to which high-end smartphone users experience a faster mobile connection than those users with mid-range or low-tier smartphone models.

“We categorised each brand’s users based on their device’s LTE category, which is an industry standard reflecting the model’s network capabilities,” says Opensignal.

A matter of proportion

This approach enables the firm to compare brands that have very different proportions of cheap, low-tier devices in use among their users.

For example, it enables the mobile analytics company to compare Apple with Samsung or Huawei because in its installed base, just 18% of Apple users have a low-tier smartphone compared with 49% of Samsung users.

“When we look at the overall users of each brand, we would expect the greater proportion of low-tier Samsung smartphone models to pull down Samsung’s overall average. But by looking at each tier separately, we avoid this effect.”

In general, the mobile analytics firm says, smartphone models with a higher LTE category tend to be more expensive and support more network technologies.

It adds that all 5G smartphone models support at least LTE category 16 and would count as high-tier devices in this grouping; however, there are very small numbers of 5G smartphone devices in the market, at least for now.

Source: Opensignal
Source: Opensignal

According to the report, Samsung users experienced faster download speeds than Apple and Huawei users in 35% of countries, across 40 of countries analysed.

Among the three largest smartphone makers, Apple users were faster in 17.5% of countries. In the remaining 48%, none of the three were fastest although Huawei users were joint-fastest in seven countries, says Opensignal.

“All smartphones are not created equal,” says Ian Fogg, vice-president of analysis at Opensignal. “Newer and more expensive smartphone models usually support more network capabilities, such as newer versions of the 4G standard, and in a few cases, even 5G.

“Consumers with less-capable smartphones will not be able to enjoy the best mobile network experience that their mobile operator provides.”

Instead of relying on the technology claims of smartphone makers, component suppliers or mobile operators, Opensignal quantified the experience of users with different kinds of smartphones in 73 countries globally, says Fogg.

Opensignal says the handset network technologies which can affect the network experience include:

  • The ability to connect to more frequency bands.
  • The ability to connect to more than one radio band at once – called carrier aggregation.
  • Technologies that improve the performance on any given radio frequency such as the modulation type (eg, 64 or 256 QAM) and the use of multiple simultaneous antennas (eg, 2x2 or 4x4 MIMO).
  • The choice of modem supplier and chipset (for example: Qualcomm, Intel, Huawei HiSilicon, Samsung Exynos or Mediatek).

Africa’s large problem

“In Africa, the smartphone is a critical part of the mobile network experience because of the challenges of delivering mobile connectivity to a large continent,” notes Fogg.

“Often, Africans will own mid- and low-tier handsets which are not just cheaper but also offer their users a markedly slower network experience compared with top-tier smartphones.”

He notes Opensignal sees over 18 000 unique smartphone models from hundreds of smartphone manufacturers in its data.

However, he points out that most of these smartphone brands are niche, and many of the well-known brands such as Sony or Motorola are no longer truly global.

“Similarly, large rising stars like Xiaomi, OPPO, Realme and Vivo are still expanding their international footprint and do not operate everywhere. Most small smartphone manufacturers focus on just a few countries.”

Therefore, Fogg explains, for an international comparison, Opensignal looked at the three largest smartphone makers by shipment volume – Apple, Huawei and Samsung – because their users are present in sufficient volume in many countries.

While none of the countries saw Huawei users experience the fastest download speeds, Huawei was joint first in 17.5% of countries.

Perhaps most striking is the experience of Apple users, Opensignal says. In the US, it notes, a very strong iPhone market, Apple users experienced download speeds 8.2Mbps slower than Samsung users.

Given that Samsung makes a wide range of models from cheap to premium, while Apple only offers premium-priced models, this is an even more impressive result, Fogg says.

“However, these country differences represent other factors beyond the network capabilities of individual smartphone models. Huawei users experienced notably slower speeds in the US and Japan, most likely because they are not strong markets for Huawei, and in those countries their users have chosen cheaper models with less capable modems,” Fogg explains.

“Apple’s success in markets like Brazil, Taiwan and Costa Rica likely reflects a tendency of their users to be more weighted to premium-priced devices and premium mobile tariffs than in other countries where iPhone adoption is more widespread and mainstream, for example in the US.”

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