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Exclusive: Pixel 2, Galaxy Note 8 Beat iPhone on LTE

By on December 25, 2017

The Google Pixel 2 and Samsung Galaxy Note 8 crush the iPhone X‘s performance on the most common LTE band in North America, according to new test data from Cellular Insights given exclusively to PCMag.

The Pixel 2 is tuned to get up to 36 percent better download speeds using the same band, channel size, and number of antennas than the best iPhone X model, the tests found. With their full complement of antennas turned on, the Pixel 2, Note 8, and LG V30 can get double the speeds per channel compared to the iPhone.

Speed Advantage of Pixel 2 over iPhone X

We asked Cellular Insights to test these phones because they all use Qualcomm’s latest X16 “gigabit” modem. That’s the best modem out there, but the results showed that phone makers’ design choices can still make a huge difference.

According to its report, “Because of the added antenna diversity, devices with 4-branch antenna design perform better than the devices with two antennas in all situations, including the areas of coverage where 4×4 MIMO isn’t supported. Added diversity aids in extracting and processing a cleaner signal which reduces retransmission, improves spectral efficiency of the network and overall user experience.”

To compare the phones on an apples-to-Apples basis, Cellular Insights looked at performance using one 20MHz channel of Band 4, in 2×2 MIMO mode. That means the phone is using two upload and two download antenna branches. Different US carriers cobble together spectrum in different ways, and some support 4×4 MIMO in various cities. But 2×2 MIMO is a commonly used transmission method for US networks. The tests used LTE Band 4, which is used by AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and the major Canadian wireless carriers, and attenuated an LTE signal from a strong -85dBm until the modems showed no performance.

Qualcomm Beats Intel; Android Beats Apple

There are two main models of the iPhone X, which use Qualcomm and Intel modems. The Qualcomm-powered one performs better, as an earlier Cellular Insights test showed.

Throwing the Android phones into the mix, the phones’ modem quality was in a consistent order, until you got to very weak signals. The Pixel 2$649.99 at Verizon Wireless was the fastest, followed by the Note 8, the V30, the Qualcomm-based iPhone, and finally the Intel iPhone.

Chart - LTE Band 4 Download Performance Of Leading Smartphones

The V30 and Note 8 performed very well in extremely low signal conditions with 2×2 MIMO, squeezing a tiny bit of bandwidth out of failing connections. (One thing you can’t see on the chart below is that the Intel iPhone’s line merges with the Pixel 2’s line at -128, but at that point everyone’s performance is very weak.)

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Chart - LTE Band 4 Download Performance

The differences between Android phones and the iPhone become much greater when you turn on 4×4 MIMO. (The chart at the top of this story shows those differences.) By doubling the use of transmit and receive antennas, 4×4 MIMO doubles potential speeds on an LTE channel. The Note 8, Pixel 2 and LG V30$800.00 at T-Mobile all support 4×4 MIMO on band 4. Apple iPhones do not, possibly because the Intel modem Apple used this year doesn’t support the feature. The Pixel 2 performed best of the group in weak signal conditions using 4×4 MIMO.

Chart - LTE Band 4 Download Performance Of Leading Smartphones, 4x4 MIMO

Chart - LTE Band 4 Download Performance Of Leading Smartphones, 4x4 MIMO, Low Signal

Cellular Insights also looked at an international unit of the Huawei Mate 10 Pro, which we had high hopes for because it’s the first LTE Category 18 modem we’ve seen, capable of 1.2Gbps speeds. But the lesson we learned was just not to use international models in the US. The Mate 10 Pro showed the poorest performance of any of the test devices, which we chalk up to its not being tuned for the US’s Band 4.

Did Apple Do This on Purpose?

The Cellular Insights tests didn’t reveal conclusively whether Apple is turning down its Qualcomm modem performance to try to match the weaker Intel modem on purpose. While some industry sources have told me this is the case, the LG V30 performed similarly enough to the iPhone that Apple may just not be all that great with Band 4.