Mobility

Is the 32GB iPhone 7 really slower? Confusion abounds with the latest Apple controversy

News keeps trickling out about the iPhone 7's speed problem. Several theories have been put forth: What's the real problem? And does it even matter?

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Every iteration of a popular phone renews its target for critics, and no phone has felt that more than Apple's iPhone series. Controversy follows a new iPhone release like sharks to blood, with critics seeking any flaw to tear apart.

Some criticisms have been serious: the iPhone 4 had its "antennagate," which had a very real impact on its function. The iPhone 5 brought the lightning adapter to the world, which was a major source of ire despite the fact that the old adapter now seems ridiculous.

There are problems that are decidedly less serious, however: the iPhone 6 could reportedly bend, and now the iPhone 7's smaller capacity model is apparently slower than those with larger storage.

Sensational headlines and hot YouTube videos only stoke the fire for those bent on hating the iPhone, but like anything sensational there's usually a bit more going on below the surface. There are some competing theories as to why the iPhone 7 32GB seems slower than its larger-capacity brethren, and two are worth looking at: read/write speed and Qualcomm/Intel chipsets.

What is actually slower

One of the theories floating in the internet ether is that 32GB iPhone 7 models are just slower, period. CNET addressed this with some testing of its own to determine what was really going on behind the scenes and the results make perfect—and mostly unnoticeable—sense.

There's a bottleneck in SSD processing power that always affects smaller capacity disks, and it's simply unavoidable: read/write speed. Smaller solid state discs simply have fewer channels to move data from storage to screen, and vice versa.

SEE: Research: Apple's Growing Role in the Enterprise (Tech Pro Research)

What CNET found by digging down, though, is that write speed was the only one affected by the channel bottleneck. Writing to your iPhone 7's drive occurs when you download files, save pictures, and do anything else that involves saving something to the phone's local storage.

Users generally don't notice their write speed slowing down, and with good reason: even slower discs (like the iPhone 7's 32GBs) have a max write speed of 100Mbps. As CNET points out even the most intense write activities, like recording a 4K video, only uses 30Mbps of bandwidth. In other words, writing files to your iPhone won't push its capacity.

Read speeds, on the other hand, are noticeable but there's a reason you won't notice a difference on larger vs. smaller capacity iPhones: SSD reads are simple tasks that simply don't tax the speed of the drive in the slightest.

What's really going on?

If read/write speeds aren't the source of the complaint then what is? Cellular Insights, which tests many of the newest smartphones on the market, has the most likely cause: the iPhone 7 and 7plus were produced with two different chipsets.

Anyone familiar with cellular technology knows we have two bands that are popular in the United States: CDMA (used by Verizon and Sprint), and GSM (used by AT&T and T-Mobile).

SEE: 19 of Apple's biggest tech blunders (TechRepublic)

Up until the latest iteration of the iPhone, Qualcomm was the sole manufacturer of chipsets and modems for Apple's smartphones. The iPhone 7, however, split the ticket between Qualcomm's MDM9645M and Intel's XMM7360 modems.

Therein lies the problem: Intel's chip didn't test as fast as Qualcomm's.

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Image: Cellular Insights

Cellular Insights ran tests on both versions of the iPhone 7plus and found that the Intel modem performed considerably worse than Qualcomm's. As the graph above shows, Intel's chipset wasn't even able to match the iPhone 6s for speed, while the Qualcomm iPhone 7 tested well above Apple's previous model.

Want to know which one you have? Check the fine print on the back of your iPhone 7. If it has model number A1660 or A1661 you're in luck: It's a Qualcomm. If the model number reads A1778 or A1784 sorry: It's an Intel.

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Performance of both Qualcomm (red) and Intel (blue) on band 4. Signal strength is weaker to the right of the figure.

Image: Cellular Insights

Keep in mind, both chipsets delivered similar results in ideal signal strength situations. Once things get dicey the Qualcomm chipset definitely outperforms the Intel one, however.

What it all means

Your iPhone 7 isn't, in most cases, going to feel inferior so there's really no need to worry about it. Yes, AT&T and T-Mobile customers have a bit more to complain about but their complaints have nothing to do with device storage size: it's all about the chipset in this case.

The actual performance of the iPhone 7 is unaffected by its capacity unless you try your hardest to maximize its write speed. In those cases you will see a slowdown between a 32GB device and one with more storage, but those conditions aren't a problem for users in regular situations. They're also not a problem unique to Apple's iPhone 7: It's a universal problem of solid state design.

Next conspiracy, please.

We reached out to Apple and Intel for commentary on this piece, but no response was received as of publication. This article will be updated with any response.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Reports have been coming out about the slower speed of Apple's 32GB iPhone 7 devices, but it's not a unique Apple issue: smaller SSDs simply can't read or write as fast as larger ones.
  2. If anything is slowing down the 32GB iPhone 7 it's the write speed. Even the most complex daily uses, however, can't come close to maxing out its Mbps capabilities.
  3. A real cause of slower devices can be found in Apple's use of Intel chipsets in GSM devices. The Intel chipset tested far worse than the one in CDMA devices, which was manufactured by Qualcomm.

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About Brandon Vigliarolo

Brandon writes about apps and software for TechRepublic. He's an award-winning feature writer who previously worked as an IT professional and served as an MP in the US Army.

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