With the launch of the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, Intel finally made its way into Apple’s most important product. Good news for Intel, no doubt, but not for consumers.Tests of LTE connectivity, released on Thursday by Cellular Insights, show a huge performance gap between the iPhone 7 equipped with an Intel modem and a Qualcomm modem.
The difference in performance is a black eye not only for Intel, but also for Apple, which for the past five years had relied on Qualcomm exclusively for its iPhone modem chips. With the iPhone 7, Apple decided to make two versions — one with an Intel modem and one with a Qualcomm modem. (Neither Intel nor Apple have commented on the performance gap so far.
By Aaron Tilley
For consumers, the downside of owning an Intel version is significant. The tests revealed that Qualcomm-powered iPhone 7s are able to consistently establish stronger connections to LTE networks than Intel-powered iPhone 7s. Qualcomm modems outran Intel modems by 30% in overall performance, and 75% when the signal was at its weakest.
Since writing a story about these modem benchmarks, readers have asked FORBES — directly and via Twitter — how to make sure they’re buying the better iPhone 7 with a Qualcomm modem. If you want to get the best bang for your buck, you probably should be careful which iPhone 7 you end up buying. Here are some ways you can make sure you’re not buying the inferior iPhone 7.
As this Apple spec page shows, Apple created two distinct versions of the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus to segment out devices with an Intel modem or a Qualcomm modem.
By checking the model number on the back of the iPhone 7, you will be able to tell:
Model A1660 and Model A1661 means they have a Qualcomm modem.
Model A1778 and Model A1784 are equipped with an Intel modem.
If you’re a United States-based customer buying from a carrier, the best way to make sure which iPhone 7 you’re getting is:
Verizon and Sprint sell the Qualcomm-powered iPhone.
AT&T and T-Mobile sell the Intel-equipped iPhone.
The Apple spec page indicates that the Intel-powered A1778 and A1784 phones won’t support CDMA (or code division multiple access), a cellular technology used on some LTE networks. That means an Intel-powered iPhone 7 simply won’t work on CDMA networks, such as Verizon’s and Sprint’s.
Qualcomm’s modem works on all the four big carrier networks in the US. And overall, Qualcomm’s modem supports a much wider variety of cellular technology than Intel. Qualcomm hardware supports GSM/CDMA/WCDMA/TD-SCDMA/LTE, while Intel’s only support GSM/WCDMA/LTE. That means that in addition to improved connectivity performance with a Qualcomm modem, Qualcomm can work on more networks.
Apple also sells unlocked versions of the iPhone 7 and iPhones 7 Plus that come with a Qualcomm modem.
The relationship between modem makers and carriers is a close one. Supporting various cellular technologies is extraordinarily complex. Each carrier has their own unique network demands and features. Qualcomm has been in this game a lot longer than Intel, and as a result, it has a lot more to offer the consumer, according to experts.
“Building modems for today’s cellphones is an extremely daunting task,” said Sundeep Rangan, an engineering professor at New York University who specializes in wireless technologies. “It has to support a dizzying array of features and get the chips down to a form factor and low power performance.”
Tilley is San Francisco-based staff writer at Forbes. He covers the growing world of Internet-connected hardware and chip companies, among other things. Email him story tips or comments at atilley [at]forbes.com. Follow me on Twitter @aatilley.