​Samsung S9: The fastest smartphone of them all

The chip has been there for a while to make the Samsung S9 smartphones the fastest of them all -- and now, the 4G networks can support its high-speed hardware.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

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Samsung claimed that its Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus are the fastest smartphones on the planet. Samsung's right. They are the fastest.

Statistics from Ookla, the company behind the internet performance site Speedtest, found the Galaxy S9 smartphone's family has download speeds that are up to 42 percent faster than the closest competitor's newest devices.

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That's a big claim. Samsung backs it with Ookla Speedtest Intelligence data from February 2018 to April 2018. This compared the most popular smartphones' download speeds on the major nationwide 4G LTE networks. And, by this count, the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus' download speeds are 37 percent faster than the Apple iPhone X, 17 percent faster than the Google Pixel 2, and 38 percent faster than the Samsung Galaxy S7.

In my own informal tests, comparing my Pixel 2 with a friend's Galaxy S9 on Speedtest over the Asheville, N.C.-area Verizon network, I found the Galaxy S9 came in with 12-percent higher download scores. The speed increase is real.

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What powers this speed increase is Samsung's Cat.18 LTE modem, a chip that launched in 2017. It's part of the ARM-based Exynos 9 Series (8895) system-on-a-chip family. It gets it speed from industry-first 6CA (carrier aggregation) support.

With 6CA, the Cat.18 modem can aggregate up to six Component Carriers. This -- combined with 4x4 multiple input, multiple output (MIMO), and 256 quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) -- means, with the right network and conditions, a Galaxy S9 could theoretically hit 1.2Gb downlink speeds. While you're never likely to see speeds like that, you will see considerable improvements over the competition's speed with similar conditions.

The Cat.18 also supports Licensed-Assisted Access (LTE-U). That enables devices to aggregation licensed and unlicensed spectra for even higher speeds. LTE-U is part of 5G, which is being rolled out by T-Mobile and Verizon. It's also present in other phones using the Qualcomm's X16 LTE modem such as the LG V20 and Pixel.

Behind all this technology, Samsung is hoping to find new customers for its flagship smartphones as the summer vacation season starts. Justin Denison, Samsung Electronics America's senior vice president of mobile product strategy and marketing, said in a statement, "This summer, consumers are going to be on the road, at the beach, and relying on their phones more than ever, but without the latest and fastest network technology that's available in the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus, their phones may quite literally slow them down."

Samsung may be on to something. According to a Samsung survey conducted by Wakefield Research in May 2018, "This summer, speed is a must. More than 4-in-5 (85 percent) Memorial Day weekend travelers say it's important to have shows, videos, or movies to watch while they are traveling to their destination."

The Galaxy S9 smartphones, as ZDNet has found, are also darn good smartphones. While Google's Pixel 2 is still my favorite phone, I must admit the speeds Samsung achieves with today's 4G network is very impressive.

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