Note: Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Anshel Sag contributed significantly to this article.
Unless you are living under a rock, you know 5G is the next generation of mobile networks and will be the connectivity backbone most devices in the future. Because of the crucial nature of 5G and how it will help shape the next decade, many companies are finding ways to latch onto 5G and even claim leadership in 5G. Many articles and analysis on 5G leadership we have read have been one dimensional and shallow, and we decided to research and write this series.
This article makes up Part 3 of our series, focusing on 5G handset leadership as pretty much nearly all 5G devices out today are smartphones, with a few exceptions. In Part 1, we covered 5G intellectual property and patent leadership, which is difficult because most of the 3GPP contributions are not public. In Part 2, we covered 5G chipsets and the status of all the different players in the space. In Part 3 analysis, we will focus on the handsets and the manufacturers that build devices using the currently available chipsets and where those devices are used.
Defining 5G handset leadership
When it comes to handset leadership in 5G, our definition is dependent on a few factors. The first factor is whether that manufacturer is shipping a device or has announced one. Once that is established, the number of handsets shipping and the number of carriers supported will be considered. Support for Sub-6GHz and mmWave is also a factor because mmWave is harder to do in a mobile device and requires more experience and engineering.
If an OEM isn’t currently shipping a device, then leadership will be measured by public demonstrations of 5G and or the announcement dates of support for 5G in its devices. If a manufacturer does not have any public dates or demonstrations, then public rumors are all that can be measured, and we consider that to be in the last category. The categories we will be using for this will be leaders, close followers, late followers, and laggards.
5G Handset “Leaders.”
It’s easy to show that Samsung has the 5G smartphone manufacturer lead among the rest of the industry. It has successfully shipped 5G phones with multiple carriers in multiple geographies on multiple 5G bands, including mmWave and Sub-6GHz.
Currently, the Galaxy S10 5G is Samsung’s primary 5G device for global operators shipping in Australia, Korea, Switzerland, the UK, and the US. Samsung worked with multiple operators as well, including Telstra in Australia, which is an exclusive agreement and has been shown to exceed speeds of 1.2 Gbps+. In Korea, Samsung’s Galaxy S10 5G is available on SK Telecom, Korea Telecom and LG UPlus with speeds up to 2.6 Gbps as reported by SK Telecom. In Switzerland, Sunrise and Swisscom both offer the Galaxy S10 5G and have service available as well. In the UK, the Galaxy S10 5G is available on both EE and Vodafone and offering 5G over Sub-6GHz spectrum much like Swiss carriers. The reason for Samsung selling devices in Switzerland and the UK with only Sub-6GHz spectrum is because the spectrum first made available in Europe has predominantly been Sub-6GHz spectrum. Last but certainly not least are the US operators which Samsung has accomplished a clean sweep with all four major operators; AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon that offer versions of the Galaxy S10 5G, whether it be Sub-6Ghz or mmWave. My colleague, Anshel Sag, recently attended AT&T’s Shape conference in Los Angeles at Warner Brothers Studios and witnessed speeds up to 1.8 Gbps and heard rumors of speeds over 2 Gbps. CNET even corroborated some of these speeds with their testing on site during the event.
Samsung also had a delayed 5G version of the Galaxy Fold in the works, as it pulled back the Galaxy Fold’s global launch due to mechanical issues. Samsung says it resolved those issues and the company plans to bring the device back to the market soon, which may mean we could see a second 5G device from Samsung in the market very soon.
Samsung is one of the few manufacturers that is shipping both mmWave and Sub-6GHz devices in-market and is doing so in multiple geographies and doing it with a device that is mostly the same size and shape as its standard 4G version, albeit with a slightly larger screen and battery size. All of these abilities are what we believe makes them one of the, if not the leader in 5G handsets today.
Samsung’s devices are a mixture of Samsung’s own Exynos 5G modem and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 paired with Snapdragon X50 modem, with a sporadic mixture from one geography to another.
Following Samsung is another Korean handset maker; LG. LG’s leadership is like Samsung’s in that the company created a new device to deliver 5G to its operators and customers. LG’s device for 5G markets is the LG V50 ThinQ 5G. One of the notable features of the LG V50 ThinQ 5G is that the back of the device has a light-up 5G logo that lets people know that it’s running on a 5G network. Also, like Samsung, LG is shipping both mmWave and Sub-6Ghz version of its devices with minimal physical changes around the world on multiple carriers.
In Australia, LG’s V50 ThinQ 5G is available on Telstra, using Sub-6GHz, the same 3.5 GHz band that many other global operators currently run Sub-6GHz 5G networks on. In the Korean home market, LG joins Samsung on all three major carriers, which include KT, LG UPlus, and SK Telecom. In Switzerland, Swisscom carries the LG V50 ThinQ while it appears that Sunrise does not. Switzerland is a Sub-6Ghz market and so is the UK as the LG V50 ThinQ is going to initially be a Sub-6GHz band device used for 5G, which is currently available on the only EE. In Spain, LG is also available on Vodafone with once again another Sub-6GHz version. Vodafone Italy also has the LG V50 ThinQ 5G available for sale on Sub-6GHz spectrum. In the US, LG’s V50 ThinQ 5G is available on both Sprint & Verizon and supports Sub-6GHz on Sprint and mmWave on Verizon.
LG’s V50 ThinQ is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X50 modem in all versions of the device in all geographies on all operators.
OPPO is one of the world’s upcoming smartphone manufacturers and was one of the first manufacturers to launch a 5G phone in Europe. The OPPO Reno 5G, much like the other manufacturers’ models is effectively a 5G version of the OPPO Reno phone that launched earlier this year. The OPPO Reno 5G is only available as a Sub-6GHz device, which means that all the carriers that are carrying the device are Sub-6GHz operators currently. Right now, OPPO is shipping the Reno 5G in Australia on Telstra, in Switzerland on Swisscom and in the UK on EE. OPPO is also slated to have the Reno 5G available on UAE operator Etisalat next month with pre-orders available now. There hasn’t been any talk about a mmWave version of the Reno 5G. However, OPPO is a very innovative company and may come to market with one later. Currently, the markets that OPPO is most popular and successful in predominantly don’t have mmWave, so OPPO isn’t as aggressive about it as other manufacturers might be. I expect that OPPO will probably come to market with a mmWave variant if it plans to go after the Korean or American markets. OPPO may also have a mmWave version once China’s 5G networks go live and operators make mmWave spectrum available.
The OPPO Reno 5G also utilizes Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X50 modem for its handsets.
Xiaomi has already announced and is currently shipping a 5G phone, which much like the competition is a modified version of a device that the company is already shipping. Xiaomi’s 5G device is the Mi Mix 3 5G, the 5G version of the already released Mi Mix 3 smartphone which features a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 and adds the Snapdragon X50 modem in the 5G version. The Mi Mix 3 5G only ships with Sub-6 GHz 5G capability, which limits it to networks that are Sub-6GHz, which is currently most networks today. However, down the road that may change to where most networks will be a mixture of mmWave and Sub-6GHz. As such, the Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G is currently available in Switzerland on Sunrise and in Spain, Italy and the UK on Vodafone.
5G Handset “Close Followers.”
OnePlus is another smartphone manufacturer that has seen lots of growth, especially in India, the US, and Europe. OnePlus also has a 5G smartphone, and the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G is based on its OnePlus 7 Pro that launched earlier this year to much excitement. Because of OnePlus’ close relationship with OPPO, it isn’t a surprise that the company was able to put out a 5G device out in time and get it first in the UK on EE. In addition to EE in the UK, The OnePlus 7 Pro 5G is available on Elisa in Finland operating on Sub-6GHz spectrum.
While the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G is not available on many operators quite yet, I believe that OnePlus has plans to launch on more operators very soon. OnePlus has a very close relationship with T-Mobile in the US, and the company launched the OnePlus 7 Pro on its network, so I expect that the 5G variant will launch on T-Mobile as well.
The OnePlus 7 Pro 5G like many of its competitors, also features Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X50 modem. (pending MWC Shanghai info)
Because Lenovo owns both Motorola and Lenovo handset divisions, we will include both brands in this review of its 5G handsets. Currently, Motorola’s Z3 and Z4 are 4G devices. However, Motorola did make the ‘Moto 5G Mod’ which is an attachment device that can attach to a Motorola Z4 or Z3 device which has its own Snapdragon 855 and Snapdragon X50 modem and mmWave antennas for 5G connectivity. This device is currently only available on Verizon; however, it is possible that it could be sold on other carriers as well. In addition to the 5G Moto mod, Lenovo also announced its own Z6 Pro 5G smartphone with dual-sim 4G and 5G connectivity. However, there is no date for this device and will most likely launch in China as most Lenovo handsets do. Both of Lenovo’s currently planned devices operate on the Qualcomm Snapdragon X50 modem, as far as we are aware and what’s been announced thus far.
Huawei has been a very curious case when it comes to its 5G products. It has announced two devices, the Mate 20X 5G, and the Mate X 5G. The Mate 20X 5G, much like the rest of the competitors is a modified version of the already released Mate 20 Pro. It features Huawei’s own HiSilicon Kirin 980 SoC paired with the new Balong 5000 5G modem with only Sub-6GHz band support. However, the device was supposed to launch on multiple carriers in Europe including Swisscom, EE and Vodafone and all those carriers pulled its Huawei devices after the US ban on Huawei affected Google’s relationship with the OEM.
Initially, Swiss operator Sunrise did pull the Mate 20X 5G device from its website, but the device appears to be on backorder its site at the time of writing meaning that Sunrise is the only operator to carry a Huawei 5G device globally. Huawei had plans to release the Mate X foldable phone with 5G capability, but the company has delayed that device citing the US ban. The company initially communicated that the Mate X could potentially be capable of the mmWave spectrum as well as Sub-6GHz, but then clarified that the capability might be there later this year. However, we have yet to see a mmWave RFIC from the company, and all others with mmWave capability have developed its RF-frontend for mmWave, and Huawei relies on suppliers for its RFFE to this date, so I’m not sure how or when Huawei will have mmWave capability.
Huawei also has plans to launch its Mate 20X 5G in the UAE this summer on two carriers, but exact dates are not quite solid yet. Huawei’s 5G plans may have been delayed and shaken up a bit, but we will continue to follow the company’s plans as the company launches devices on operators’ networks.
5G Handset “Late Followers.”
ZTE has been a long-time player in the industry and suffered a significant blow to its competitiveness when the company was caught violating US sanctions on Iran. The US government temporarily cut them off from all US suppliers and eventually backpedaled after negotiations, potentially saving the entire company and its products. The ban put a bit of a wrench in the company’s gears and might explain why the company has only announced one device, the ZTE Axon 10 Pro 5G. However, ZTE has been losing its edge to the likes of Huawei, Oppo, and Vivo so that might play into ZTE’s late follower status as well.
The company has currently only announced that its ZTE Axon 10 Pro device, which is a variant of the Axon 10 that the company is already shipping is available in the UAE on Etisalat. ZTE says that the Axon 10 Pro 5G will be available in Europe in the first half of 2019, but none of the European operators at the time of writing are carrying this device and there’s less than a week left in the first half of 2019.
Vivo has shown prototypes like the Vivo NEXT 5G prototype, but recently at MWC Shanghai 2019 the company finally announced its first commercial 5G phone, the iQOO 5G. The iQOO 5G, much like other operators is already a device that operates on 4G, and the 5G variant is an update to that while still running a Snapdragon 855, it adds the Qualcomm Snapdragon X50 modem and RF Front-end to add 5G capability. Vivo says the device will be available in Q3 but hasn’t stated carrier availability quite yet. It will likely be targeted at the Chinese market, as the Vivo iQOO is one of the best-selling phones in the Chinese market and will likely coincide with Chinese operators 5G launches.
Nubia, another Chinese smartphone manufacturer, has committed to delivering a 5G phone this year but didn’t give any details until this week at MWC Shanghai 2019. The company announced the Nubia X 5G which much like the other manufacturers announced shares the same design as the 5G version of the Nubia X. The Snapdragon 855 SoC powers the Nubia X 5G like its 4G predecessor but adds the Snapdragon X50 modem to deliver 5G capability. The Nubia X 5G does not currently have any carrier availability or any expected general availability dates or pricing, yet. However, earlier this month Nubia did state that the company plans to ship the Red Magic gaming smartphone in India and China in 2020 with 5G capability.
5G Handset “Laggards”
Apple has been lagging behind the rest of the industry when it comes to 5G. Apple has previously relied on Intel for its 4G connectivity, but recently ended that relationship as what was rumored as delays. I believe that Apple’s agreement with Qualcomm to supply it with modems means that we will get a 5G iPhone from Apple in 2020. Because of Apple’s secretive nature, most of what’s known about Apple’s 5G phone is based on rumors and conjecture. In addition to its multi-year chip and license deal with Qualcomm, Apple is also hiring aggressively to build out its 5G capabilities, but I expect that could take anywhere from 3-5 years depending on whether Apple acquires Intel’s 5G modem business and IP.
Google is the purveyor of the Android operating system that all 5G phones currently run on; however, as a device maker, Google is incredibly quiet about its plans around 5G. The company has teased that its next version of the Pixel, the Pixel 4 is coming soon, but hasn’t given any hints that it might come with a 5G variant. We expect that Google will come to market with a new phone in October and that there’s a high probability that it will feature Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X55 modem for 5G connectivity.
While HTC does offer the 5G HTC Hub through operators like Sprint in the US, the device is not a smartphone, and the company appears to continue to struggle to offer competitive phone designs. Nobody knows whether or not HTC will release any 5G phones this year, but it may be difficult to do since HTC sold a huge portion of the company’s smartphone engineering talent to Google last year.
Honor is Huawei’s value brand and generally follows the rest of Huawei’s lead on new technologies. As such, there’s been very little concrete information from Honor in terms of 5G, and when you consider that Huawei only currently has one phone selling globally on one operator but isn’t in stock yet, there isn’t much hope for Honor right now. Honor’s President George Zhao, according to Android Authority, made bold claims regarding the brand’s capabilities in 5G but didn’t give any concrete dates other than stating that Honor would be first to market and that Honor will have a 5G phone in 2019. Honor has still not said what device or when it will come to market or with which operator, so we consider most of these statements to be hyperbole at best.
Sony’s smartphone business has struggled as of the last few years, but it continues to release new phones. The company has not made any concrete announcements regarding a 5G phone, but Sony has shown off a working prototype of a 5G phone based on some of its current designs. The closest that Sony has come to a 5G device is its mmWave 5G prototype at MWC 2019, and it appears that it is as far as the company has come to releasing a 5G device. There have been rumors that the company may come to market with a foldable 5G device, but it seems to be unsubstantiated conjecture at this point mostly.
HMD Global (Nokia)
HMD Global is the license holding joint venture between Foxconn Electronics and Nokia to design and manufacture smartphones. It hasn’t necessarily been one to go after the flagship part of the market, which is currently where most 5G phones exist due to 5G being a premium feature. As such, HMD has been coy about its 5G plans and giving exact dates or models. The company hasn’t demonstrated any 5G technologies or shown any prototypes, and the best we have in terms of future information are some rumors that HMD will launch two 5G phones in late Q3. HMD Global recently signed a 5G multi-mode global patent agreement with Qualcomm last month in May, so HMD is most likely gearing up to launch a 5G device relatively soon, but anyone’s guess is as good as mine at this point.
So, who’s leading?
After going through all the smartphone vendors around the market and assessing what they currently have, it seems that there is quite obviously a clear leader in 5G smartphones. Samsung is above and beyond ahead of all the competition in 5G smartphones, and we believe that this leadership will continue into the remainder of this year and next year as the company prepares its next generation of 5G devices. Samsung also just stated a few days ago that the company has already sold 1 million Galaxy S10 5G phones in just Korea alone, which is an impressive statistic for such a new technology. Samsung is a close partner of Qualcomm’s, and Qualcomm has already stated that it plans to bring a 5G SoC to market next year and Samsung already committed to using that next-generation processor at MWC Barcelona this year. One thing to consider as well is that many of the Chinese operators are preparing to launch their 5G networks relatively soon and that means the Chinese OEMs will likely gain a lot of traction before the end of this year and ship considerable amounts of devices.