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Sprint Speeds Up Galaxy S8, HTC U11 Phones

A recent Sprint firmware update has boosted download speeds on the Samsung Galaxy S8 by at least 20 percent, according to Sprint execs and exclusive data PCMag collected from Ookla Speedtest Intelligence.

The news shows why it's always important to accept those carrier firmware updates that force you to reboot your phone. In Sprint's case, a bug in the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 radio code was causing Galaxy S8 phones to drop off Sprint's premiere Band 41 LTE network sooner than they should have, falling back to the slower bands 25 and 26.

"There was a miscalculation in the software that was reading the device, so it tuned away from Band 41 before it should," said Ryan Sullivan, VP of product engineering and development at Sprint. "Working back with Qualcomm and Samsung, we quickly found it, diagnosed it, and launched the update on June 5."

Both owners of Sprint-branded and unlocked Galaxy S8 phones are getting the update, Sullivan said. About 85 percent of Sprint's Galaxy S8 owners have already upgraded.

We compared speeds on the Galaxy S8, Galaxy S7, Galaxy S6, iPhone 7 and iPhone 6 series (including their Plus phones) during May 1-7 and July 1-7. While speeds on all of the other devices remained about the same, Galaxy S8 average LTE download speeds jumped by 20 percent from 21.9Mbps to 26.4Mbps. The update didn't affect upload speeds.

Sprint LTE Galaxy S8 Upgrade

Sprint provided us with some internal studies, based on the same data set but somewhat different timing (April 24 versus June 26) and slightly different methodology, which showed an even better improvement, from 21.6Mbps to 28.9Mbps. In any case, there's been a considerable boost based on the new firmware.

The changes also affected HTC U11 phones on the Sprint network, which in ideal conditions, should be even faster than Samsung Galaxy devices because they support 4×4 MIMO antennas on Sprint's fast Band 41 system. Between May 28 and July 8, we saw a huge jump in download speeds on U11 devices, from an average of 19.2Mbps to 27.9Mbps.

There's still one slight mystery: according to Ookla's data, Samsung Galaxy S7 phones on Sprint are faster than both of the newer devices, hovering around 30Mbps. That may be because not all Galaxy S8 owners have installed the new firmware.

Sprint argues that the Galaxy S8 upgrades have moved it from fourth to third place on speed for Galaxy S8 owners, putting it slightly ahead of Verizon on Galaxy S8 download speeds. Our analysis of Ookla data puts Sprint slightly behind Verizon during the first week of July, with Verizon at 27.4Mbps down to Sprint's 26.4Mbps—but the point is, they're close.

This is important to Sprint because the company has been strenuously trying to reverse its reputation for poor network performance. According to Speedtest Intelligence, Sprint is still in fourth place among the major carriers on download speeds, but the gap has been closing over the past year: while there was about a 5Mbps difference between the fourth- and third-place networks in June 2016, it's down to about 3Mbps in June 2017.

(Our Fastest Mobile Networks study, which Verizon won nationwide, uses a complex Speed Score metric factoring in download speeds, upload speeds, latency, and network reliability. It was based on tests run in May, so it doesn't reflect improvements made in June.)

Moving Targets, Continual Improvements

Sprint's device upgrades also go with network upgrades. Network performance is a moving target; this summer, for example, Sprint is increasing its rollout of gigabit LTE in cities like New Orleans and deploying "magic box" indoor coverage devices to improve Band 41 signal in residential areas.

Just today, AT&T announced its misleadingly named "5G Evolution" launch in Indianapolis—that's its own version of gigabit LTE. That only works with Galaxy S8 and S8+ phones for now, although it will work with other devices in the future.

The takeaway here is that your phone matters when it comes to network performance; the Galaxy S8 is really good; and you should update your firmware. Sprint users, especially, will see a big boost from keeping on the latest software at all times.

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The new era in mobile

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This trend suggests users are reaching a saturation point in terms of how much time they can devote to apps. The AV industry could reverse that. But just how mobile apps will penetrate this market and who will hold the keys in this new era of mobility is still very much in doubt. When it comes to a driverless future, multiple factors are now converging. Over the last few years, while app usage showed signs of stagnation, the push for driverless vehicles has only intensified. More cities are live-testing driverless software than ever, and investments in autonomous vehicle technology and software by tech giants like Google and Uber (measured in the billions) are starting to mature. And, after some reluctance, automakers have now embraced this idea of a driverless future. Expectations from all sides point to a “passenger economy” of mobility-as-a-service, which, by some estimates, may be worth as much as $7 trillion by 2050. For mobile app companies this suggests several interesting questions: Will smart cars, like smartphones before them, be forced to go “exclusive” with a single OS of record (Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon/AGL), or will they be able to offer multiple OS/platforms of record based on app maturity or functionality? Or, will automakers simply step in to create their own closed loop operating systems, fragmenting the market completely? Automakers and tech companies clearly recognize the importance of “connected mobility.” Complicating the picture even further is the potential significance of an OS’s ability to support multiple Digital Assistants of Record (independent of the OS), as we see with Google Assistant now working on iOS. Obviously, voice NLP/U will be even more critical for smart car applications as compared to smart speakers and phones. Even in those established arenas the battle for OS dominance is only just beginning. Opening a new front in driverless vehicles could have a fascinating impact. Either way, the implications for mobile app companies are significant. Looking at the driverless landscape today there are several indications as to which direction the OSes in AVs will ultimately go. For example, after some initial inroads developing their own fleet of autonomous vehicles, Google has now focused almost all its efforts on autonomous driving software while striking numerous partnership deals with traditional automakers. Some automakers, however, are moving forward developing their own OSes. Volkswagen, for instance, announced that vw.OS will be introduced in VW brand electric cars from 2020 onward, with an eye toward autonomous driving functions. (VW also plans to launch a fleet of autonomous cars in 2019 to rival Uber.) Tesla, a leader in AV, is building its own unified hardware-software stack. Companies like Udacity, however, are building an “open-source” self-driving car tech. Mobileye and Baidu have a partnership in place to provide software for automobile manufacturers. Clearly, most smartphone apps would benefit from native integration, but there are several categories beyond music, voice and navigation that require significant hardware investment to natively integrate. Will automakers be interested in the Tesla model? If not, how will smart cars and apps (independent of OS/voice assistant) partner up? Given the hardware requirements necessary to enable native app functionality and optimal user experience, how will this force smart car manufacturers to work more seamlessly with platforms like AGL to ensure competitive advantage and differentiation? And, will this commoditize the OS dominance we see in smartphones today? It’s clearly still early days and — at least in the near term — multiple OS solutions will likely be employed until preferred solutions rise to the top. Regardless, automakers and tech companies clearly recognize the importance of “connected mobility.” Connectivity and vehicular mobility will very likely replace traditional auto values like speed, comfort and power. The combination of Wi-Fi hotspot and autonomous vehicles (let alone consumer/business choice of on-demand vehicles) will propel instant conversion/personalization of smart car environments to passenger preferences. And, while questions remain around the how and the who in this new era in mobile, it’s not hard to see the why. Americans already spend an average of 293 hours per year inside a car, and the average commute time has jumped around 20 percent since 1980. In a recent survey (conducted by Ipsos/GenPop) researchers found that in a driverless future people would spend roughly a third of the time communicating with friends and family or for business and online shopping. By 2030, it’s estimated the autonomous cars “will free up a mind-blowing 1.9 trillion minutes for passengers.” Another analysis suggested that even with just 10 percent adoption, driverless cars could account for $250 billion in driver productivity alone. Productivity in this sense extends well beyond personal entertainment and commerce and into the realm of business productivity. Use of integrated display (screen and heads-up) and voice will enable business multi-tasking from video conferencing, search, messaging, scheduling, travel booking, e-commerce and navigation. First-mover advantage goes to the mobile app companies that first bundle into a single compelling package information density, content access and mobility. An app company that can claim 10 to 15 percent of this market will be a significant player. For now, investors are throwing lots of money at possible winners in the autonomous automotive race, who, in turn, are beginning to define the shape of the mobile app landscape in a driverless future. In fact, what we’re seeing now looks a lot like the early days of smartphones with companies like Tesla, for example, applying an Apple -esque strategy for smart car versus smartphone. Will these OS/app marketplaces be dominated by a Tesla — or Google (for that matter) — and command a 30 percent revenue share from apps, or will auto manufacturers with proprietary platforms capitalize on this opportunity? Questions like these — while at the same time wondering just who the winners and losers in AV will be — mean investment and entrepreneurship in the mobile app sector is an extremely lucrative but risky gamble.

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