Gartner’s recently published report revealed that Apple is now the worldwide leader in smartphone shipments, passing Samsung for the first time in five years. 

Admittedly, this has been a weird 12 months, and I am not sure if the pandemic has done some strange things regarding upgrade cycles and purchasing decisions. In Q4 2019, Apple shipped 69.5 million versus Samsung’s 70.4 million in total smartphone units. But fast forward a year, to Q4 2020, Apple did 79.9 million vs. Samsung’s 62.1 million. Now, that’s a big gain for Apple and a massive drop for Samsung, but understand that on a global basis, smartphone sales fell by 12.5% total if we include all the other smartphone manufacturers in the mix. 

Worldwide Unit Shipments of Smartphones (1000s) in Q4 2020


Gartner

I am not entirely sure what is accounting for Apple’s significant gain here. Still, the iPhone 12 was a massive win for the company as its first 5G device, and its price point was lower than for the previous model on the entry-level when it was first introduced. We also have to account for other models  — the iPhone SE, the iPhone XR, and the iPhone 11 — that continued to sell well at reduced price points following the iPhone 12 launch. In contrast, Samsung did not make comparative price adjustments to its line later in the year and did not have 5G across its line until recently.

OK, so it’s clear who’s selling the most phones, but who’s making the best phones?

Every time someone here at ZDNet — or an industry media site — writes something positive or negative about either of the two leading smartphone vendors, the usual fan debates erupt in the forums and comment sections. Of course, what is “better” can be a highly personalized consideration; what’s better for me is not necessarily better for you, depending on the use case and a lot of other stuff. But what we can do is measure by key performance indicators or KPIs.   

So, which company makes a better phone?

What I have done, along with my Jason Squared colleague Jason Cipriani and several other ZDNet writers, is try to boil this comparison down to 10 KPIs and score the two companies based on how they perform on those performance indicators along a 10-point scale. 

A perfect score would be 10 points for each indicator, with a total score of 100 (which none received). For additional context, we also scored Google.

User Experience

Apple: 7 | Samsung: 7 (Tie)

We could argue about this all day long because it is a highly subjective topic. Both Cipriani and I prefer iOS. Objectively, however, Samsung has made significant improvements with One UI 3.0. However, if we track the development of both mobile operating systems over the last several years, it feels a lot like Android and iOS are becoming very similar platforms from a user experience perspective.

For that reason, we ranked them dead-even in terms of UX: 7 — because, while they are both excellent user experiences, I think they also could use some considerable improvement in several areas; they are both getting long in the tooth. iOS is a good user experience, but many areas need redesign or optimization. Samsung does an excellent job with taking raw Android and improving it with their value-added stuff. As it is implemented on the Pixel with Google’s platform enhancements, pure Android gets a 6.

Industrial Design and Product Durability

Apple: 9 | Samsung: 9 (Tie)

Yes, design is yet again a personal preference. Jason Cipriani doesn’t care for how big Samsung is going with the S21/Note20 line. If you want a smaller phone in Samsung’s lineup, the company removed some features from the larger devices. On the other hand, Apple launched four different iPhone 12 models, all of which have the same basic features, except the larger sensor on the 12 Pro and IBIS-stabilized main camera sensor on the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Nevertheless, both Apple and Samsung have some of the best product designs in the entire industry, so they both get very high marks — both are ranked a 9 in this area. Historically, I would say both of these companies scored relatively low in terms of product durability — that’s why I have housed these things in OtterBoxes for so long. But, in recent years, Apple and Samsung have upgraded their phones to IP67 and IP68 ratings to make them waterproof and much-improved glass tensile strength, so I would say their products are much more durable. However, I’m still using cases until someone proves to me they are indestructible.

Product Performance

Apple: 9 | Samsung: 8

There is no denying it: Apple’s A14 Bionic is way ahead of Samsung on overall chip performance and on benchmarks performed at the end of last year using the Qualcomm 865+ on the S20. It trounced it in every conceivable area that was quantifiable.

However, right now, for S21 devices in the North American market, Samsung uses Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 SoCs that are faster in some raw benchmark areas than the A14, such as memory bandwidth. It also integrates 5G on the die. In contrast, the A14 Bionic is paired with an older X55 modem chip made by Qualcomm and has to go through interconnects for its data communications pipeline. Apple is a year behind Samsung in 5G systems integration; there’s no getting around that. 

In terms of CPU core performance, the Snapdragon 888 is an octa-core (8), whereas the A14 Bionic is a Hexa-core (6). They both have cores that clock out at similar speeds, at a max of about 3 GHz. The A14 Bionic has more Tier 3 cache, 8MB vs. the Snapdragon’s 4MB. But we have to remember that the A14 Bionic also has 16 specialized machine learning cores for doing advanced computational photography and computer vision, and it also sports four powerful graphics cores. 

Apple highly optimizes its chips for its platform. Apple doesn’t go on the open market and source the designs from other semiconductor vendors like Samsung is doing. 

Where Samsung takes the lead right now is in displays because this is where they have chosen to put a lot of its R&D efforts, and it maintains the world’s second-largest display manufacturing business. The company’s flagship phones sport 120Hz AMOLEDs with adaptive refresh, a technology that is not yet present on iPhone models. However, high-frequency adaptive refresh screens do consume a lot more power, which is why the S21 sports a much higher capacity battery —  4000mAh vs. the iPhone 12’s 2800mAh. (That could explain why Cupertino has not yet chosen to source these components from Samsung or LG for its own products.) The company also manufactures folding displays, which are used on its most expensive Galaxy Z line of devices.

So, while Samsung’s smartphones might have higher performance on paper in some areas, Apple’s current iPhones’ real-world performance with the mix of applications consumers and businesses use on a day-to-day basis often perform faster than Samsung’s current generation phones. And that is because Android is just plain more resource-intensive than iOS is. For that reason, Apple gets a 9, and Samsung gets an 8.

Supply Chain Integration

Apple: 8 | Samsung: 10

While Apple gets very high marks for supply chain management and sourcing components, not to mention that it is a chip designer itself, it’s no match for Samsung because it even has to rely on Samsung to provide parts for its products, which includes things such as OLED displays, NAND flash, and DRAM. Additionally, while Samsung uses the Qualcomm Snapdragon in its phones, it fabs those chips for Qualcomm, including the latest 888. Samsung also has SoCs of its design, the Exynos, which it uses in phones it sells in the global marketplace. So, yes, Apple is extremely competent in this area; it scores an 8, while Samsung scores a 10.

Native Services and App Ecosystem

Apple: 9 | Samsung: 6

Apple blows Samsung out of the water in terms of the native ecosystem. For virtually everything in apps and services, Samsung has to rely on Google. So, while Google gets an 8 for its ecosystem in terms of the breadth and quality of its service offerings on Android, Apple Scores a 9 because I think its wearables services are vastly superior to what Google has now. I believe its Music ecosystem and games and financial offerings are also better. I think you can also argue that Google’s apps and services as implemented on iOS are as good or work better than the Android version in some cases. Samsung is getting a 6, and even with that, I think we are generous.

Apple vs Samsung: Product Integration

Apple: 9 | Samsung: 7

Part of Apple’s magic is how easily all of its products work together without the user having to do much, if anything, to make it work. Samsung has a line of products from fridges to dryers to phones and smartwatches. But there always seems to be one thing or another that doesn’t work right. Again, I think this goes back to relying on Google for Android and Chrome OS and Microsoft for Windows. They don’t control the total experience. 

Samsung tends to take its cues from Apple when it comes to how well integrated its products should be with each other. But Apple’s stuff just plain works, if we are talking about AirPods, Watch, HomePod, AppleTV, iPhone, iPad, and Mac all as one cohesive product ecosystem. I would say that Samsung’s wearables story with Gear is currently better than Google is with WearOS, let alone Fitbit. 

However, I am still ranking Samsung lower than Apple; it gets a 7, and Apple gets a 9. Despite Google’s lackluster wearable ecosystem, it makes up for things in other areas such as Chromecast and Home/Nest, so I am giving it an 8.

Developer Ecosystem

Apple: 9 | Samsung: 3

Samsung doesn’t have its own ecosystem unless we talk about integrations with its specific services and its Tizen OS used on Gear smartwatches and Smart TVs. For everything else, it depends on Google because it owns the Android OS, so in this metric, Samsung is scoring very low with a 3. Between the two communities, the commercial activity is heavily prioritized toward iOS. Cupertino is also much more in touch with its developer base than Google, so Apple is scoring a 9 while Google scores a 7.

End-User Support Infrastructure

Apple: 9 | Samsung: 7

I don’t think you can fairly compare Apple and Samsung’s support, let alone Apple’s support with every other Android device manufacturer on the market, or even for Google’s flagship Pixel. Apple has its retail stores just about everywhere. In cases where you don’t, its phone support is sensational, follow-through is excellent, and it will make sure your device is repaired by an authorized service center even if you cannot get it repaired at an Apple store. In terms of OS support, Apple keeps the device current with iOS upgrades for five years. Google has only recently got its vendors, including Samsung, to commit to a three-year support plan as of August of last year. Samsung has recently upped the ante by including the fourth year of security and bug fixes, but there’s no comparison. Apple scores a 9, and Samsung scores a 7. 

Platform Openness and Transparency

Apple: 2 | Samsung: 6

It’s night and day when you compare Apple and Samsung. One is entirely proprietary (iOS), and the other is based on an open-source core (Android). While I might quibble as to the openness and transparency of Google’s APIs on the various services it has, and that you cannot install Google Play Services on any Android device that doesn’t have it without jumping through all kinds of workarounds (like on Amazon Fire and Huawei), it is still a far more open platform than what Apple provides. By virtue of using Android, Samsung gets a 6, Google gets an 8, and Apple gets a 2.

Platform Privacy and Security

Apple: 9 | Samsung: 7

As easy as it was to declare Samsung the winner in platform openness, this is just as easy to put Apple in the lead in privacy and security. Yes, Samsung has Knox, and that’s great. But Apple’s track record and the lack of keeping hardly any personal logs or information on users bodes well for its privacy efforts. Google, on the other hand, wants as much data about us that it can collect. 

At its core, Google is a data and advertising company. The Android ecosystem is chock full of malware and exploits and bad actors on the Play Store. It’s become comical of what the Toxic Hellstew has become with all the different OS variants and vendor implementations over the years. I think Google has done a better job with privacy controls and security hardening on Android 11, so it gets a 6. Because Samsung is inheriting Google’s work and implementing its KNOX and bootloader protections and other specific security hardening for its devices, it is also getting a 7. Given Cupertino’s increased focus on privacy requiring developers to ask for tracking permission with iOS 14.5, Apple scores a 9.

Scorings

Apple: 80 | Samsung: 70

So, on overall scores, Apple leads with an 80, Samsung trails in second with a 70, Google follows with a 68.

Apple

Samsung

Google

User Experience

7

7

6

Industrial Design & Product Durability

9

9

7

Product Performance

9

8

7

Supply Chain Integration

8

10

6

Native Services & App Ecosystem

9

6

8

Product Integration

9

7

8

Developer Ecosystem

9

3

7

End-User Support Infrastructure

9

7

5

Platform Openness & Transparency

2

6

8

Platform Privacy & Security

9

7

6

Score

80

70

68

In all of this, we didn’t speak to Innovation and Customer Value because these two things are highly subjective to each person. But both Apple and Samsung are highly innovative companies who apply their innovation priorities a bit differently. With Samsung, we see things like folding phones, display manufacturing, and display design, whereas, with Apple, it’s in chip design, machine learning, wearable computing, and audio. 

Customer value comes down to what you are paying for is of importance to you or not. Is what Apple does with that iPhone 12 worth it compared to an $800 S21? You have to look at the entire value proposition of the ecosystem and use other products in that ecosystem to make it worth it. Maybe neither of these two players is worth it to you when it comes to a basic $300 Android phone.

How do you feel the two giants rank against each other in these critical areas? Talk Back and Let Me Know.