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iPhone 8 may miss one key feature already in the Galaxy S8

Apple's next flagship phone may be incapable of tapping into higher speeds offered by wireless carriers. You can blame its relationships with Intel and Qualcomm.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In one critical way, Samsung's Galaxy S8 may end up smoking the iPhone 8.

The Galaxy S8 is the fastest phone when it comes to tapping into cellular network speeds. That's because it includes Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 processor or, in some markets, Samsung's own Exynos 8895 chip -- both of which can work with an advanced form of 4G wireless tech called Gigabit LTE.

Gigabit LTE will be a signature feature on many high-profile, premium phones this year. Yet Apple's next iPhone, which is still months away from becoming an official product, may not be one of them. Apple designs its own processor and uses modems from Qualcomm and Intel. But Intel's latest commercial-ready modem won't hit Gigabit LTE speeds, which could force Apple to slow down the Qualcomm version to ensure all iPhones are on the same footing.

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The next iPhone could miss out on an advanced 4G cellular technology called Gigabit LTE.

Sarah Tew/CNET

If Apple opts to skip out on Gigabit LTE, the iPhone 8 will hit the market with a key disadvantage when the company is trying to position the 10th iteration of its iPhone franchise as the most advanced phone yet. The Galaxy S8 is just the first premium phone to tap into the technology. Qualcomm expects up to 10 Android phones this year to follow suit.

"This is not an area where Apple should want to cede competitive ground to Google and Samsung," said Avi Greengart, an analyst at research firm GlobalData.

While consumers would normally ignore something as wonky as Gigabit LTE, carriers are starting to trumpet the technology as a catalyst for their faster networks. T-Mobile CEO John Legere boasted in January that his company would be the first with Gigabit LTE this year, providing a public spotlight to what could have been an obscure technical term.

What would the next iPhone presumably miss out on? Gigabit LTE promises a significant speed boost to your phone -- think 18 times faster than the average speeds posted by the likes of T-Mobile and Verizon in a recent test by OpenSignal. With those kinds of speeds, you can say goodbye to buffering as downloads zip by in a flash.

Carriers, meanwhile, also want more phones on Gigabit LTE because it makes for a more efficient network better able to handle more users and traffic.

Apple, Qualcomm and Intel declined to comment.

Repeating history?

Why is this scenario plausible? This has already happened before, according to a legal filing from Qualcomm.

Let's rewind things back to the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. It marked the first time Apple used two modem suppliers on the device, with Intel modems going into T-Mobile and AT&T iPhones, and Qualcomm modems going into Verizon and Sprint versions.

Qualcomm accused Apple of limiting the Qualcomm modems in iPhones so the performance would be on par with the Intel-powered version.

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Qualcomm accused Apple of slowing down its modem in the iPhone to keep pace with the Intel-powered version of the iPhone.

Lynn La/CNET

While Apple declined to comment on Qualcomm's filing, it pointed to its own lawsuit in January, in which it accuses Qualcomm of unfairly charging for royalties based on technology that it didn't help create.

Still, the charges are in line with the results that researchers at Twin Prime and Cellular Insights found, according to Bloomberg.

With the upcoming iPhone 8, Qualcomm offers the X16 modem -- the same found packed into the Snapdragon 835 that's capable of Gigabit LTE.

Intel's latest chip, the XMM 7480, has a top speed of 600 megabits per second. Its first Gigabit LTE-capable chip, the XMM 7560, hits the market next year.

Why it matters

Despite its name, Gigabit LTE doesn't necessarily mean your phone will be able to download cat videos at 1 gigabit per second, which is equivalent to the home broadband connection you would get with Google Fiber. The Gigabit LTE refers to the theoretical peak speed, although the real world average speed is still vastly faster than anything you experience now.

Read more about Gigabit LTE here.

Gigabit LTE networks aren't really up and running in any meaningful market, with only T-Mobile mentioning select areas in a few markets capable of getting those speeds. Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray said in an interview on Monday that he didn't think Gigabit LTE would be available nationwide, but the technology would be one way the company could "highlight its network superiority."

But the technology isn't just about bragging rights. As carriers upgrade their networks, your Gigabit LTE-capable phone will get faster and faster. So a phone you buy this year might actually get better in 2018 and beyond.

But if your phone doesn't support Gigabit LTE, you'll be stuck on a slower connection despite improved network technology. That's something to consider as you use your phone for the next few years.

It's still unclear what Apple will do with the next iPhone. It could just switch back to just using Qualcomm's modem. Or perhaps it will employ the X16 in markets like the US where Gigabit LTE is on its way, with Intel going elsewhere. Apple isn't going to talk about its next iPhone months ahead of time.

But if history repeats itself, Apple could disappoint some looking for the next iPhone to pack the latest and greatest everything.

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