Device detection

Device detection is a technique for identifying devices accessing online content. The knowledge of visiting devices is an essential asset for all businesses willing to maximize revenues from online sources. It powers various aspects of web optimization, targeted advertising and device-aware web analytics tools.

Depending on the device database, device detection can report on the characteristics of the visiting devices which can be used for any purpose which requires device awareness. Read more to better understand how device detection works, what it’s used for and how it’s deployed.

Device Detection Galaxy S7 Apple iPad

How device detection works

Device detection works by analysing User-Agent (UA) strings, and, in some cases, other HTTP headers. The detection mechanism searches for patterns within the User-Agent and then associates these patterns with entries in the device database. This makes it possible to create API calls which return different values for device properties included in the database.

For example, you can create an API call which is based on the device’s operating system. You can use this information for any purpose where the knowledge of the OS is needed, such as to optimize website content, or to serve targeted ads.

Why device detection is not easy to get right

The HTTP standard defines User-Agent strings as the default way to provide information about the device sending a request to the web server. However, the standard isn’t strict in terms of how User-Agent strings should be created which means that browser makers are free to put any keywords in UAs or even create nonsensical UAs. This possibility is often used to conceal real information about the device which is also known as “device masquerading”. A device detection solution must be sophisticated enough to report on masquerades.

Why device detection is not easy to get right
Display: 1080x1920 OS: Android Device Type: Phone

Test user-agent strings with a simple tool

Given that each device and browser combination comes with a unique User-Agent string, it may be hard to understand all the information contained in the UA. To help you learn about visitors to your website, we created the User-Agent Tester tool. You can use it simply by copying and pasting any User-Agent string which is then looked up in our massive device database to return its detailed characteristics.

Here's an example User-Agent string which you can use to see how the tool works:

Mozilla/5.0 (Linux; Android 5.1.1; SAMSUNG SM-G925F Build/LMY47X) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko) SamsungBrowser/3.2 Chrome/38.0.2125.102 Mobile Safari/537.36

You can also use the User-Agent Tester with your own User-Agent strings or check out our list of example User-Agent strings published on the DeviceAtlas blog. Access the tool by clicking the link below (you need a free DeviceAtlas registration to use it).

Access User-Agent Tester

What device detection is used for

Adaptive Web Design

Adaptive web design

Adaptive Web Design (AWD) is a technique in which different HTML is sent to different buckets of users according to their device type and capabilities. Each version of the website is highly optimized in terms of page weight, UX, and user context, to maximize engagement and sales. More

Optimizing web performance

Optimizing web performance

In today’s world users can access websites on many device types, from phones, to tablets, to laptops, to TVs. With device detection you can ensure that your website is blazingly fast and lightweight regardless of the type of device and connectivity level. More

Ad targeting

Ad targeting

Device detection can be used for granular ad targeting based on detailed device characteristics. Targeting can include device types, operating systems, device vendors, screen sizes, mobile browsers, etc. This helps you build better-performing ad campaigns by making sure that they reach the right users at the right time. More

Web Analytics

Web analytics

Detecting all characteristics of devices accessing websites is essential for web analytics platforms. A device detection solution can power a detailed breakdown of web traffic according to device type, operating system, web browser, screen sizes, and much more, to drive data-driven business decisions. More

How it’s deployed

Device detection can be deployed as a cloud-based service or a locally installed solution. The mechanism for creating API calls and looking up devices in the database is similar for both options. The main difference is where the device data is stored. In the cloud-based version, it’s the device detection provider’s server which must be triggered to return device information. In the locally-installed version, the device data is stored on the client’s own server and accessed from a local file.

If you’re looking to integrate device detection into your service to offer its capabilities to your clients, you need a locally-installed solution which comes with a licence that allows you to resell it. This option is typically used by ad servers, marketing platforms, web analytics solutions, etc. Read more about embedding device detection

Cloud

Local

Cloud setup Your server Cloudservice Lookup Device data User agent Content Requesting Devices Local setup User Agent Content RequestingDevices API Lookup Data file

Popular myths

Myth 1: Device detection makes your site slower than RWD site

A device lookup can take as little as a few millionths of a second so there is no impact on the time a page takes to load. Top-performing device detection solutions are capable of making millions of detections every second and therefore it’s hard to imagine that a well-built adaptive site would be slower than a responsive site.

Myth 2: Adaptive design is the old-fashioned way to go, RWD is the way things are done today

We analyzed how some of the most visited websites are addressing mobile users today. All major online brands favour Adaptive Web Design using a knowledge of the device to allow them to provide mobile visitors with an optimized UX and high performance on any device or connection.

Myth 3: Google will penalize you for serving different content to mobile users

The idea that simply using RWD on your website will ‘automagically’ improve your search rankings more than AWD is nonsense. Responsive is not a remedy for all mobile SEO ills and you definitely won’t get penalized for not going responsive. Google lists adaptive design (as dynamic serving or separate URLs) as one of the methods for building mobile optimized content.

Myth 4: You can only choose between responsive and adaptive

Responsive and adaptive are not mutually exclusive options. Some websites apply a hybrid approach taking the best of both worlds called REsponsive web design with Server-Side components (RESS). You can use RESS to optimize some selected parts of an RWD site that may degrade the experience on mobile devices. Learn more: Lightening Your Responsive Website Design With RESS.

Read 8 myths about mobile optimization
How to choose the right device detection provider

How to choose the right device detection provider

There is a number of factors to consider before selecting a device detection solution. Most importantly, you need to make sure that the device detection solution doesn’t create a bottleneck, impeding performance of your online services. Learn more on how to pick the right device detection provider reading this guide (PDF).

How to get started with device detection

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