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How Pattern Device Detection Works

Changes in Version 3

51Degrees version 3 Device Detection has been rewritten to ensure it will scale with the millions of device combinations that we expect to classify over the coming years. These changes involved removing regular expressions and restructuring the data files so they do not need to be loaded in their entirety into memory. The device data file can now grow in the future without increasing memory usage, degrading performance or detection accuracy.

Javascript is now used to identify additional information about the device during the first complete request to the web site. The initial detection results are modified based on the results of these javascript snippets during the 2nd request to the web site. This feature is only available in the Enterprise version of the Device Data.

The pattern detection process used in version 3 is patented and is the subject of additional global patent applications.

Detection Process

User-Agent is the main HTTP header used to identify the requesting device. The device data file contains signatures which consist of the relevant characters of the user agent. Characters which are not relevant to device detection are not stored to reduce the size of the data files. Only the segments considered relevant for device detection are stored. It is for this reason that the detection results will rarely contain an entire user agent for the device returned.

The user agent tester on this web site can be used to show the relevant user agent segments for a given user agent. Consider the following user agent for the Nexus 7 running Android 4.3 and Chrome 29.

Target UserAgent Mozilla/5.0 (Linux; Android 4.3; Nexus 7 Build/JSS15Q) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML , like Gecko) Chrome/29.0.1547.72 Safari/537.36

When provided to the device detection routines the following sub strings relate exactly to the returned device information.

Closest Sub Strings Mozilla/5.0 (Linux; Android 4.3  Nexus 7 Build/             WebKit                     Gecko) Chrome/29           Safari/537
Rank 28072
Difference 0
Method Exact

Those characters not relevant to the matching process could be changed and the same result returned. The following user agent has the string "Opera Mobi," in place of the characters "KHTML, like" which proceed the Gecko string.

Target UserAgent Mozilla/5.0 (Linux; Android 4.3; Nexus 7 Build/JSS15Q) AppleWebKit/537.36 (Opera Mobi, Gecko) Chrome/29.0.1547.72 Safari/537.36
Closest Sub Strings Mozilla/5.0 (Linux; Android 4.3  Nexus 7 Build/        AppleWebKit                     Gecko) Chrome/29           Safari/537
Rank 28072
Difference 0
Method Exact

This revised user agent returns precisely the same device details as the original because the detection algorithm knows the presence of “Opera Mobi,” at these character positions are unimportant. Knowledge of the positions of relevant sub strings improves performance and accuracy as irrelevant characters do not provide distractions. Regular expression based solutions suffer from this problem.

Additional Matching Methods

Four different methods are used to match user agents against device information. The most commonly used is the exact match shown in the examples above.

The method used to obtain the matched is provided in all detection results along with a difference indicator. The difference value will always be zero when the Exact method has been used as a precise match has been obtained against the signatures held in the data file and there is no difference between them.

If an exact match cannot be found then a small subset of possible results will be searched using 3 methods in the following order.


Sometimes relevant sub strings may have been moved as irrelevant characters are added elsewhere in the user agent. The following user agent has an additional X characters placed after the full version of Chrome. All other characters that might be relevant are now moved 1 character position to the right of where we’d ideally like them.

Target UserAgent Mozilla/5.0 (Linux; Android 4.3; Nexus 7 Build/JSS15Q) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML , like Gecko) Chrome/29.0.1547.72 X Safari/537.36
Closest Sub Strings Mozilla/5.0 (Linux; Android 4.3  Nexus 7 Build/        AppleWebKit                      Gecko) Chrome/29             Safari/537
Rank 28072
Difference 1
Method Nearest

The correct device is returned but the fact that the relevant sub strings are not in exactly the same position as the matched signature can be determined via the match method and the difference values.

In this case the method used was Nearest indicating that all the relevant sub strings were present but not at the expected characters positions. The variance in character positions is 1 provided via the difference value.

If a device data file becomes older and does not contain up to date data  the Nearest method will be used more often when obtaining the result as subtle differences are observed between the older data in the device data file and the real user agents used by devices created after the data file. This is common with the Lite or Basic data files provided freely.


Where the only difference in a user agent is the numeric version of a sub string the numeric matching method may be used to provide the result. Consider the following user agent where the version of Chrome appears to be 51. The result returned is the most current version of Chrome supported by the device, in this case version 32.

Target UserAgent Mozilla/5.0 (Linux; Android 4.3; Nexus 7 Build/JSS15Q) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML , like Gecko) Chrome/51.0.1547.72 Safari/537.36
Closest Sub Strings Mozilla/5.0 (Linux; Android 4.3  Nexus 7 Build/        AppleWebKit                      Gecko) Chrome/32           Safari/537
Rank 39827
Difference 19
Method Numeric

The numeric difference between 51 and 32 is 19. This difference is returned in the Difference value and the matching method used is set to Numeric. The approach ensures that the most appropriate detection result is returned even when the device data does not know about the most recent versions of devices.

Regular expression or tree structure based detection methods will not be able to distinguish between the numeric differences in relevant sub strings and therefore become susceptible to accuracy problems.


If none of the previous methods detect the device the closest method is used. This method finds the device signature that most closely matches as many of the relevant sub strings as possible. It will always return a result but the difference value may be very high.

Consider the following target user agent where the u in Nexus has been changed to an i. The Nexus 7 is returned correctly but the difference score is 120.

Target UserAgent Mozilla/5.0 (Linux; Android 4.3; Nexis 7 Build/JSS15Q) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML like Gecko) Chrome/29.0.1547.72 Safari/537.36
Closest Sub Strings Mozilla/5.0 (Linux; Android 4.3  Nexus 7 Build/        AppleWebKit                    Gecko) Chrome/29           Safari/537
Rank 39827
Difference 120
Method Closest

The numeric difference between the ASCII characters i and u is 12. If the difference was lower, perhaps because the characters represented the version of a sub string using letters rather than numbers, the difference value would be lower. The numeric difference in characters is multiplied by 10 as the method is the least accurate.

The difference in the character lengths of the closest sub strings and the target user agent is also a factor in the calculation of difference.

Consider the following target user agent where "Nexus" has been replaced entirely by "iPhone". A Nexus device is still returned but the difference value is very high indicating the result should be considered unreliable.

Target UserAgent Mozilla/5.0(Linux; Android 4.3; iPhone 7 Build/JSS15Q) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/29.0.1547.72 Safari/537.36
Closest Sub Strings Mozilla/5.0 (Linux; Android 4.3  Nexus 10 Build/        AppleWebKit                            Chrome/29           Safari/537
Rank 39827
Difference 1510
Method Closest

Tree structures and regular expression solutions can not provide this level of intelligence concerning the validity of the result where unusual target user agents are encountered.


Finally if none of the previous methods have resulted in a match, usually because the user agent is a random collection of characters, the None method will be returned.

Target UserAgent sadsa%$^"dfs
Relevant Sub Strings  
Rank 59666
Difference 0
Method None

The default Desktop device profile will be used to populate device data when the none match method is used.


This page provides an overview of the pattern detection methods, the four matching methods available, and how to use the difference and match method indicators to understand the validity of the result. The source code used to implement the algorithms is licensed under the Mozilla Public Licence 2 and is available for inspection. As such we encourage those that would like to know more about pattern detection to explore the source code and comments contained within it.

The version 3 pattern device detection algorithm is easy to use. It's extremely powerful when compared to regular expression based solutions.

51Degrees also provide a trie device detection method which is faster than pattern but consumes more main memory.

Modes of operation

Some of our APIs like Java and .NET provide two modes of operation when working with Pattern algoritms.

Stream mode is very memory efficient as it only loads the necessary data file headers and locations of various entities within the file. Device detection will rely on retrieving information from the data file for most detections (If cache is used not every detection will result in reading from the data file). Using a data file with a stream provider locks the file for write access.

Memory mode loads the entire data file into main memory. Faster than stream mode but requires considerably more memory and does not use cache. Device detection will retrieve data directly from memory. Once initialised there should be no further read requests for the data file.