Editorial

It's still too early to buy a phone just because it has 5G

5G is something that we've been hearing about for years now, probably since 4G launched. A new generation of cellular connectivity comes along once a decade or so, and it's a pretty big deal. And without a doubt, 5G will be a big deal.

It should allow for better connectivity in congested areas, and of course, faster speeds. We're talking about streaming games, high-resolution videos, and more.

The problem is, that's not here yet. I'm not going to tell you that you shouldn't get hyped for 5G. I'm not even going to try and talk you out of buying a 5G phone. What I'm saying is that you shouldn't go out and buy a phone just because it has 5G today.

What is 5G?

There's a lot of confusion around what 5G actually is, because what we've been promised isn't the same as what's being delivered, at least so far. There's also the basic idea that everything new must be equal or better than everything old in every way. Many people that I've spoken to believe that 5G should be delivering gigabit speed data; after all, that would be the kind of meaningful jump that we got from 3G to 4G.

Those gigabit speeds come from what are called millimeter waves (mmWaves). The problem with mmWave is that you need a line of site to the cell tower. They can be blocked by a window, a piece of paper, a tree leaf, etc. Obviously, you won't get a mmWave signal indoors. Verizon's 5G network is currently mmWave-only.

That's where sub6 (sub-6GHz) comes in. Sub6 isn't as fast, but it can penetrate walls. In fact, the lower the frequency, the better the ability to get inside of buildings. Moreover, sub6 can be divided up into low-band and mid-band, with low-band being something like T-Mobile's 600MHz spectrum.

It's worth noting though that while 5G should be faster than 4G, it's not always going to be by hundreds of megabits per second. It could mean having enough bandwidth to stream a video while you're in a packed arena, where usually the network would be so congested that nothing works. Or it could mean getting 15Mbps in an area that you'd usually get 2Mbps, and that's actually a very meaningful difference.

The present

5G is a combination of low-band, mid-band, and mmWave. This is something that no carrier has right now. Some carriers, like T-Mobile, have a broad sub6 network, as it's much easier to roll out, and mmWave in very select places. Verizon has been hard at work rolling out mmWave, and it has a sub6 network coming later on this year. And after T-Mobile acquires Sprint, it should pick up the carrier's mid-band network for the most robust solution of them all.

And then there's the hardware that you'll find in 5G smartphones. Any 5G smartphone launched in 2019 supported either sub6 or mmWave, but not both. Frankly, it depended on your carrier. The Verizon phones were mmWave-only, and the T-Mobile and Sprint phones were sub6-only.

This is changing this year, to some degree, at least. The two devices that you'll want to keep in mind, for now, are the Samsung Galaxy S20+ and Galaxy S20 Ultra. Not only do they support both sub6 and mmWave, but they're available unlocked. To my knowledge, they're the only two unlocked 5G smartphones that you can buy in the United States. They're also super-expensive, with the S20+ starting at $1,199.

The regular old $999 Galaxy S20 is sub6-only, as is LG's V60 ThinQ 5G, although Verizon is promising to deliver both devices later this year with sub6 and mmWave support when it launches its sub6 network.

You're going to see a lot of devices this year waving the 5G banner. That's why it's literally included in the title of the S20, the V60, and others. These companies want you to be hyped for it.

Realistically, the main reason that every flagship Android phone this year will come with 5G is because it's mandatory for using Qualcomm's new flagship chipset, the Snapdragon 865. On top of that, the 5G modem isn't integrated with the chipset, so it's not going to be as efficient as the chipset and connectivity that arrives next year. Qualcomm also recently announced the Snapdragon X60 5G Modem-RF System.

Built on a 5nm process and promising things like sub6-mmWave aggregation, the Snapdragon X60 is the 5G modem that you'll want. You also have to remember that while a tower can beam a powerful mmWave signal to your phone, your phone might not be powerful enough to send one back, and that's where sub6 comes in. These technologies all need to work together for a proper 5G solution.

Future-proofing

Everyone that purchases expensive technology wants to be future-proofed in some way. It's the idea that if you buy the best thing now, it will last longer than if you don't. Future-proofing is generally good practice, as long as you know what the future holds.

Here's when it's easy. If you're buying a phone, you're better off with a Snapdragon 865 chipset instead of a Snapdragon 855. The technology is a year newer, so it should stay relevant that much longer. If you're buying a PC, get a 10th-gen Intel processor instead of an eighth-gen chip, for the same reason.

This is what I'd call iterative future-proofing, as you're buying the latest iteration of something, knowing that there are more iterations to come. Betting on something entirely new is different, and yes, I'm talking about mmWave.

As much as Verizon would want you to believe otherwise, it's unclear whether or not mmWave will be useful at all. It might end up making sense in crowded places like cities and stadiums, but these areas are still going to need to be flooded with towers, and it still leaves the people outside of cities looking for that meaningful upgrade in their cellular experience.

Don't forget that there was a time when we were all being promised gigabit 4G through carrier aggregation and such. That wasn't even going to require mmWave, and more importantly, for the vast majority of people, it never happened. And for most people outside of major cities, you're probably not going to see mmWave networks where you live during the lifetime of a device that you buy this year.

I live on Long Island, and several people asked me last year if they should buy a 5G phone, like the Galaxy S10+ 5G when it came out on Verizon. I had to explain to them that that phone only supports mmWave, they said they want to future-proof, and I then had to explain that they're not going to see 5G on that device unless they travel to Manhattan.

Wait until next year, if you're in it for 5G

I'd never tell you not to buy a 5G phone. Like I said, if you buy a premium phone that comes out this year, you're not going to have a choice. And the bottom line is that the 5G phone that you buy this year still has faster connectivity than its predecessors. However, next year, we're going to see closer to a mature product.

One thing that I also hear from people looking to buy a new phone is that they need a phone now. That's when I say to go for it. It's fine. If you really need that upgrade right now, then definitely go for something with 5G. But don't buy a new phone just because it has 5G.

5G will change the way that we use our devices. I understand that you're skeptical, as it's hard not to be. After all, what are we trying to do with our smartphones that we can't already do with our current data speeds? We don't have the answer to that because our use cases are built around the limitations that are already in place. The future is coming; it's just not here yet.

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