With just about every major US cellphone service provider prepping their 5G network rollouts, you’ve probably seen 2019 hyped as the beginning of the “5G revolution,” or something similar.
While 5G will be a major step forward for cellular networks and smartphones alike, the technology is still in its nascent stages. We know pretty well where 5G stands at the beginning of 2019, and from our perspective, some healthy skepticism is warranted (at least for now). This quick guide should help you understand what 5G even is in the first place; how it will affect smartphones; and whether or not you should buy a 5G phone this year.
5G is shorthand for the “fifth generation of cellular network technology.” This fifth generation sees the introduction of mmWave (short for “millimeter wavelength”) technology, which taps into a broad range of radio frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum that is currently unused—specifically the 24GHz to 90GHz range (current 4G LTE networks cover the 450MHz to 5.9GHz range).
What does this mean? Basically, much faster mobile networks and lower latency. While there are some big, bold claims being bandied about by tech companies (and conspiracy theorists) that build upon the potential that faster networks could bring, until we actually see how 5G implementation is utilized, much of this is just speculation. Besides, most of these companies are ignoring or intentionally obfuscating the current downsides of 5G.
There’s a reason why the 24GHz to 90Ghz frequency range is basically free-game; mmWave frequencies suffer from reception issues and can be blocked by your hand, walls, tall trees, and even bad weather. In fact, certain wavelengths can even be absorbed by oxygen in the atmosphere.
Even if those signal impediments didn’t exist, there’s still the issue of network coverage. In order to access the new 5G spectrum, phones, cell towers, and modems will need to be outfitted with new technology. Two other “types” of 5G—low-band and mid-band—also exist, which are easier to implement, but offer slightly slower speeds compared to mmWave. This means that the availability and quality of 5G is dependent on whether your network has upgraded the towers in your market—not to mention that you’ll need a 5G-compatible device as well.
We’re confident 5G networks and smartphones will hit their stride one day, but our honest recommendation is to avoid purchasing a new smartphone solely because it’s 5G-friendly. (If a manufacturer offers a 4G LTE-only alternative, spring for that.)
4G devices will continue to launch in 2019 and it’s possible—likely, even—that manufacturers will offer separate 5G and 4G LTE versions of the same device. The 4G LTE versions will be cheaper—potentially by hundreds of dollars—but will likely have better battery life, at minimum. Because of this, we see 4G LTE smartphones remaining viable, competitive options into early 2020 (at minimum).
However, service providers and smartphone manufacturers are going to try their best to make you believe that buying a new 5G device is worth the upgrade price—we already know that at least Samsung and HTC will have 5G-enabled smartphones launching in 2019. Instead of taking them at their word, here are our recommendations if you absolutely must have the newest tech and decide to buy a 5G device in 2019.
Make sure you live in a market where your carrier actually supports 5G. Not all carriers will be covering the same markets and not all 5G service is going to be equal.
AT&T: AT&T initially launched its 5G network in 2018 in 12 cities.
The company plans to reach at least 19 cities in 2019. AT&T’s 5G network will eventually use mmWave, though it will initially launch in the “Citizens Band Radio Spectrum,” piggybacking off its LTE network while it rolls out true 5G over the coming years.
Sprint: Sprint plans to launch 5G in at least nine major markets in 2019, including.
It’s worth noting that Sprint is using 2.5GHz “mid-band” coverage instead of mmWave, which means faster network expansion but lesser speeds and higher latency compared to AT&T and Verizon’s 5G networks.
T-Mobile: T-Mobile is launching its 5G network in New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. However, T-Mobile is using a “low band” 5G that also includes 600 MHz frequencies in addition to mmWave. This will enable T-Mobile to expand its coverage faster—its currently building its network in 30 other cities and promising nation-wide coverage by 2020, though “low-band” 5G will be the slowest of the 5G flavors available.
Verizon: While Verizon will provide mmWave 5G coverage, it will also be deploying mid- and low-band service as well, and it will be piggybacking its entire 5G wireless network off its 5G Home network for internet and cable. You’ll find this first in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Houston, and Indianapolis.
Obviously, if your market doesn’t have 5G coverage, you don’t need a 5G phone right away.
5G phones will likely see a drop in battery size and possibly performance. The same issue happened with the launch of 4G LTE network. Since then, the technology that powers LTE in your smartphone now runs on single chips that house all necessary components—antennas, GPUs, CPUs, et cetera. These compact chipsets give manufacturers more space for things like RAM, storage, and most importantly, larger batteries.
Since 5G components access an entirely different signal frequency and must be developed with the 5G’s potential shortcomings in mind, their individual components are going to be larger and likely separated within the phone, rather than packed into a single chip. This means less space allocated for the battery, unfortunately.
Piggybacking off the previous tip, pay attention to any idiosyncrasies with “handling” or “antenna performance.” Since 5G waves can be blocked by everything from your hand to even the very oxygen in the air, some phones may be finicky when it comes to proper antenna orientation. If you’re going to buy a phone, make sure it includes multiple 5G antennas—something Qualcomm is attempting as a means of reducing the potential for blocked reception.
At first, providers will probably be charging you as much as $200-$300 more for 5G devices compared to 4G LTE devices, and likely an increase in your monthly phone service bill. While we can sympathize with wanting the newest tech and gadgets, this premium just isn’t worth it. Wait for a price drop or—better yet—wait for better phones that can better justify that price hike.
Much like with the pricing consideration, resist the urge to preorder a new phone and instead wait for reviews and early-adopter feedback. Almost all of the above points will be hit by reviewers as these new phones (and 5G network coverage in general) become available to consumers. If something hits it out of the park, you’ll know. Otherwise, stick with 4G LTE.
At some point, 5G will be worth the upgrade, but it’ll take time and at least one or two iterations on the tech before it’s ready. By then, it’s not out of the question to assume that 5G coverage will be more widely available and that 5G-compatible devices will have saturated the market.