Tech

I just tried the first mainstream 5G phone, and so far 5G isn't all it's cracked up to be

Key Points
  • Samsung's new Galaxy S20+ and Galaxy S20 Ultra are the first phones in the U.S. to support a range of 5G networks being rolled out here.
  • They work on the faster and slower versions of 5G networks. 
  • I tested the Galaxy S20 Ultra for a week, and while it's a great phone, there's still no reason to buy a phone simply because it has 5G.
Fast 5G speeds on Verizon's mmWave network in New York City.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I just published CNBC's review of the Galaxy S20 Ultra, one of the first mainstream 5G devices that launches Friday.

Unlike earlier devices in the U.S., Samsung's new Galaxy S20+ and Galaxy S20 Ultra support the variety of 5G flavors rolling out in the U.S., including widespread low band and much faster, but limited, mmWave 5G networks.

I found that while I love the phone, I'm not sold on the 5G revolution just yet. The support for 5G is better for future-proofing if you plan on having the phone for two or three years. But 5G networks in the U.S. today are far too limited to make it worth buying a smartphone just for the 5G connection.

I know 5G is going to be big. Eventually, its super-fast speeds might help medical professionals diagnose and help people while they're still riding in an ambulance to the hospital. It could power game streaming services like Nvidia's GeForce Now, Microsoft xCloud and Google Stadia so you can play games with console quality wherever you are, even without Wi-Fi. It may let you download movies in seconds before you get on the airplane at the airport. You'll still have service in packed stadiums where, on older LTE networks, you might not even be able to place a phone call.

But aside from faster speeds I found in very limited areas, there's no "killer app" for 5G right now. And I don't know what it's going to be. Maybe it won't even be on phones and instead packed into new augmented reality glasses we wear on our heads in a few years. 

With LTE, the killer app  was, in my opinion, high-quality video chats. Before LTE, you needed a Wi-Fi connection for a high-quality video chat like FaceTime. Today, you can use 4G LTE for group video chats, for Snapchat, for TikTok, downloading big apps on the go, streaming Netflix and more. But you can do all of that without 5G, so there's no really "must have" solution.

T-Mobile 5G on the Galaxy S20 Ultra is slower than Verizon's, but still good.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

In my tests, I found that Verizon's mmWave network provided incredibly fast speeds that were faster than my wired internet at home, topping 1.1Gbps in parts of Manhattan. But here's the thing: I had to seek out exactly where the towers were and stand right near them to get those speeds. If I walked away or went inside, the connection fell back to regular 4G LTE. And right now Verizon includes 5G in your plan, but soon you'll need to pay more for it. This will improve as Verizon expands its 5G network. And, Verizon still has really good LTE, with speeds still topping around 300Mbps in areas near the towers. That's still very fast.

This picture is a good representation of how silly 5G is right now. It's Verizon's 5G coverage map in Manhattan. And while I very much respect the speeds it offers, it shows how limited the coverage really is right now, and how it only covers parts of some blocks. The dark lines are show where you can get the really fast mmWave 5G on Verizon: 

A sample of Verizon's mmWave 5G coverage in Manhattan. The red lines show areas you'll find faster speeds.
Verizon

T-Mobile's 5G network is a little more confusing. While Verizon tells you that you're in a much faster area with "ultra wideband" mmWave coverage with a tiny icon on the phone, T-Mobile doesn't do this. So, I was stuck just running lots of speed tests until I could find where I was in range of a faster T-Mobile signal. And T-Mobile's slower 5G, called low band, is generally just slightly faster than LTE. But it's available in far more places than Verizon's mmWave signals. T-Mobile also says its 5G network is "nationwide," even though big markets like San Francisco still aren't covered.

Then there's AT&T and Sprint.

Sprint has a midrange network that's somewhere between T-Mobile's low band and Verizon's mmWave. It's one reason why T-Mobile wants to acquire Sprint. It gives T-Mobile more spectrum which could lead to better coverage and faster speeds in more places for some customers. AT&T has a low-band network that's slightly faster than LTE, too, but its really fast mmWave network is only available for businesses right now, not normal folks like you and me.

The short of it is this: After testing 5G, I went home and explained to my wife that it was really neat to see how fast wireless networks have become. I tested the early versions of 4G, called HSPA and HSPA+, and before that some of the even earlier attempts by carriers like Sprint, when I tested XOHM. I find this stuff wildly fascinating but most consumers won't even care.

Networks have come really far, but I learned long ago that build-outs take time.

It'll be years until we really see why we need 5G in our phones outside of getting faster downloads. There's so much hype around these networks today, though. Consumers are bombarded by commercials advertising carrier 5G networks and the truth of it is this: You don't need it yet.

Worse, the advertising only stands to confuse customers who, unlike me, will never spend time actually hunting down a 5G tower, if there's one near them at all.

So the gist is this: Don't worry about 5G. If you're buying a Galaxy S20 and it has coverage for all the flavors, great, you're future proofing a little bit. But you shouldn't just buy a phone for 5G alone. 

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