Years of 5G hype will soon give way to 5G reality. Verizon has turned on 5G service for smartphones in select cities and announced which ones will be getting high-speed service next. Next month, Sprint flips the switch on its own 5G network, and AT&T and T-Mobile are both making progress in building out the next-generation wireless network.
The Samsung S10 5G is one of the first phones coming to market with 5G. (Credit: Shutterstock).
But 5G networks aren't the only things coming online. Phones designed to connect to higher-speed 5G towers are appearing now, too. You can already use the Moto Z3 with a 5G Moto Mod to connect to Verizon's network, for example, while Samsung's Galaxy S10 5G is now available for pre-order at Verizon, which has first crack at offering this 5G-ready version of Samsung's flagship device.
With 5G networks launching and 5G-ready phones arriving, now may seem like the perfect time to upgrade to one of these new devices — at least at first glance. But take a closer look at the state of 5G, and while you'll find many reasons to make the leap to a new 5G-ready phone now, there are just as many compelling arguments for holding off until later.
Here's the case for — and against — taking a chance on a 5G-ready smartphone.
Why you should get a 5G phone
If you like to live on the cutting edge of technology, 5G's the place to be. The Big Four wireless carriers are all committed to launching 5G networks this year, and even if there are some growing pains, you're still going to be able to reap these rewards with a 5G phone.
5G is faster: Now that the first 5G networks are commercially available — Verizon flipped the switch on its network in Chicago and Minneapolis earlier this month — we're getting our first taste of the improved performance the new network will bring. And while, so far, the download speeds are short of the 1-Gbps threshold that 5G advocates have promised, they're certainly faster than what you get with LTE.
When we tested 5G speeds on Verizon's network in Chicago, we saw download speeds top a minimum of 300 Mbps in many locations, approaching 600 Mbps in some cases. Even in Chicago where Verizon delivers speedy performance over LTE, that's a big gain over the 85.8-Mbps download speeds we recorded when testing LTE performance in the Windy City last year.
That speed boost has practical benefits, such as peppier downloads of big files. During our 5G testing, we downloaded a 33-minute show off Netflix in 43 seconds on the faster network. Switching back to LTE, a similar-size file took 13 minutes, 30 seconds to download. That's a real improvement that will benefit you if you opt for a 5G device.
5G networks are going to improve and expand: Carriers are pouring a lot of effort and resources into building out their 5G coverage. In the case of Verizon, for example, coverage in Chicago may be limited to a few neighborhoods for now, but that's going to expand over time. And Verizon has named 25 other cities that will next join Chicago and Minneapolis with 5G coverage. Other carriers have their own rollout plans, too.
Getting a 5G phone now means you'll reap the benefits of those expanding networks, especially as actual speeds catch up with what 5G promises. And until that happens, your phone will still be able to connect over LTE, switching between networks whenever there's higher-speed coverage available.
5G Moto Mod
The best 5G phones do more than 5G: Set aside the 5G Moto Mod for a moment, since all that accessory does is add 5G connectivity to the Moto Z3. True 5G-capable phones released in the coming months are going to bring more to the mix than just a 5G modem.
Take the Galaxy S10 5G, which Samsung will release in May. It gives you a giant screen; at 6.7 inches, the 5G version of the S10 has an even larger AMOLED panel than the supersize Galaxy S10 Plus. A screen that big will require plenty of power, and Samsung's obliging with a 4,500-mAh battery for the S10 5G, which should allow that phone to last a long time on a charge.
The Galaxy S10 5G even squeezes in an extra rear lens, giving the phone a four-camera setup to trump the three-lens array on the back of the S10 and S10 Plus. That fourth lens is a time-of-flight sensor, delivering 3D capabilities to the S10 5G's cameras, including video portrait effects. That's likely to grab the attention of mobile photographers, regardless of this S10's ability to connect to 5G.
The changes to the LG V50 ThinQ, another forthcoming 5G device, aren't as dramatic. But you'll still appreciate the 4,000-mAh battery packed into a phone the same size as the LG V40 that preceded it last year. Customers outside the U.S. will be able to use LG's Dual Display add-on, which allows you to attach a second 6.2-inch display to the V50's 6.4-inch panel, providing a way to run multiple apps at once.
Meanwhile a pair of folding phones — Huawei's Mate X and Samsung's Galaxy Fold — will offer 5G. (It's built in to Huawei's foldable phone, which is coming in June, though probably not to the U.S. Samsung had planned to release a 5G version of the Galaxy Fold after launching an LTE version of the foldable phone, but launch plans have been delayed while Samsung investigates why the screen broke on some Fold review units.) For some users, the ability to fold up a tablet-sized phone into a device that slips into a pocket will be more impressive than 5G's faster download speeds.
Why you should skip 5G phones for now
5G may be the future, but right now, you and I are living in the present. And at present, 5G still has a lot of growing to do. Here's why you might want to take a pass on getting a 5G-ready phone at the moment.
5G coverage isn't going to be widespread: Listen to carriers' plans for their 5G rollouts, and it's hard to shake the impression that 5G is going to have a limited reach in 2019. Verizon hopes to extend its service to 30 cities by year's end. AT&T currently has 5G service in 19 cities (though it's accessible only via mobile hotspots as of this writing). Sprint will launch 5G in four cities in May, adding five more cities soon after.
AT&T currently has 5G service in 19 cities. (Credit: AT&T)
That's a good start, but that leaves a lot of the country uncovered by 5G.
Even in cities where 5G does come online, expect coverage to be concentrated in a few areas, if our experience with Verizon's fledgling 5G network in Chicago is any indication. At some test sites, we could get 5G speeds on one street corner, only to lose the 5G signal and jump back to LTE after crossing an intersection. That block-by-block coverage is likely to expand over time, but if you demand instant gratification, the initial availability of 5G could prove frustrating for you.
Expect some growing pains with 5G: We mentioned the practical speed gains we saw when downloading videos off Netflix over 5G during our initial testing. But we also ran into some head-scratching moments. For instance, downloading a nearly 2GB app from Google Play took longer on 5G than it did over LTE. We can chalk that up to the inconsistency of a network still in its infancy, but that kind of hit-or-miss behavior is going to prove frustrating if you've bought a 5G phone based on the promise of better network performance.
MORE: 7 Things I Learned Testing Verizon's New 5G Network
5G phones will cost a lot: The newly announced price of the Galaxy S10 5G confirms what we had suspected — you're going to pay more a 5G model than you would for even a flagship smartphone.
Snapdragon 855-powered phones like the Galaxy S10 don't come cheap.
The Galaxy S10 5G starts at $1,299 for a 256GB; if you want to double the storage to 512GB, you'll pay $1,399. Remember when we used to mutter about smartphones approaching $1,000? The Galaxy S10 5G, which arrives at Verizon on May 16, blows past that threshold — and other 5G phones are likely to follow suit.
5G-ready devices are going to require top-of-the-line mobile chipsets that include 5G modems. On the Android side of things, that will likely mean a device powered by the Snapdragon 855. (Indeed, that's the mobile processing platform inside both the Galaxy S10 5G and LG V50.)
Snapdragon 855-powered phones currently on the market don't come cheap. The Galaxy S10, for example, costs $899, while LG's G8 ThinQ costs slightly less, at $820. But that's without Qualcomm's X50 5G modem, which adds to the cost of a 5G-ready device.
5G data could cost you more as well: With 5G phones on the verge of arriving, carriers are starting to reveal just what the new technology will mean for your data plan. In at least one case, your monthly bill is going up if you opt for 5G service.
Verizon will charge you an extra $10 a month for unlimited 5G service on top of whatever you're already paying for unlimited LTE data. With its Galaxy S10 5G pre-orders, Verizon is restricting 5G service to its more expensive Above Unlimited and Beyond Unlimited plans. An extra sawbuck a month may not seem like much in the greater scheme of things, but it does add up to $120 over the course of the year. (Verizon is waiving the $10 monthly charge for a limited time.)
T-Mobile has said that customers can expect to pay the same for unlimited 5G data as they do for LTE at the Uncarrier, where the company's T-Mobile One plan costs $70 a month. So, that's good news for cost-conscious consumers at least. We haven't heard what Sprint and AT&T plan to charge.
Bottom line: Should you get a 5G phone?
If you don't mind paying top dollar for a new phone and need to have a device right now that's capable of connecting to the network of the future, then a 5G phone is a sound buy for you. It's even easier to justify the purchase if you happen to live, work or play in an area where the carrier of your choice is going to concentrate its 5G coverage. (That means you spend a lot of time in a major city.) And if you hold onto your phone for a few years, you increase the chance of reaping the benefits of 5G as the new networks extend their reach and speeds.
For most of us, though, LTE networks are fast enough and definitely provide more extensive coverage than you'll see for 5G in 2019. Waiting until later in the year — or even until early 2020 — also means you'll have a greater array of 5G devices to choose from, once phone makers develop more handsets that can connect to the new network. And as exciting as it can be to live on technology's leading edge, sometimes it's all right to let other people be the guinea pigs, especially for something as essential as cellular connectivity.
Credit: Tom's Guide