Wireless carriers will begin bombarding you with ads in the coming months, telling you about how great their new 5G networks will be. And they might be great someday, but for now it’s just marketing fluff. Carriers will happily sell you an expensive 5G phone in 2019, but you shouldn’t take them up on that.
There’s a lot of confusion over what 5G is and what it can do, and AT&T isn’t helping when it rebrands its sluggish 4G as “5G E.” Real 5G technology requires new mobile networks and new phones. It took a couple of years before the 4G LTE technology in your current phone offered a better experience than 3G, and the move to 5G will take even longer.
What does 5G do?
When 5G networks become widely available, they’ll deliver faster data speeds. Michael Thelander, president of Signals Research, said 5G would also allow carriers to customize the network for new applications.
“Some applications may require ultralow latency, other applications may require very high reliability, and 5G will allow you to do that in the coming years,” said Mr. Thelander. That could make real-time applications such as mobile V.R., augmented reality, and self-driving cars a reality, he explained. Faster data also means your device’s modem doesn’t need to be awake as long when you need to download large files — when 5G is mature, you could see battery-life benefits.
Carriers are pushing hard for 5G because it’s good marketing (5 is a bigger number than 4,) but also because it will make room for more devices and services on their networks. Everyone has experienced bogged-down LTE connections in crowded areas such as festivals and stadiums, but 5G theoretically supports more simultaneous users. In addition, 5G will eventually come to homes as a replacement for cable and DSL internet access. Verizon is already running a trial of pseudo-5G home internet.
Why 5G doesn’t matter in 2019
The 5G phones launching in 2019 will be thicker, heavier, and burdened with worse battery life than comparable 4G phones. That’s because the first wave of 5G phones will all need a separate, power-hungry 5G modem in addition to the chip that handles processing, graphics, and 4G LTE connectivity. Maintaining a 5G connection also requires more antennas, and that limits how slim a phone can be. The Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, for example, will have an enormous 6.7-inch display and a slightly thicker frame than the other S10 models because it needs to accommodate the 5G hardware and a larger battery. And all that extra hardware will drive up the cost of an already-expensive phone.
Because of all the sacrifices necessary for first-gen 5G phones, carriers and device makers will ensure that they offer comparable 4G options — at least for now, you don’t need to upgrade to a 5G model to have the latest and greatest phone. The Galaxy S10 5G will be one of the first 5G phones to go on sale, but every carrier already has thinner, smaller 4G versions of that phone. The 5G phones will be locked to the carrier selling them; even if you can unlock them for 4G, the 5G radios won’t work with other carriers’ frequencies. In contrast, 4G technology has become essentially universal, with most phones supporting all common LTE bands.
You won’t see improvements in 5G hardware until 2020 with the arrival of Qualcomm’s new modem, which will integrate 5G and 4G into a single chip. That component will save power and make the phones cheaper. The slimmer antenna designs launching alongside Qualcomm’s new chip will make the devices less bulky.
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A long rollout for 5G
5G has the potential to be much faster than LTE because it has new network technologies and relies on very high-frequency signals, but that comes with some drawbacks. AT&T, Verizon, and other carriers are beginning their 5G rollouts with signals called millimeter wave (or mmWave). These frequencies are between 10 and 100 times higher than 4G LTE. Although the signal has a lot of room for data, millimeter waves don’t pass through obstacles very well — even your hand can completely block a 5G signal.
Even if 5G phones in 2019 were worth buying, the networks would not be ready. Carriers will need to build a lot of expensive infrastructure to support 5G. Because the signals are so easily disrupted, carriers can’t just upgrade existing cell sites that currently house LTE antennas. A 5G network needs more towers to cover the same areas under the LTE umbrella right now, and lower frequencies — which will be able to go through obstacles and inside buildings — won’t come to most carriers until 2020 or 2021.
Each carrier has a list of several dozen cities that will get 5G coverage of some sort this year, but that coverage will work only outdoors at first because walls block millimeter wave signals. Large venues such as stadiums and convention centers may get indoor 5G networks in a year or two, but your house and office will need special devices to bring the 5G signal indoors, and they aren’t likely to get those devices anytime soon.
Some carriers, such as T-Mobile, have announced plans to add low-frequency bands to 5G coverage that will help with the signal-blocking issues, but none of the first-gen 5G phones will support those bands. Sprint will have some sub-6 5G bands this year, but those LTE-like frequencies will never be able to carry as much data as millimeter wave. That’s why most 5G rollouts are starting with millimeter wave.
Don’t wait on 5G for an upgrade
Although 5G could be useful in a few years, none of the devices coming in 2019 are worth waiting for. The phones will be big, inefficient, and expensive. Even if you end up with a 5G phone, it won’t work in many places. Carriers are years away from building out 5G networks to offer the same coverage as 4G, and 5G won’t even work inside without additional indoor network hardware. For the foreseeable future, 4G will offer a better overall experience. You should buy a 5G phone only when it’s the default choice and there are no more “special edition” 5G versions of popular new phones.
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A version of this article appears at Wirecutter.com.
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