What 5G means for your next smartphone

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OK, let’s be honest. Up until now, it’s all just been a warmup. But with the launch of Apple’s first ever 5G-capable iPhone – the iPhone 12 line – 5G is really here.

In truth, 5G service and 5G phones for consumers officially launched last year in the U.S., but the initial efforts from all three major U.S. carriers, AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon, were very limited. Things started picking up this year, as Samsung and other vendors unveiled a wide range of 5G-capable phones, and both T-Mobile and AT&T turned on nationwide 5G service.

Now, however, with Apple finally jumping in and Verizon announcing their nationwide 5G service at the Apple event, the 5G era is most definitely upon us. So, the obvious question is, what does that really mean?

The short answer is faster and more reliable download speeds for all the applications and services we know and love. Download an entire series of 4K videos from Netflix? No problem. Upload your meme-worthy, certain to go viral 4K masterpiece to YouTube? Easy peasy.

 (Photo: Getty Images)

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Out of the gate, however, there really aren’t any completely “new” things on 5G that you couldn’t do on your existing 4G phone before.

Eventually, yes, there are expected to be some exciting new capabilities – super responsive cloud-based gaming, for example – but honestly, most of the groundbreaking applications that many are expecting from 5G have not yet been developed.

When will 5G make a difference?

A quick history lesson may provide some perspective. When 4G LTE phones and services were launched about a decade ago, nobody knew about ride-hailing services like Lyft or Uber, or travel apps like Airbnb because they didn’t exist yet. Oh, and Netflix? That was the company that mailed you DVDs or, if you were really cutting-edge, BluRay discs.

So, eventually, the argument goes, we should expect to see new kinds of impactful, society-changing applications for 5G that these have represented on 4G for the last five to seven years.

There is an important twist to 5G that is entirely new versus 4G, but it’s not necessarily a positive one. 5G can be really confusing. Unlike 4G, which was essentially a single thing, 5G comes in multiple flavors with multiple different capabilities, and that brings us back to the iPhone 12.

Apple just announced its new iPhone 12 line with 5G (Photo: Screenshot)

Let’s use an ice cream analogy to make sense of the different types of 5G service and how they map to different models of the iPhone 12 and different U.S. carrier plans.

Essentially, there are three types of 5G services based on different frequencies that the signals that move between your phone and a cell tower use: low-band, which we’ll call vanilla, mid-band, which we’ll call strawberry, and millimeter wave (sometimes shortened to mmWave), which we’ll call chocolate.

From a capability perspective, mmWave 5G (or chocolate), can offer up to 50 times faster performance than the average 4G service, but its coverage range is literally only measured in city blocks. In other words, it’s superfast, but super hard to find (and has other limitations as well, including the inability to pass through walls and windows, potential interference from trees and other objects, etc.).

Conversely, what’s often called “low-band” 5G (one of two types that’s also referred to as “sub-6” 5G), which I labeled vanilla, provides miles and miles of coverage and faces no limitations or interference factors. Unfortunately, this vanilla service is generally not any faster than existing 4G.

Finally, “mid-band” 5G (the other type referred to as “sub-6”), which Icall strawberry, offers a good compromise of essentially 10-15 times faster than 4G and significantly better coverage than mmWave, though still not as broad as low-band 5G.

In a pleasantly surprising move, all iPhone 12 models shipped in the U.S. will support all three “flavors” of 5G, including the vanilla and strawberry (“sub-6”) flavors as well as chocolate (mmWave).

 (By the way, in case you’re rightfully wondering exactly why all these different services have such different capabilities, it boils down to basic physics and a bit of history. You can read my explanation from a previous column “5G could change everything. Here’s what you need to know before you buy into the tech”.)

Now, mapping these technologies onto the major U.S. carriers’ 5G networks will provide you a bit more to consider. So, basically, AT&T has vanilla and a little bit of chocolate, until today, Verizon’s 5G network was essentially all chocolate but they’ve added some vanilla, and T-Mobile offers the full Neapolitan flavor range of vanilla, strawberry and chocolate, (though it has very limited mmWave coverage, or chocolate, to complete the analogy).

So which flavor of 5G should I get? 

The truth is, it all matters where you live because 5G coverage is still very uneven across the country, so you’ll want to check with the presumably updated coverage maps for your carrier of choice.

Despite these potential concerns, there are several very positive outcomes for all potential iPhone 12 purchasers. First, like most all 5G phones, the iPhone 12 is likely to have the latest 4G modems built-in as well. This is important because even if you don’t have access to 5G signals, you should get faster 4G service than you get on any existing 4G phone.

Second, 5G networks are improving on a daily basis.

Carriers have been scrambling to update their networks in preparation for this launch, and even the time between when the phones are announced and when you can actually get one, the network performance will improve. Thankfully, these network densification efforts, as they are sometimes called, will continue into the future as well, meaning an iPhone 12 you buy this year will have better 5G performance next year, without you having to do anything.

So, bottom line, should you buy a 5G-equipped iPhone 12? Honestly (and I hate to say this), it really depends.

If you’re sitting on an older phone and need to upgrade anyway, it certainly makes sense to get a 5G-capable device because it is the future. Eventually, most everyone will have a 5G smartphone. If you’re content with your current phone, however, the combination of limited mobility in the pandemic era and early days of 5G networks, combined with potential economic uncertainty, would suggest you should wait.

Ultimately, it boils down to how much patience you really have.

USA TODAY columnist Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. His clients are major technology firms including Microsoft, HP, Dell, Samsung and Intel. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

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