It’s not worth buying a 5G smartphone yet

No need to splurge.
No need to splurge.
Image: REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer
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AT&T launched its consumer 5G network on Friday (Dec. 13) in 10 US cities. But savvy shoppers shouldn’t rush to buy its accompanying device, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G, which retails for $1,300. That’s because AT&T’s consumer 5G network offers only a minor improvement in speed over its existing 4G LTE network.

The company’s quicker 5G+ network, which uses high-band millimeter waves, launched for business clients and developers last December—but for the moment, AT&T’s zippiest system is out of reach for the general public. Per CNBC, AT&T’s latest device won’t support its 5G+ network, and while it’s regarded as an excellent phone, 5G isn’t enough to make the Galaxy a worthy purchase.

Despite the anticipation for the next generation of wireless networks, for the typical mobile customer, 5G isn’t living up to expectations. Its rollout has been plagued by fits and starts, and the sparse consumer landscape offers only a handful of exorbitantly-priced devices. Meanwhile, actual 5G coverage is lacking in its geographical reach and network speeds are surprisingly, well, average.

Millimeter wave coverage—the fastest variety—has been “very limited,” said Brad Akyuz, a mobile broadband ecosystem business analyst at the NPD Group, a market research company. “You have to be outdoors, you have to have line-of-sight to the cell tower. If you’re indoors, you lose a lot of the signal on the millimeter wave coverage,” he told Quartz.

But those troubles were to be expected, and 5G adoption will probably take years. Akyuz foresees immersive AR and VR experiences, supported by 5G networks, but he admits, it’s hard to say exactly what the new networks will bring. “It’s going to be a while before consumers look at the 5G options out there and say, ‘Hey, I really need this. I’ll pay extra.’”

Generally, customers are holding onto their phones for longer and longer, but people who have already decided to bite the 5G bullet have a few other options. OnePlus, a Chinese smartphone maker, has launched the OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren. The device retails for $900 and PC Mag says it “will be a phone to buy if T-Mobile merges with Sprint.” (Emphasis added: A tie-up would give T-Mobile access to a greater range of airwaves.) T-Mobile also supports the aforementioned Samsung Galaxy.

Another option is the LG V50 ThinQ 5G, available through Verizon for a cool $1,000. But like its peers, the phone seems a little pricey given the limited breadth of the network. Earlier this week, VentureBeat cheekily observed that Verizon was touting its rollout of 5G in Los Angeles for the “second or third time.” By comparison, a high-end, non-5G phone like an unlocked Pixel 4 (128 GB storage, 6GB RAM) costs $900, and and an iPhone 11 (128 GB storage, 4 GB RAM) runs for $750—still rich, but not unheard of.

This is all to say, if your phone works well enough, you can comfortably hold off on upgrading. “Devices are getting better and more durable, so they last longer,” said Akyuz. 5G is no reason to splurge—at least not yet.