Apple will announce this year’s new iPhone this week. We expect to have four of them: iPhone 12 Pro, iPhone 12 Pro Max, iPhone 12 and smaller, which can be called iPhone 12 mini. Apple’s invitation to Tuesday’s event included the catchphrase “Hello, speed.” Strange spelling decisions aside, the hint of “speed” built into the slogan is lined up with the rumors: these will be the first iPhones with 5G activated.
If you want to buy a new iPhone this year, even before I see these phones, I can give you this simple advice: don’t buy one just because it has 5G.
The problem with 5G is that it’s still not good. In a comprehensive test for 5G speeds across the US, PC Mag found them seriously missing. In many cases, 5G speeds are actually lower than 4G speeds. And the study also found that the other root cause of 5G, low latency, is also not yet here.
All this coincides with my experience with the use of TG Mobile’s 5G in the Gulf region. When it’s faster, it’s only nominally different. Often this is slower and just as often it seems to have a sharper dropout without any data from 4G LTE. After a year of testing 5G phones with Android, I still don’t believe that 5G is the most important part of any of them.
The reason for these speed and latency problems comes down to some complex spectrum limitations. Which means that in the future, carriers will be able to unlock faster speeds for 5G, but this will not happen overnight. this is how PC Mag’s Sasha Segan characterizes the current state of the 5G game:
AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon use very different approaches to 5G. In short, the AT&T 5G currently seems useless. T-Mobile 5G may be a big boost over 4G, but its speeds are just what we’d expect from a good 4G network – it’s not a new experience. Verizon’s 5G is often mind-boggling, but very difficult to find.
As you’ve probably heard, there really are two different types of 5G phones, each working in different parts of the spectrum. There is the so-called “sub-6” 5G, which is similar to LTE in how it can travel longer distances and penetrate buildings. Then there’s mmWave 5G, which Verizon has used so far. It provides incredibly fast speeds, but only if you can find it.
I often joke that mmWave is great if you want to park in one place outside next to a specific Verizon tower in a particular city – but it’s not really a joke. Verizon’s 5G is so hard to find and use that I’m legally confused as to why anyone would want to spend the extra money to build it into a phone. I was doubly confused that many phones cost $ 100 or more extra for mmWave compatibility.
Except I’m not confused, not really. The last few years have seen the growth of the 5G Hype industrial complex. US carriers, Qualcomm and phone makers are working together (you could say they are in agreement) to make a huge hype cycle for 5G. They promised streaming games, telemedicine, self-driving cars and rural broadband for everyone. Some of these promises will come true, but the obvious confidence is that the networks are not close to readiness and these 5G phones are the clearest proof of the difference between super and reality.
We always give the same advice when reviewing the phone: do not buy something today in the hope that future updates will improve it. Usually this advice applies to software, because so many promises that errors will be really addressed, there is nothing.
For 5G, this advice is still valid, but there is some nuance. I don’t think you should buy a phone because it has 5G, but if the phone you are already looking at has 5G, choose it.
Phone upgrade cycles are slowed down. More people keep their phone longer. I think that’s a great thing: it means the phones are good enough to last a few years, it means less waste and saves consumers money. But given a period of two or three or more years, getting a 5G phone can make some sense, even if it’s not yet something to look for.
Buying a 5G phone this year is more insurance against the future than it is an immediate benefit today. Some upgrades are large enough to run an upgrade cycle, even if you didn’t plan to. 5G is not such an upgrade this year, but it doesn’t hurt to have it if you still plan to upgrade.
To bring it back to the new iPhones, I’m afraid Apple will be part of this 5G Hype Industrial Complex. It’s ridiculous to promise immediate 5G benefits – at least in the US – and I hope Apple doesn’t succumb to the temptation to do so.
New iPhones should have other big reasons to update: new designs, better cameras, intriguing AR features, or other things I haven’t thought about. Any of these things can be a great reason to buy a new iPhone this year. Getting 5G alone is not one of them.