5G alone won’t be enough to justify buying an iPhone this year

This week, Apple will announce this year’s new iPhones. We’re expecting there to be four of them: the iPhone 12 Pro, iPhone 12 Pro Max, iPhone 12, and a smaller one that might be called the iPhone 12 mini. Apple’s invitation for its Tuesday event included the catchphrase “Hi, Speed.” Weird capitalization decisions aside, the “speed” hint embedded in the tagline lines up with the rumors: these will be the first 5G-enabled iPhones.

If you’re looking to buy a new iPhone this year, even before I see these phones I can provide this simple piece of advice: don’t buy one just because it has 5G.

That’s been my advice for every single 5G-enabled Android phone that’s been released thus far, and unless Apple has some reality-defying modem that enables 5G speeds in more places, it’s my advice for the upcoming iPhone as well.

The problem with 5G is that it’s not good yet. In a comprehensive, US-wide test of 5G speeds, PC Mag found them seriously lacking. In many cases 5G speeds were actually slower than 4G speeds. And the study also found that the other hyped-up reason for 5G, low latency, also isn’t here yet.

That all lines up with my experience using 5G on T-Mobile in the Bay Area. When it’s faster, it’s only nominally different. Often it’s slower and just as often it seems to have a sharper dropoff to no data at all than 4G LTE. After a year of testing 5G Android phones, I have yet to believe that 5G is the most important part of any of them.

The reason for these speed and latency issues comes down to some complicated spectrum limitations. Which means that in the future the carriers will be able to unlock faster speeds for 5G, but it’s not going to happen overnight. Here’s how PC Mag’s Sascha Segan characterizes the current state of 5G play:

AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon take very different approaches to 5G. To make a long story short, AT&T 5G right now appears to be essentially worthless. T-Mobile 5G can be a big boost over 4G, but its speeds are only what we’d expect from a good 4G network—it isn’t a new experience. Verizon’s 5G is often mind-blowing, but very difficult to find.

As you’ve likely heard by now, there are really two different kinds of 5G for phones, each operating in different parts of the radio spectrum. There’s what’s called “sub-6” 5G that’s similar to LTE in how it can travel longer distances and penetrate buildings. Then there’s mmWave 5G, which is what Verizon has been deploying so far. It does provide blisteringly fast speeds, but only if you can find it.

I often joke that mmWave is great if you’re wiling to park in one spot outside next to a specific Verizon tower in a specific city — but it’s not really a joke. Verizon’s 5G is so difficult to find and use that I’m legitimately baffled as to why anybody would want to spend the extra money to build it into a phone. I’m doubly baffled that many phones cost $100 or more extra for mmWave compatibility.

Except I’m not baffled, not really. The last few years have seen the growth of the 5G Hype Industrial Complex. US carriers, Qualcomm, and phone manufacturers have all collaborated (one might say colluded) to drive a huge cycle of hype for 5G. They’ve promised streaming games, telemedicine, self-driving cars, and rural broadband for all. Some of those promises will come to pass, but the plain truth is that the networks aren’t anywhere close to ready, and these 5G phones are the clearest evidence of the gap between hype and reality.

We always give the same advice when reviewing a phone: don’t buy something today in the hopes of future updates making it better. Usually this advice applies to software, because so many promises that bugs will be truly addressed come to nothing.

For 5G, that advice still holds — but there is some nuance to it. I don’t think you should buy a phone because it has 5G, but if the phone you already were looking at has 5G, go for it.

Phone upgrade cycles are slowing. More people are keeping their phone for longer. I think this is a great thing: it means phones are good enough to last multiple years, it means less waste, and it saves consumers money. But given a timespan of two or three or more years, getting a 5G phone could make some sense, even if it’s not yet something to seek out.

Buying a 5G phone this year is insurance against the future more than it is an immediate benefit today. Some upgrades are big enough to push an upgrade cycle even if you weren’t planning on it. 5G isn’t that kind of upgrade this year, but it doesn’t hurt to have if you were planning on upgrading anyway.

To bring it back to the new iPhones, my fear is that Apple is going to become part of that 5G Hype Industrial Complex. It’s disingenuous to promise immediate benefits from 5G — at least in the US — and I hope Apple doesn’t succumb to the temptation to do so.

The new iPhones ought to have other big reasons to update: a new design, better cameras, intriguing AR features, or other things I haven’t thought of. Any of those things could be a great reason to buy a new iPhone this year. Just getting 5G is not one of them.

Comments

Don’t tell me what I should do. /s

anyways I am getting it for the new-ish design. iPhone X gets old real quick. Can’t wait to get this one. always a fan of iPhone 4.

Yea, I’m on board for the new design & larger screen in the Pro Max. I’m on T-Mobile in NYC so the slightly improved speeds will be nice but not necessary. I don’t really have any coverage issues here.

iPhone X certainly hasn’t gotten old for me. It was the biggest leap forward since Apple back-handed all the "1.5:1 is teh perfekt aspect ratio!" people, and nothing really, truly big has happened since.

Still performs like it was released yesterday, still runs my games buttery smooth, still has my force touch and still got years of support to go. To each their own, of course… but for me, Apple will have to do a little more than flatten the edges to make me buy… and with 5G being the goddamn catastrophe it is, I’ll be sticking with the X unless Apple’s managed to successfully hide ProMotion and type C from Jon Prosser.

…but if they pony up ProMotion and finally unify the goddamn charger with all their other "Pro" devices (with Type C obviously)… yeah I might be putting another grand in Apple’s pockets.

is there some kind of roadmap as to when 5G will actually be useful? Is it likely one of these methods (sub6 or mmWave) will "win out" and become the standard in the US? or we’ll likely have a fractured network situation here?

This is a great question, and the answer is basically "no", at least as far as I’m aware.

The problem comes down to this – we are in the deployment phase for 5G, and its usefulness at this point depends on the carrier, the city, and even the neighborhood you’re in. And it would is a Hurculean task to track deployment for each carrier in each neighborhood. The only real way to do it is by crowdsourcing, and not enough people have devices yet, and some company would have to organize that.

Personally, I switched from Verizon to T-Mobile last year because:

I think mm-Wave sucks;
I think T-Mobile has superior 5G tech, and;
T-Mobile is aggressively building out its 5G network where I live in Los Angeles.

Not all 5G is the same, and I believe everyone needs to do some version of this calculation for themselves.
T-Mobile is aggressively building

Yeah, this is my view too. Apparently I have 5G in my area according to coverage maps for T-Mobile, and if this is the case, and the sub 6 really does better at penetrating into buildings, then I would be very interested simply because when I currently am inside any building in my area, I get almost no service. Walk outside and the signal is fine, but inside it’s trash. If 5G improves that, then it’s worth the upgrade from my Xs. Otherwise, I’m not in a rush. My wife is probably buying on day 1 since she has a 7 plus and needs to upgrade (and hand her phone down to my son). So I we’ll see how it works for her.

Can we add AR to the list of hype trains? Because that’s easily been the most worthless feature Apple’s been hyping for the last five years.

My guess is any data it’s providing is really being used for other innovations within Apple.

Apple has (very exciting imo) AR-specific hardware in the wings that will take advantage of everything learned from its AR experiments on iOS devices. AR for Apple today is just veiled R&D.

Like…what exactly? Anything "AR" is completely worthless and a gimmicky 1 time thing you use with your phone right when you get it because you can, and then never touch it again. iOS or Android.

Imagine when Apple finally ships it’s AR Glasses and you’re wearing a pair of them in an unfamiliar city. The camera in the AR Glasses paired with data coming from your phone could deliver you realtime directions right to your eyeballs showing you how to reach your destination. It could also be showing you places of interest, restaurants…you name it.

Does it also have directions showing you how to fold toilet paper and how to guide your hands to your backside?

Ok I lol’d

So…google glass except just as not useful?

I’ve used AR to quickly measure things: neat and useful. Also used it to preview products in my home. Tried some games, bit of a pain in the ass mostly. But AR is not useless, at least not for everyone. Especially with (indoor) navigation I see some nice quality of life improvements that AR can bring.

I use it to measure stuff all the time, probably once a week. I like that feature.

It was fun to walk around the Cybertruck, some created that, it was better than static pictures.

I would really like it if merchants used it instead of static pictures to feature products. I bought a pack/duffel the other day on REI and thought how nice it would be if there were an AR version of the packs I was looking at, where I could walk about them and zoom in where I wanted. You might think that for a duffel that’s sounds silly, but those pack/duffel combos are pretty complicated.

AR is a stepping stone to Apple Glasses. When that product releases, we won’t have to wait for developers like every new product usually does. Surface Duo is a great example.

LiDAR has entered the chat

Well it’s a good reason to buy for people using iphone X and below. I’ll buy the mini even though my xs is still damn fast because I much prefer a compact form factor.

Bingo! I’m trading my iPhone 11 Pro in for the smaller iPhone mini. I miss having a small-ish smartphone and despise the 6-inch+ behemoths

Yea I want a smaller phone as well

i will also be trading in 11 pro for smaller iPhone. it’s a shame it won’t have 120hz pro motion.

AR is getting to be worse than Microsoft and the Windows Phone "People Hub". Overhyped and under used.

Oops, replied to the wrong post. My bad.

The only thing I care is the camera setup, if they can improve upon iphone 11 pro… that’s already a good selling point. Pixel phones are stagnated since pixel 2 or 3, the quality didnt improve much, same lens and stuck on the idea of 1 single lens. Samsung phones are great but their camera software could be better too. So if Iphone can bring some nice camera sensors, better image quality, more MP, improved HDR, then I might consider, otherwise I’ll wait for the iphone13 or any other phone with a good camera, battery, screen. 5G is great but but it is a nice to have feature… eventually all phones will be on 5G by next year.

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