This week, Apple will announce this year’s new iPhones. We expect there to be four: iPhone 12 Pro, iPhone 12 Pro Max, iPhone 12, and a smaller one that might be called the iPhone 12 mini. Apple’s invitation to its Tuesday event included the tagline “Hi, Speed.” Weird capitalization decisions aside, the slogan’s “speed” indication aligns with rumors: these will be the first 5G-capable iPhones.
If you’re looking to buy a new iPhone this year, before you even see these phones, I can give you this simple advice: don’t buy one just because it has 5G.
This is my advice for every 5G capable Android phone released so far, and unless Apple has a reality-defying modem that allows 5G speeds in more places, this is also my advice for the next iPhone.
The problem with 5G is that it isn’t good yet. In a comprehensive US-wide test of 5G speeds, PC Mag found them seriously absent. In many cases, 5G speeds were actually slower than 4G speeds. And the study also found that the other reason for 5G, low latency, is not there yet.
This all matches my experience using 5G on T-Mobile in the Bay Area. When it’s faster, it’s only nominally different. Often times this is slower and just as often it seems to have a sharper drop in no data at all than 4G LTE. After a year of testing 5G Android phones, I have yet to think 5G is the most important part of any of them.
The reason for these speed and latency issues boils down to complex spectrum limitations. Which means that in the future operators will be able to unlock faster speeds for 5G, but it won’t happen overnight. here’s how PC Mag’s Sascha Segan characterizes the current state of 5G gaming:
AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon are taking very different approaches to 5G. To make a long story short, AT&T 5G currently appears to be essentially worthless. T-Mobile 5G can 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 breathtaking, but very hard to find.
As you’ve probably heard by now, there are actually two different types of 5G for phones, each operating in different parts of the radio spectrum. There is something called “sub-6” 5G which is similar to LTE in the way it can travel longer distances and enter buildings. Then there’s mmWave 5G, which Verizon has rolled out so far. It offers blazingly fast speeds, but only if you can find it.
I often joke that mmWave is great if you want to park somewhere outside next to a specific Verizon tower in a specific city – but it’s not really a joke. Verizon’s 5G is so hard to find and use that I’m legitimately puzzled as to why anyone would want to spend the extra money to build it into a phone. I’m doubly baffled that many phones cost $ 100 or more for mmWave compatibility.
Except that I’m not confused, not really. The last few years have seen the growth of the 5G Hype industrial complex. U.S. carriers, Qualcomm, and phone makers have all collaborated (one might say in collusion) to drive a massive round of 5G hype. They promised streaming games, telemedicine, self-driving cars and rural broadband for everyone. Some of those promises will come true, but the absolute certainty is that the networks are not far from ready, and these 5G phones are the clearest proof of the gap between the hype and reality.
We always give the same advice when reviewing a phone: don’t buy something today in the hope that future updates will make it better. Usually this advice applies to software, because so many promises that bugs will actually be fixed are in vain.
For 5G, this advice still applies, but there are a few nuances. I don’t think you should buy a phone because it has 5G, but if the phone you were looking at already has 5G, go for it.
Phone upgrade cycles slow down. More and more people are keeping their phones for longer. I think that’s a good thing: it means the phones are good enough to last for several years, it means less waste, and it saves consumers money. But for a period of two or three years or more, getting a 5G phone might make sense, although it’s not something to look for just yet.
Buying a 5G phone this year is more insurance against the future than an immediate benefit today. Some upgrades are big enough to push an upgrade cycle even if you hadn’t planned it. 5G isn’t that kind of upgrade this year, but it doesn’t hurt to have it if you’re planning on upgrading it anyway.
To bring it back on the new iPhones, I’m afraid Apple is part of this 5G Hype industrial complex. Promising immediate 5G benefits – at least in the United States – is fallacious, and I hope Apple doesn’t succumb to the temptation to do so.
New iPhones should have other big reasons to update: a new design, better cameras, intriguing AR features, or other things that I didn’t think of. Any of these things could be a great reason to buy a new iPhone this year. Just getting 5G isn’t one of them.