by Craig Lloyd on
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5G is coming! It’s the future! It will speed up your phone, make your house connected, and finally bring you the fulfillment no other wireless standard could bring you. Or not.
Phone makers and carriers would have you believe 5G is really, truly, absolutely going to happen this year. But just like its predecessors, 5G mobile tech is going to have its growing pains, and early adopters will essentially be a huge group of product testers who are paying companies for the privilege of ironing out the kinks. If you’re hoping for a phone that’s sleek, gets long battery life, works wherever you go, and (perhaps most of all) is affordable, you might want to hold off on a purchase for at least a year or so.
This is all just a little bit of history repeating. The first selection of 3G phones had some of the same issues, as did LTE phones (or “4G” if you’re in the US and you had to de-tangle that thread) a few years later.
Why should you think twice about buying a first-gen 5G phone? Let’s break it down.
We’ve become addicted to phones that are thinner and sleeker as manufacturers have pushed for bigger screens, allowing batteries and other components to spread out without adding bulk. But speedy 5G wireless will require some bigger radios inside your phone, and more of them.
That’s a lot of extra space a 5G phone will need to make inside its glass and metal case. That being so, it’s likely that 5G phones will be limited to the larger “phablet” models (think the “Plus” iPhone size and bigger) just so they’ll have room to hold all those guts. If you prefer something smaller, or for that matter thinner, you’ll be out of luck.
If you want a practical example, check out some of the early hardware for 5G hotspots. These little gadgets don’t need much more than a radio cluster, a battery, and maybe a little LCD screen, but they’re still twice the size of their LTE predecessors.
Oh, and if you’re still mourning the loss of the headphone jack, the extra radios necessary for 5G won’t bring it back any faster. In fact, manufacturers may need to cut out even more parts, like secondary stereo speakers, fingerprint readers, multiple rear cameras, et cetera in order to make room. In short, if you want smaller phones with more features, stick with conventional LTE networks.
And speaking of those larger phones, it’s not a coincidence that they tend to be the most expensive entries of manufacturer’s offerings. All that extra hardware will drive up the price of the phones around them, so the first crop of 5G phones will almost certainly be limited to the highest tiers.
We’re talking about phones like Samsung’s Galaxy S and Galaxy Note, Google’s Pixel, whatever LG is calling its flagship this year, and similar—nothing you can find for less than the price of a car payment. You know, all those phones that are pushing against, and sometimes past, the $1000 mark. These phones are also going to keep adding extra features, both useful and gimmicky, in order to try to attract more buyers. The current arms race for multiple cameras is a good example, and folding screens and exotic cutouts look to be the big ticket features next year.
All of these factors will compound to send phone prices into the stratosphere. As was the case with 3G and LTE, it’s going to take a year—at least—before 5G hardware trickles down into the mid-range of manufacturer product lines. A few cheaper examples, like a rumored OnePlus 5G phone, will be few and far between.
Qualcomm says that the first 5G phones won’t be battery hogs. Verizon thinks eventually they’ll last for a month on a charge. Maybe that’s true, but it won’t be in 2019. With current phone tech fairly mature and still struggling to get a day’s worth of life out of conventional lithium batteries, first-gen 5G hardware isn’t going to fare any better.
And no matter what the CEOs tell you, it’s probably going to be worse. The first generation of LTE phones had absolutely horrible battery life, especially those that used CDMA networks like Sprint and Verizon.
Those older standards required multiple radios—just like 5G does—and the hand-off put an extra strain on the hardware until phone makers managed to get their hardware and software to compensate. I should know: a terrible LTE radio that drank battery like lemonade ruined the otherwise excellent Galaxy Nexus when I reviewed it, at the start of the LTE era seven years ago.
It’s possible that Qualcomm and its competitors will get 5G battery life nailed right out of the gate. It’s also possible that the Jacksonville Jaguars will win the Super Bowl and American Idol at the same time. They’re both excessively unlikely.
Raise your hand if you like phones that only work on a single carrier and can’t be activated if you switch. Anyone? Bueller?
Yes, after the better part of a decade of consolidation on unlocked phones that can move freely between carriers, 5G will wipe the slate clean again. Different carriers are using different high-frequency bands of the wireless spectrum, which means that phones from one won’t work with another. Said phones might still work on another carrier, but their 5G radios won’t, meaning all that extra size, expense, and battery drain will be for nothing.
This will probably be a bigger problem for the US market, since international carriers have more standardized wireless support and work better with unlocked phones. But as this new technology is felt out, we may see similar issues crop up, especially in highly competitive markets like western Europe and India.
Oh, and it doesn’t help that 5G will be slower to roll out, too. Due to its high-frequency standard, 5G is faster, but each tower will cover a smaller area than similar cell towers on older standards. That means that, even for huge networks like AT&T and Verizon, 5G will be in the big cities first and slowly make its way everywhere else. If you’re in a smaller market or anywhere rural, you probably won’t see the benefit of that 5G hardware anyway.
Remember when the iPhone launched a decade ago? It was notable for all the things that it did, but also what it didn’t do: the original model launched without 3G wireless speed, among other things. The same is likely to be true for the iPhone’s yearly upgrades in 2019.
Apple tends to be very conservative when it comes to new hardware, allowing its competitors to duke it out in new markets while the hardware and software mature. Sometimes this is bad—the company’s slow, expensive original iPhone and its continuing lack of support for touchscreens in macOS being good examples. But in the case of 5G, it’s probably the smart move. Apple waited for the 4G market to choose LTE over Wi-Max, for example, and didn’t suffer for its patience. Ditto for features like fingerprint readers, OLED screens, and multiple cameras.
In fact, it may be several years before Apple jumps on this particular train. It wouldn’t be out of character for iPhones to wait through two or even three product cycles before adding in 5G capabilities. But we can say with a high degree of probability that the next iPhone won’t feature a 5G radio, so if you’re not interested in Android, you can afford to wait for faster wireless speeds.
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