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

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

This week Apple will introduce this year’s new iPhones. We’re expecting four of these: the iPhone 12 Pro, iPhone 12 Pro Max, iPhone 12, and a smaller one that could be called the iPhone 12 mini. Apple’s invitation to Tuesday’s event contained the slogan “Hi, Speed”. Weird capitalization decisions aside, the “speed” hint embedded in the tagline is consistent with the rumors: These will be the first 5G-enabled iPhones.

This year, if you want to buy a new iPhone before I see these phones, I can give you this simple advice: don’t buy one just because it has 5G.

This has been my advice for every single 5G enabled Android phone that has been released to date. If Apple doesn’t have an unrealistic modem that allows 5G speeds in multiple locations, this is my advice for the upcoming iPhone too.

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

All of this is in line with my experience with 5G on T-Mobile in the Bay Area. If it’s faster, it’s only nominally different. Often times it’s slower and just as often there seems to be a sharper drop to no data at all than 4G LTE. After a year of testing 5G Android phones, I still have to believe that 5G is the most important part of all.

The reason for these speed and latency problems lies in some intricate spectrum limitations. This means that carriers may unlock faster speeds for 5G in the future, but this won’t happen overnight. Here is how PC Mag’s Sascha Segan characterizes the current state of the 5G game:

AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon have very different approaches to 5G. In short, AT&T 5G seems essentially worthless right now. T-Mobile 5G may be a big boost over 4G, but its speed is just what we’d expect from a good 4G network – it’s not a new experience. Verizon’s 5G is often mind blowing, but very difficult to find.

As you’ve probably heard by now, there are really two different types of 5G for phones, each operating on different parts of the radio spectrum. There is what is known as “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 provided so far. It offers incredibly fast speeds, but only if you can find it.

I often joke that mmWave is great when you want to park in a spot outside next to a certain Verizon tower in a certain city – but it’s not really a joke. Verizon’s 5G is so hard to find and use that I’m justifiably baffled why anyone would want to spend the extra money to put it in a phone. I am doubly amazed that many phones cost at least $ 100 for mmWave compatibility.

Unless I’m not amazed, not really. The 5G Hype Industrial Complex has grown in recent years. American carriers, Qualcomm, and phone makers have all worked together (you could say colluded) to drive a huge hype cycle for 5G. They promised streaming games, telemedicine, self-driving cars, and rural broadband for everyone. Some of those promises will come true, but the clear confidence is that the networks are nowhere near ready, and these 5G phones are the clearest evidence of the gap between hype and reality.

When reviewing a phone, we always give the same advice: don’t buy anything today in the hope that future updates will make it better. Usually this advice applies to software, since so many promises that bugs will actually be fixed will lead to nowhere.

For 5G, that advice still applies – but there are a few nuances. I don’t think you should buy a phone because It’s got 5G, but if the phone you’ve already looked at is 5G, give it a try.

Phone upgrade cycles are slowing down. More and more people are keeping their phones longer. I think that’s a great thing: it means phones are good enough to last for years, it means less waste, and it saves consumers money. With a period of two, three or more years, however, it can make sense to purchase a 5G phone, even if it is not yet to be found.

Buying a 5G phone this year is more an insurance against the future than an immediate benefit today. Some upgrades are big enough to advance an upgrade cycle even if you didn’t plan to. 5G isn’t such an upgrade this year, but it doesn’t hurt if you’re planning to upgrade anyway.

I fear that Apple will become part of this 5G Hype Industrial Complex to bring it back to the new iPhones. It is insincere to promise immediate benefits from 5G – at least in the US – and I hope Apple does not succumb to the temptation to do so.

The new iPhones should have other important reasons for an update: a new design, better cameras, fascinating AR features or other things that I hadn’t thought of. All of these things could be a good reason to buy a new iPhone this year. Just getting 5G is not one of them.

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