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If you want burdenless speed, you have to go 5G. OnePlus
understands this, now having brought 5G phones to T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon. Its next step will be to go full-tilt with standalone 5G, the next
form of the wireless standard, OnePlus CEO Pete Lau and company VP of R&D Kinder Liu
said in an exclusive email interview.

“Standalone 5G will offer users the full power of 5G,” Lau
said.

Last week, Qualcomm, T-Mobile, and OnePlus announced that
they had achieved a bunch of 5G firsts: the first data session over low-band,
standalone 5G; the first voice-over-5G and video-over-5G calls; and the first
phone call on a 5G network with 4G fallback.

“OnePlus is proud to be the first global smartphone brand to connect to T-Mobile’s standalone 5G network. This is an important milestone for the industry, as leaders in 5G research and development work together to create the next generation of telecommunications technology,” Lau said at the time.

OnePlus teased its first 5G phones at Mobile World Congress 2019.

OnePlus jumped on the 5G train relatively early, announcing
its first 5G phones at a Qualcomm event in December 2018. The technology dovetailed well with the company’s focus on “speed” and “burdenlessness.”

OnePlus familyLeft to right: OnePlus 7 Pro, OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren, OnePlus 8 Pro, OnePlus 8

It’s also become a major center of investment for OnePlus.
It’s always a little mysterious how much of OnePlus’s hardware development is
shared with its cousin companies under their parent BBK – that would include
Oppo and Vivo – but Lau confirmed his company is spending millions on pushing
5G forward.

“We began our 5G R&D in 2016, and have
invested almost $30 million to scale up and upgrade our 5G labs in both
Shenzhen and Taipei since 2018. Our 5G labs possess industry-leading equipment
to support both hardware and software R&D, from radio frequency (RF)
circuits, antennas, and multi-media (camera, audio, and display), to software
research for communication protocol, throughput optimization, performance,
power, stability and user scenario testing,” Lau said. 

That’s paid off; OnePlus was able to leap ahead of Samsung in supporting all of the features of T-Mobile’s current 5G network, resulting in higher speeds on OnePlus devices than on Samsung devices well into April.

OnePlus 5G speed vs SamsungOnePlus

What Is Standalone 5G?

The 5G experience in the US has been often underwhelming in part
because all our 5G networks have had to use 4G systems for their initial
connections. That’s a system called “non-standalone.” It means 5G networks are
dependent on 4G networks for coverage, and that their latency is much higher
than it would otherwise be because of the 4G handshaking.

Standalone 5G can get to the sub-10ms latency we’ve been
promised from 5G, and it has other advantages as well. For instance, in the future
it will allow “sliced” networks with guaranteed quality of service for different
kinds of applications.

“With SA, users can expect a smoother
and more immersive experience particularly in video calling and gaming,” Liu
said.

Lau has speculated publicly in the past about how 5G
will change smartphone design. At Mobile World Congress 2019, he said local
storage would recede
in a world with general 5G connectivity.

“People are now concerned with the
size of storage on their device for the sake of storing more photos, but [5G]
will allow for more immediate cloud storage,” Lau said at the time.
“That will allow people to no longer focus on whether the phone has 128GB
of 512GB of storage, and it will enable a total change in our photography
experience on the device.”

But we’re years away from that; we still need local storage.
For now, 5G will probably be more related to phones’ newer, high-resolution
cameras and high-refresh-rate displays – letting users upload huge photos without
delay, or download multi-gigabyte games that take advantage of super-fast
screens.

McLaren speedBetter 5G software let the OnePlus 7T McLaren (bottom) outpace the Galaxy S20 Ultra (top) on T-Mobile’s low-band network.

“When designing 5G devices, we already
have to account for a range of 5G-specific hardware considerations, as well as
more advanced components that will make the 5G experience even better, such as
the 120 Hz display of the OnePlus 8 Pro,” Liu said.

Current handsets with X55 modems – such as
the OnePlus 8 series – will be able to work with SA networks, Liu said. T-Mobile
has confirmed this for me previously. AT&T, which isn’t a current OnePlus
partner, has said that next year’s Qualcomm X60 phone will be needed for
standalone mode on its network.

“SA
can come with a firmware update on existing handsets if the
handsets are equipped with the X55 modem,” Liu said.

Dealing With a Hot Technology

5G phones may look just like 4G ones from
the outside, but it turns out they’re full of complicated changes. Take
antennas, for instance. Getting 4G and 5G working on one phone means
implementing “nearly 50 different bands” of antenna frequencies, with the 5G
ones taking up more room than the 4G ones, Liu said.

“A major challenge
is squeezing a large number of necessary hardware
components into a small, compact space,” Liu said.

5G phones also run
hotter than 4G ones did, Liu confirmed. This has been a controversy since last
summer, when we saw millimeter-wave 5G phones based on the first-generation X50
modem overheating under stress. Qualcomm, the carriers, and phone makers all pointed fingers at each other about
that. So far, we haven’t seen that happening with the newer X55-based phones,
but we also haven’t tried to run them through a New York or Las Vegas summer.

“5G is much more demanding in terms of power consumption compared to 4G (approximately 100 ~ 300mA). This brings about higher temperatures within a device that must be addressed accordingly to avoid thermal issues,” Liu said.

Solving That mmWave Problem

One of the thorniest issues in 5G is what to do about millimeter-wave.
The high-speed, short-range technology Verizon largely relies on requires
expensive additional antenna modules, which are a big part of why Verizon’s
exclusive OnePlus 8 5G UW costs $100 more than the T-Mobile model, and also
probably why the OnePlus 8 Pro doesn’t support Verizon’s network.

While Liu and Lau didn’t confirm that future OnePlus devices
would include millimeter-wave, they came pretty close.

“We will continue pushing the technology forward
with partners, like T-Mobile, Verizon, and Qualcomm, bringing
multi-band devices to our users,” Liu said.

Notice the inclusion of T-Mobile in that quote, where this
year’s T-Mobile phone didn’t have millimeter-wave.

Time is going to make millimeter-wave phones less expensive, Lau suggested. “We
anticipate that prices for 5G devices will come down somewhat over time as
things like network infrastructure, technology and production become more
mature, similar to what we saw with 4G phones,” Lau said.

OnePlus 8 antenna diagramThere’s a ridiculous number of antennas in these things. This is the OnePlus 8.

Yep, Voice Calling’s Getting Better

During the COVID-19 crisis, voice calling has skyrocketed as
people try to connect to each other. While lots of people are
chatting over Google Meet or Zoom, many have also realized that the guaranteed
low latency and quality of service on traditional voice calls makes them a
little less uncanny than you get on video chat systems.

Moving to a 5G standalone core means better voice calls, Liu
said, and OnePlus is on this. “Due to the low latency of the new radio, new voice and
video technology (EVS and H.265) over the 5G core results in better voice
quality and video quality,” Liu said.

Phones that support native, standalone voice-over-5G (known
as VoNR) will have an advantage in the new voice-calling world, Liu said. Without
VoNR, phones will have to fall back to 4G to connect their calls, “requiring
more time and experiencing more drop-offs,” he said.

The OnePlus 8 is currently our Editors’ Choice as an affordable 5G smartphone on both T-Mobile and Verizon.

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