How to Choose the Right Mobile Phone
5G is here—and if it isn’t available where you are, it will be soon. We’re now starting to see the first mainstream 5G phones in the US. And considering that for many people a phone is a three-year investment, it’s understandable that you might want a 5G phone to take advantage of the dramatic improvements we’re going to see later this year and into the future. We’re here to help.
Samsung’s Galaxy S20 series will probably be the best-selling US 5G phones of early 2020
Does 5G Matter Yet?
We’re tracking the US rollout of 5G on our Race to 5G page. Right now, 5G has a lot of coverage, but the experience isn’t really much to crow about. On AT&T and T-Mobile, “nationwide” 5G is largely indistinguishable from 4G. Verizon’s system has great speeds, but a very tiny coverage area. And Sprint is about to cease to exist.
So you shouldn’t expect a 5G phone to change your world immediately. This is about a future investment. In late 2020 and through 2021, T-Mobile/Sprint is going to get its act together with broad mid-band 5G across many cities, which will make a noticeable difference in performance. I’m also hoping that AT&T and Verizon will expand their fast high-band 5G coverage in major cities, bringing 500Mbps+ speeds to more people. Verizon is going to need to do that to offer its 5G Home product later this year as promised.
The next big bump in 5G phone capabilities will come in early 2021, as phones with the Qualcomm X60 modem arrive, which will be better able to combine very different forms of 4G and 5G spectrum. This will make the most difference on AT&T, from what I’ve heard. But you shouldn’t be worried that the latest 5G phones (ones released in 2020, like the Galaxy S20 and LG V60 series) will be outmatched by a new capability this year.
This AT&T 5G icon refers to low-band 5G, which isn’t noticeably faster than 4G right now
Four Kinds of 5G to Understand
To choose your 5G phone, you need to understand about the four kinds of 5G that are out there or coming soon: low-, middle-, and high-band, and DSS. Low, middle, and high go, respectively, from having a lot of coverage but not much speed, to almost no coverage but crazy-fast speed.
There’s a fourth term, DSS, that refers to a way of sharing airwaves between 4G and 5G. That will let carriers slowly reduce capacity on their 4G networks as 5G flourishes—which will be a boon for people with 5G phones, and potential trouble for people without them.
Here’s what each of the carriers will be offering. As Sprint and T-Mobile are merging, I’ll refer to them together as New T-Mobile:
AT&T: Lots of low-band, but very slow; no mid-band; high-band in small parts of 35 cities so far; DSS coming toward the end of this year.
New T-Mobile: Lots of low-band. Lots of mid-band. A little high-band. No DSS.
Verizon: All high-band for now. DSS coming toward the end of this year.
Now here’s what the phones on this list can handle:
Galaxy S20+, S20 Ultra, LG V60 (Verizon). OnePlus 8 (Verizon): Low/middle/high and DSS.
Galaxy S20, OnePlus 8 Pro, LG V60 (non-Verizon), OnePlus 8 (non-Verizon): Low/middle and DSS.
Galaxy Note 10+ 5G: Low/middle and DSS (on AT&T/T-Mobile). High and DSS (on Verizon).
Moto Z4: High only.
So, it’s confusing and a bit of a mess. If price is no object, we suggest you get one of the phones with everything—that gives you a selection of four on Verizon, but mostly means the Galaxy S20+ on other carriers.
On T-Mobile, I’m willing to make an exception for the OnePlus 8, because at $699, it’s the only 5G phone I’d consider to be reasonably priced, and it doesn’t sound like T-Mobile is installing much high-band any time soon.
More 5G phones are coming. Motorola and Alcatel have both said they’re bringing 5G phones to market shortly, which may cost a lot less than the very expensive S20 lineup. And then, of course, there’s the iPhone.
The OnePlus 7 Pro 5G McLaren is the fastest of T-Mobile’s low-band 5G phones, but it lacks high-band
Should I Wait for the 5G iPhone?
If you’re an iPhone user, sure.
We expect the upcoming 5G iPhone to appear this September or October, using the same Qualcomm X55 modem as the Samsung Galaxy S20+. The US model of the iPhone will almost certainly support low-, middle-, and high-band 5G, because Verizon will demand it. (International models will almost as certainly not support high-band 5G.)
If you’re an iPhone fan, there’s no reason to jump over to one of the existing 5G phones with the state of the current 5G networks over the next six months. They just don’t make enough of a difference weighed against your investment in the iPhone ecosystem.
By 2021, especially on New T-Mobile, you’ll see citywide 5G making a significant difference in the way you experience mobile internet. The new 5G iPhones will be able to access that network; we’ll know more when they come out, so stay tuned.