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Galaxy S10 5G, Mate X, Motorola Mod: Why you shouldn't rush to buy a 5G phone

Early adopters, beware.

The term 5G floats atop a nighttime view of a city skyline. Curved lines of light represent speedy connections.
Getty Images

At a Mobile World Congress keynote panel in late February on the timing of 5G devices, Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon declared with confidence, "The phones are ready; we're just waiting for the networks."

About an hour later, in a briefing room a mere 10 feet below that keynote hall, AT&T Chief Technology Officer Andre Fuetsch told CNET, "The issue is devices. Frankly, we're waiting on the devices."

After years of work on 5G networks, hyped as the life-changing foundation for tech trends like augmented reality and telemedicine, the super-fast wireless technology is finally being rolled out across the globe. Carriers are turning on their networks, and virtually every major Android handset maker has talked up plans to launch a 5G device this year.

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As evidenced by the conflicting comments from the AT&T and Qualcomm execs, things are still a little complicated. Still, while 5G at times remains a confusing mess, it's at least coming online in a real way now.

There's been a whirlwind of news. Samsung, the world's biggest smartphone vendor, unveiled the Galaxy S10 5G in February during its Unpacked event in San Francisco. Oppo at MWC talked up its first, not-yet-named 5G phone. Later the same day, Huawei showed off its 5G-powered Mate X foldable, and Xiaomi detailed its Mi Mix 3 5G. MWC also marked the debut of LG's V50 ThinQ and ZTE's Axon 10 Pro, while Sony and OnePlus showed off prototypes for devices they'll launch this year.

Then this week, 5G networks went live in the US and South Korea. In the US, Verizon turned on its 5G service on Wednesday in Chicago and Minneapolis.

That doesn't mean you should jump on the 5G bandwagon just yet. Here are a few reasons to wait a bit.

Sparse coverage

AT&T says it had the first mobile 5G network in the US, but when it comes to where you can actually tap into the next-generation service, things get a little mysterious.

"They're small pockets in the cities," Fuetsch said earlier this year, noting that all of the customers using the Netgear Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot are small businesses. "We haven't disclosed them publicly."

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The Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G will be one of the first 5G phones on the market. 

Juan Garzon/CNET

AT&T and Verizon have invested in superhigh frequency radio airwaves known as millimeter wave spectrum, which brings tremendous speed and capacity. The downside of that high capacity is limited range.

How limited? Think a block or two. So even if AT&T and Verizon say they have 5G coverage in a city, you may struggle to actually get on the network, even with a compatible device. 

A Verizon spokesman admitted earlier this year that the initial deployment would be small. That's exactly what CNET's Jessica Dolcourt found Thursday when she traveled to Chicago to test the Motorola Moto Z3 phone with a 5G Moto Mod. Dolcourt at times detected the high download speeds promised by Verizon -- between 450 Mbps to 1Gbps in less than 30 milliseconds -- but those speeds were few and far between.

"It wasn't good," she wrote. "I traveled to four 5G-ready sites across the downtown area, hoping to be blown away. A couple times, I saw theoretical download speeds kissing 600 megabits per second, in the Speedtest.net app. But real-world downloads didn't take, the Moto Z3 flickered between 5G and 4G like a flame and real-world downloads took the same time connected to 5G as it did when I took the Moto Mod off."

At MWC in February, T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray told CNET that his company has fired up millimeter wave spectrum that supports the upcoming Galaxy S10 5G, but that it likely won't market the network since the coverage area is so small.

Ray said T-Mobile's full 5G launch will happen in the second half of the year. He didn't specify when, but there may not be phones that run on the company's broader 5G network until the fourth quarter, or even early 2020. That's because devices for T-Mobile's network will require Qualcomm's upcoming second-generation modem, the X55, and that isn't yet available for devices.

Smartphones coming in time for the holidays later this year will still use the first-generation modem, the X50, Qualcomm's Amon said in an interview at MWC.

"There are some [handset makers] who are aggressive with their launch dates," he said. "We could see some X55s, but most of the smartphones coming from Q2 2019 all the way to the holiday season will be ... X50."

A T-Mobile spokeswoman would say only that the broader network launch would happen in the second half.

Both Ray and Fuetsch are shooting for nationwide coverage using lower frequency (and longer range) spectrum by 2020.

The carrier with the biggest early 5G coverage could actually be Sprint. Yes, that Sprint. The company said it would cover more than 1,000 square miles with its 5G networks, spread across nine cities, such as Chicago and New York.

No other carriers have talked about their full coverage range, which isn't reassuring for anyone willing to buy a 5G phone. We also don't know how much the mobile 5G plans will cost. 

Expensive phones

No one really knows quite what 5G devices are going to cost. Out of all the 5G handsets already announced, only two have price tags.

Huawei at MWC said its Mate X will cost a jaw-dropping 2,300 euros ($2,600) when it goes on sale in the middle of the year. That's pricier than feared, even though it's one of the world's first foldable phones. But Xiaomi's Mi Mix 3 5G will retail for 599 euros ($679) when it hits the market in May, an amount that's less than many 4G phones today.

The devices may end up being on extreme ends of the pricing scale, but there's really no way to know right now. And another wildcard is what other features are added to boost the price. The Mate X's high cost stems mostly from the foldable display.

The Moto Z3, meanwhile, is on sale now at $240 (usually $480); the Moto Mod is also on sale now at $200 (usually $350), and you have to have a Z3 on your account to buy it. Verizon 5G service is a $10 premium over the regular plan, but your first three months are free.

Ultimately, the additional features added to 5G phones "will determine the premium," Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. "Rest assured, there will be one."

Carriers are spending billions of dollars to build out 5G networks. Device makers need to use pricier components like 5G radios and bigger batteries. Those higher costs will likely flow down to you through more expensive service and phones. And the shift to 5G gives carriers and phone makers the chance to charge more for those top speeds at a time when they're not selling as many devices.

Drew Blackard, Samsung's senior director of product marketing, told CNET after the company's Unpacked event that the Galaxy S10 5G will be more of an "incremental step-up" from the $1,000 S10 Plus, not a huge jump like the $1,980 Galaxy Fold. He noted it'll be over $100 more expensive but declined to give any further specifics.

Motorola President Sergio Buniac, meanwhile, believes that though 5G devices may be more expensive, they won't be excessively so. And OnePlus aims to keep the cost of its first 5G phone "within $1,000," CEO Pete Lau said during an interview at MWC.

"Initially, the price of 5G phones will be higher than 4G phones, that's for sure," Yenchi Lee, senior director of product marketing for MediaTek's wireless communications business, said in an interview at MWC. The company at the trade show unveiled its first 5G modem, which'll be in smartphones in early 2020.

Once chips like Qualcomm's new integrated Snapdragon 5G processor hit the market next year, companies making less expensive phones will also be able to include 5G in their devices.

"We're trying to get to 5G not just to that flagship tier but to other tiers as fast as we can," Qualcomm's Amon said. The integrated chip will be in phones in the first half of 2020.

Compatibility issues

Thanks to everyone embracing 4G LTE, we'd finally gotten to the point where phones could be taken to almost any carrier and still work. Then 5G came along.

Though everyone is using the same wireless technology, the carriers are employing different bands of spectrum. And the first-generation chip and antennas can't tap into all those frequencies at the same time.

Instead, whatever 5G phone you buy that has Qualcomm's X50 modem (which is basically any 5G phone except those from Huawei) will be tied to a specific carrier. The 5G phone you buy for Verizon will work only on Verizon's 5G network.

Once the X55 chip and new Qualcomm radios are out, a phone will be able to run on all major spectrum bands, all over the world. That means we can finally get unlocked 5G phones -- if that's what the handset makers choose.

No killer apps yet

Throughout MWC, countless booths showed off how 5G can change the experience on your phone, with, for instance, video calls and polished console-level games running smoothly, thanks to much of the processing power being handled remotely.

But consumers aren't going to pay a premium just to eliminate a little buffering.

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Huawei's Mate X is a foldable phone that runs on 5G networks. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

"The industry's challenge is finding what's the killer app for 5G," said Dan Hays, a consultant for PWC.  

Those apps will come, even if it takes time. Remember, until 4G improved the quality of the services, things like Uber or livestreaming through Facebook didn't exist, and watching streaming video from the likes of Netflix and YouTube didn't take off.

But in the early days, there may not be a lot of ways to take advantage of all that bandwidth.

Mobile 5G beyond phones

Though the world's biggest handset makers plan to release 5G phones as soon as possible, other, smaller players are being more cautious. HTC for one "questioned whether it was right to do [5G] on a phone." For now, at least, HTC doesn't think phones are the way to go. Instead, it's focusing on delivering 5G to customers through its 5G Hub, which'll be available in the US on Sprint's network.

"The beauty of the hub concept is it doesn't matter what device you've got," Nigel Newby-House, HTC associate vice president of product planning and go-to-market, said in an interview ahead of MWC. "Whether it's VR, notebook, tablet, this is your gateway that could be shared across devices. We're trying to spare you the cost of having 5G in your phone, tablet, etcetera."

But buying the hub doesn't automatically mean you'll have 5G speeds on a 4G phone. You'll get faster speeds only if your phone has 802.11ad, which enables WiGig Wi-Fi speeds. If your phone is older and runs only 802.11ac Wi-Fi, you'll end up with a bottleneck where the hub is trying to deliver data faster than your phone can handle. 

MWC wasn't the last time we'll hear about 5G phones. But you might want to wait until next year before you rush to buy one. 

Originally published on March 2 at 5 a.m. PT.
Update March 3 at 6 a.m. PT: To include background.
Update April 4 at 4:36 p.m. PT: Adds Verizon 5G network launch info.