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Samsung brought a 5G prototype phone to CES 2019

Samsung wants to make sure everyone knows it'll be among the first to 5G.

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5G Samsung phones are coming soon.

Sarah Tew/CNET

We strolled by Samsung's enormous booth, hoping to get our hands on the 5G prototype phone that Samsung brought to  CES 2019 in Las Vegas. And there we found it, trapped behind glass in its dock, so near yet so far away.

At first glance, the phone doesn't look like anything special. Again, it's a prototype, not a final design, so we can't even say it's Samsung's first phone. The most we can assume is that this the device Samsung's using as the basis for its first 5G phones.

The presence of the phone here is important, even from afar, despite the fact that not much has changed since we first saw the prototype in the very same dock at Qualcomm's annual tech summit in Maui, Hawaii last month. With this showpiece, Samsung is staking its claim as a 5G mover and shaker. The world's largest smartphone maker is signalling that it's bullish on 5G, after announcing that it'll have its first 5G phone for Verizon in the first half of 2019, and two 5G phones with AT&T. (But this will be Verizon's first 5G phone.)

Samsung is also rumored to have a 5G-capable version of its upcoming Galaxy S10 phone. (The Galaxy S10 launch event officially takes place Feb. 20.)

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Although these 5G networks aren't ready yet, phonemakers are eager to get ahead of the curve. Having compatible handsets ready to go when the networks turn on their 5G services will give the first brands an advantage with early adopters, and earn brownie points for appearing to be first to the next-generation wireless technology. The transition from 3G to 4G phones was slow, and carriers and device-makers alike would like to hasten the transition.

Ushering in the 5G era isn't without its pitfalls. 5G phones and hotspots will cost a premium, and so will 5G service plans. That's partly because networks and device makers have to cover their expenses for building out these networks and testing them, and partly because vendors have to tailor-make each device to a specific network. A 5G phone for AT&T will never work on T-Mobile because the mix of bands each network uses is so different. (Read more about that here.)

The definition of 5G is also a touchy subject. AT&T learned the hard way when Verizon and T-Mobile bashed their rival for branding its advanced 4G LTE service as 5G E, which stands for 5G Evolution. AT&T rebutted that it was "proud" of its marketing term.

If CES 2019 has taught us anything, it's that the path to 5G is more confusing than ever, but no less vital in the year to come.

Galaxy S10 launch date confirmed: Feb. 20 at Samsung's Unpacked event in San Francisco

CES 2019: See all of CNET's coverage of the year's biggest tech show.

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Samsung Galaxy S10 (128GB, prism black)
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