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T-Mobile's 5G network is here, but it's not worth the upgrade yet

5G is going nationwide, but the big speed jumps are still MIA.

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T-Mobile's low-band 5G network has arrived.

Eli Blumenthal, CNET

T-Mobile's launch of its broader 5G network on Friday, which includes the sale of the $900 OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren and $1,300 Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G, marks a big step for the next-generation wireless technology in the US, the first to cover a majority of the nation. Unfortunately for most people, that big step is right now more foundational than functional.

If you're looking for this new low-band 5G network to completely change how you use your phone, you're going to be disappointed. In using the OnePlus device the past few days in New York, the experience was for the most part identical with T-Mobile's current 4G LTE nationwide network. My colleague, Jessica Dolcourt, found her test unit in Maui was also hit or miss, which demonstrates that dead zones are as challenging in 5G as they are in 4G.

And T-Mobile knows this. While it has been hyping the first nationwide 5G network, which works outside as well as indoors -- unlike the super-fast, but super-limited 5G that Verizon has been touting -- it has also tried to keep expectations in check. The company isn't charging extra for 5G -- unlike Verizon and AT&T which require their latest unlimited plans -- and has said it expects 5G to be on average 20% faster nationwide than its 4G LTE service even if it doesn't near the impressive speeds of its rival.

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T-Mobile's millimeter-wave 5G, left on the Galaxy S10 5G, is much faster than its low-band 5G network, right.

Eli Blumenthal, CNET

This is a step up to be sure, but it is nowhere near the nearly 1Gbps speeds millimeter-wave networks like Verizon have delivered. It also doesn't compare to T-Mobile's own millimeter-wave, which downloaded at 280Mbps in lower Manhattan compared to download speeds of 66Mbps on 5G.

In speed tests across the city, I found download speeds on 5G to often range between 20Mbps and 50Mbps, with some occasional peaks hitting above 100Mbps. While fine speeds, running identical tests on a T-Mobile Galaxy S10 5G that was on T-Mobile's 4G LTE network often saw the Galaxy's 4G service pulling down similar numbers. One key point was my ability to get it nearly everywhere I went. (Except in subway stations.)

Meanwhile, CNET's identical test unit in Maui crested 100Mbps seven times in 12 tests with Speedtest.net, peaking at 256Mbps downlink (and 230Mbps down through Fast.com). A the same time, the 4G control unit, a Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, hit a high of 131Mbps down. Other tests were much more pedestrian, with lows of 19Mbps down (there's that dead zone). The 5G logo, however, didn't waver.

Now playing: Watch this: T-Mobile's new 5G network is here, we go hands on
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These results speak to the state of 5G, which after many years of hype, finally turned into reality this year. But while 5G is finally being turned on, limited range, spotty coverage or limited speed boosts have meant this technology isn't quite ready for mainstream users who expect their cell coverage to generally work as advertised all the time.

T-Mobile's broader 5G network also represents a stark philosophical difference to its rivals. Verizon's network in New York, for comparison, was able to top 1Gbps outdoors in the city in our tests -- even if you lost the signal a block away. Sprint's midband 5G network was often able to perform much faster than T-Mobile's low-band 5G, but its deployments have been in only a handful of markets with no word on future expansion.

AT&T has not let regular users onto its high-speed millimeter-wave 5G network (the same flavor of 5G Verizon uses) in New York, though the carrier plans to launch a low-band 5G network this month in a handful of cities.

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T-Mobile's 5G network on the OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren, left, compared to its 4G LTE network on the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G.

Eli Blumenthal, CNET

AT&T has said for users not to expect major speed differences between its 4G network (known now as 5GE) and the new low-band 5G network. CNET will have more comprehensive speed comparison tests when the network launches in New York.

In CNET's New York office where cell phone service has had trouble in the past, T-Mobile's 5G network had full service and reached download speeds of 12Mbps on Netflix's Fast.com testing site. In the same location, Sprint service on a Samsung Galaxy S10 5G had four bars of 5G and download speeds of 44Mbps while Verizon's LTE network on an iPhone downloaded at 1.8Mbps.

Comparing 5G networks, YouTube and Netflix both opened quickly over 5G and T-Mobile's network actually outperformed Sprint's when it came to starting an episode of Stranger Things, though the difference between the two was minimal.

Indoors is actually one of the better aspects of T-Mobile's early 5G service, with speed on the OnePlus often besting what I was able to get in the same location with the Galaxy S10 5G that was on T-Mobile's 4G LTE network. That's not to say the speeds were game-changing, but the fact that they were even slightly better offers some encouraging reason for optimism.

Don't buy just yet

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T-Mobile's 5G network in Hawaii.

Jessica Dolcourt, CNET

Even if it's largely symbolic, turning on 5G for 200 million people with T-Mobile is a big milestone since most people will have access to the service. Verizon's millimeter-wave network is only live in 18 cities (with the company previously saying it would be in 30 cities by the end of 2019) and Sprint is only live in nine.

AT&T's millimeter-wave network is live in 21 cities, but again, it won't let regular people onto it yet. The low-band network the company plans to launch this month will only initially cover "tens of millions" of people with the Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G being the only phone that will work with it.

So is T-Mobile's 5G network worth an upgrade? For most people, probably not. While the Note 10 Plus and OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren are impressive phones, buying them thinking you are future-proofing yourself is a fool's errand. The phones will work with T-Mobile's low-band 5G network and Sprint's midband 5G network, should the long-pending merger get approved, but they don't work with T-Mobile's millimeter-wave 5G that it has launched in six cities thus far.

It's the same problem that plagues the Galaxy S10 5G, which T-Mobile has been selling for months and works with the company's millimeter-wave network (and will work with Sprint's 5G spectrum) but not the low-band. Phones that work across all three versions of 5G are expected to come next year, and T-Mobile has been counting on getting Sprint's spectrum to be able to actually deliver on its 5G ambitions.

Even with this step, it is still early for 5G. Speeds, devices and coverage will all get better as things continue to pick up in 2020. Jumping in now will let you show your friends that your phone has a 5G icon, but it, for the most part, won't get you any real benefits a good 4G LTE device wouldn't already provide.

CNET Managing Editor Jessica Dolcourt contributed to this story.