Britain's 5G race is heating up following the launch of Vodafone's 5G service in multiple cities across the country. The company is hot on the heels of EE, the UK's largest carrier, which launched its own 5G service last month. To see how Vodafone's new network compares, I headed out to test it at locations across London and Manchester.
TL;DR: It's not good.
With speeds often slower than 4G, and huge disparities in results from multiple test handsets, I can only describe Vodafone's current 5G offering as an inconsistent mess.
5G slower than 4G in Manchester
It started poorly in Manchester where, much like EE's coverage of the great northern city, Vodafone's network is patchy. A quick look at Vodafone's coverage map shows that most of the center of the city isn't covered by 5G, including the popular Northern Quarter and the main shopping center.
The main coverage hotspots are scattered across various suburbs surrounding the city center, which is surprising given that the potential high speed and, more importantly, the high capacity of 5G means the network would be more beneficial in the high traffic areas of city centers. Still, a few Uber rides later and I was able to get around to my various testing locations.
First, a note on my testing. For 5G, I used a, with a Vodafone 5G SIM. To compare it to 4G speeds, I used a regular with a Vodafone 4G SIM. I ran at least three tests in each location using Ookla's Speedtest app. The scores below are an average of each set.
My first location was the O2 Apollo music venue at the postcode M12 6AP (this is the UK's equivalent of ZIP codes). This spot was highlighted as being "good indoors and outdoors" for 5G. My 5G phone returned an average speed of 41.3Mbps down. 4G easily beat that with a whopping 216Mbps down.
Further up the road in Ardwick, outside Manchester College on Devonshire Street North (M12 4AH -- also "good" for 5G on the service checker), 5G again disappointed with a score of 142Mbps down against 4G's 160Mbps.
My next 5G hotspot in West Gorton took me through a housing estate, on the other side of which I found a small industrial site on Bennett Street (M12 5AU). Not exactly pretty, or busy, but I did notice that this industrial site was home to a Vodafone mast, or cell tower. Surely, in a quiet area, in the middle of the afternoon, next to the mast is where I'd really see what 5G can do.
Not exactly. My 5G phone returned a score of 68.6Mbps down, while 4G again triumphed with 95.2Mbps.
I took myself off to the Old Trafford football stadium -- home of Manchester United -- which is also in a "good" 5G area, according to Vodafone's map. 5G speeds did increase a bit to 105Mbps down, but again 4G was better with 118Mbps. I ended my Manchester testing by heading into the suburb of Salford (M6 5JA), but despite it being in a "good" coverage area, the phone wouldn't connect to a 5G network at all -- even when I walked around to different spots and restarted the phone multiple times to try and connect.
Manchester, then, was not exactly a success for Vodafone's 5G network.
Confusing London results
In my first round of tests in London, results were much the same as in Manchester, with 4G speeds regularly outpacing 5G.
I began to have concerns about my test device. Was it faulty? I discussed the possibility that the Exynos processor Samsung used in its phone may be responsible for slower speeds with industry analyst Ben Wood of CCS Insight. During his testing, Wood achieved faster speeds with a Xiaomi Mi Mix 3, which has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chip. Wood had, in fact, seen speeds over 500Mbps down using that phone in Southwark, in South London.
I decided to repeat my tests, using the same Galaxy S10 Plus 5G I've been using all day, plus a second Galaxy S10 Plus 5G phone, and the same 5Gto make sure I'd left no stone unturned. In this round, things were, if anything, more confusing.
The second S10 Plus 5G handset returned speeds either equal to or below the original handset, which immediately put my worries at ease about any kind of hardware failure. But the inconsistencies in the network remained baffling.
On one test in Northumberland Square in East London (a site Vodafone suggested I visit), the original S10 returned a good speed of 249Mbps down. But the second S10 only managed 44.4Mbps. Essentially the same phone, in the same spot, on the same network at the same time of day, giving wildly different results. The Xiaomi phone, meanwhile, achieved 93.3Mbps down while my 4G Vodafone SIM (now in an iPhone XS Max) managed 173Mbps, easily beating both the Xiaomi and the second S10 Plus 5G handset. For reference, I ran a test on EE's 5G network using the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G and it managed 432Mbps.
On Great Suffolk Street in South London, both S10 Plus 5G handsets achieved a healthy 246Mbps down. The Xiaomi then missed the mark with only 77.3Mbps, again falling behind 4G, which managed 117Mbps.
Then on Borough High Street, outside The Ship pub, 4G was again fastest at 60.5Mbps, with the S10 Plus phones both coming in around 43Mbps and the Xiaomi trailing with 36Mbps.
Results were more mixed at Bowling Green Lane where the new S10 won with 155Mbps, followed by 4G on the iPhone with 102Mbps, with the Xiaomi again at the back of the pack with only 52Mbps.
So what does this tell us about Vodafone's network?
It certainly seems that there are some early teething troubles that need to be addressed. The fact that my 4G speeds regularly outstripped 5G speed is a real concern. Not only for the obvious reason that 5G, as advertised, should be faster than 4G, but it's disappointing that the phones seem unable to intelligently switch to the strongest, fastest network.
The least I expected was for both phones to return identical results, showing that 5G will simply use the 4G speeds if they are better. But to have 4G being more than four times faster (as was the case in Manchester) is extremely frustrating. As a user, paying more for a 5G phone only to have the same 4G speeds -- or worse speeds -- is irritating.
True, we are still in the early days for the network, and the situation will hopefully improve. When asked about these results, a Vodafone UK spokesperson said, "Vodafone UK launched 5G earlier this month. As with any new technology, we are continually working hard to optimize individual sites and antennas to ensure customers receive the best experience possible. We will also be implementing ongoing vendor software upgrades."
But the question remains, is it worth upgrading to a 5G phone on Vodafone's network? Right now, definitely not. The huge inconsistencies mean that you're better off sticking with your 4G phone until Vodafone's network matures. Right now, you run the risk of suffering slower speeds than you already get.
If you're desperate for 5G speeds, EE's network, while still patchy, offers a more consistent -- not to mention faster -- service. If you live in one of EE's 5G zones it's worth considering.
As for Vodafone, I'll be keeping check on how the network develops and will be retesting up and down the country to see whether the continued rollout, mast improvements and general optimizations make its 5G service a compelling investment.