iPhone 12: The biggest reason to buy a 5G phone right now is FOMO

Despite what Apple says, we're not sure we even need 5G at the moment. But iPhone 12's 5G support will at least future-proof your phone.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
5 min read
Tim Cook Apple 5G

Apple CEO Tim Cook talks up the iPhone 12 lineup's new 5G connectivity.


Apple  has given people plenty of reasons to want a new iPhone 12, much as it does every year when it refreshes its phone lineup. The camera is better, and so's the processor. The display, with its "ceramic shield" technology, is more durable, and there's even a Pacific blue iPhone 12 Pro. There are now four new models to choose from instead of three, and the overall phone's been redesigned for the first time since 2017. Oh, and did you hear? All phones in the iPhone 12 lineup also come with 5G

Read more: Here are CNET's reviews of the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 ProiPhone 12 Mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max.

The next-generation cellular technology was front and center in Apple's virtual iPhone launch earlier this month. Apple showed us its secret, padded anechoic chamber where it tests 5G airwaves and talked up the tweaks it's made to boost battery life in its 5G iPhones. It even trotted out Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg to launch the carrier's low-band, nationwide 5G network. (He did keep his distance from Apple CEO Tim Cook while on stage.)

Watch this: Verizon CEO talks 5G at 2020 iPhone event

But Apple, like essentially everyone else in the wireless industry, still didn't actually give us a reason to need 5G in our phones right now, even in the $699 iPhone 12 Mini, $799 iPhone 12, $999 iPhone 12 Pro and $1,099 iPhone 12 Pro Max. It kept the pricing steady for its two highest-end devices but increased the iPhone 12's cost by $100 over last year's iPhone 11. For that same starting price, users now get a device with a smaller display -- 5.4 inches in the Mini instead of the iPhone 11's 6.1 inches. 

This all goes back to a broader problem the wireless industry has wrestled with since the debut of 5G nearly two years ago. Sure, there's a boost in speed with 5G, but the increase most consumers are seeing now isn't significant enough to really matter (and in some cases, 5G connections are no faster than 4G). Carriers have greatly expanded their networks, but the quality of service varies dramatically based on where you live. And with the novel coronavirus locking many of us down in our homes, the idea of higher speed on the go is irrelevant. Ultimately, 5G is expected to be a game-changer, but for many consumers right now, it's just an extra cost.

"There's no killer app for why you need to upgrade to 5G beyond it's just faster than 4G," said Logan Purk, an equity analyst with Edward Jones. "For the average consumer, that's not a strong enough selling point to move into these higher-priced handsets and pay up for that technology." 

For now, everyone continues to focus on speed. As Cook noted at Apple's virtual event, 5G "will bring a new level of performance for downloads and uploads, higher-quality video streaming, more responsive gaming [and] real-time interactivity." He added that it improves security and privacy since people can use 5G networks instead of public Wi-Fi connections. 

"Today is the beginning of a new era for iPhone," Cook said during his keynote. "This is a huge moment for all of us."

Watch this: Apple unveils iPhone 12 lineup and new HomePod Mini speaker

For many people, the fact that Apple has new iPhones at all is reason enough to buy them. The company, perhaps more than any other on the planet, has a base of loyal fans who upgrade each year. But it's the rest of us, who hold onto our phones for three years, that Apple has to woo.

It's likely counting on consumers seeking out 5G phones to "futureproof" their purchase. 5G may not be everywhere right now, but it will be common by the time people are ready for their next device. And while the first 5G phones were limited by what networks they could access, the newer 5G modems enable unlocked phones and tap into all different types of the technology

If you bought a 5G phone last year, "you weren't future-proofing," Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. "But now you can buy 5G with confidence." 

5G, ready or not

The entire iPhone 12 lineup features a new design reminiscent of Apple's iPad Pro tablets. The flatter sides give the iPhones a new feel for the first time in three years. All models come with a new, ultra-strong Corning-designed front cover display, dubbed "ceramic shield." It's "tougher than any smartphone glass," Apple said, and is four times less likely to crack if you drop it. (Check out the results of our iPhone 12 drop test.) The new phones come with Apple's updated A14 Bionic, the same chip that's in the new iPad Air. They also get bumps in their camera capabilities

None of the new iPhone 12 models come without 5G connectivity, whether you have 5G service in your area or not. Anyone who wants a device that's 4G-only will have to opt for an older model, like the $399 iPhone SE or last year's iPhone 11, now priced at $599. Or you can opt to not activate 5G service on your new iPhone 12 and benefit from the faster 4G capabilities in the device.

That follows the same strategy Samsung rolled out earlier this year. Starting with its Galaxy S20 lineup, all of Samsung's new flagship phones. in the US come with 5G connectivity. Outside the US, though, Samsung still offers 4G models, something that ultimately hurt its position when it came to 5G sales. 

That won't be the case with the iPhone 12. All markets will have 5G iPhones, though only the US versions are capable of connecting to ultra-fast -- but short range -- millimeter wave networks.

While Samsung has released a dozen 5G phones since its first device in early 2019, it will fall to No. 3 in terms of 5G phone shipments this year, according to Strategy Analytics. Apple, with less than three months of sales, will become No. 2, after Huawei . And next year, Apple will be the world's biggest 5G phone vendor, the firm said, largely because all of its new iPhones are 5G by default.

Read more: Is iPhone 12 a smash? Apple may offer its first hint this week

"There is no demand for 5G phones, only push from operators and vendors," Strategy Analytics analyst Ville-Petteri Ukonaho said. "If people have a choice, they'll still go for 4G because there's no need for 5G. It doesn't bring anything so revolutionarily new to the table that people want 5G phones." 

Together, all phone vendors should ship about 273 million 5G phones in 2020, according to Strategy Analytics. And next year, Apple will ship 180 million 5G iPhones out of the market's total 670 million 5G phones, the firm said. 

While Apple and the carriers will do all they can to make sure 5G works, it's not up to them to make us want it. Ultimately, it will be up to developers and what they actually do with 5G that will make it a must-have. Keep in mind, Apple's embrace of 4G helped popularize apps like Uber and Airbnb or services like livestreaming -- and many expect the same to happen with 5G. 

"Each generation of cellular network technology on iPhone has enabled breakthrough innovations and entirely new opportunities for developers and our users," Cook said. "And 5G is the most exciting step yet."