iPhone 12 and 5G: All the answers to your questions about the super-fast connectivity

The iPhone 12 lineup is the first from Apple to offer 5G, and there's a lot to be confused about.

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
20 min read

5G, touted Tuesday on the screen of Apple's Steve Jobs Theater, is the biggest new feature in the iPhone 12 lineup.


This fall, Apple made it official -- all four of its new iPhone 12 models come with next-generation 5G cellular connectivity. The new version of wireless networks started rolling out across the globe last year and picked up speed in 2020. Virtually all new Android phones arriving in the US today offer 5G, and the country's biggest carriers have been talking nonstop about the connectivity. Now that Apple is jumping into the fray with its 5G-enabled iPhone 12 models, the buzz about 5G is only getting louder -- even if consumers in places like the US aren't exactly clamoring for 5G devices. 

All of the phones in Apple's iPhone 12 lineup -- the 5.4-inch, $699 iPhone 12 Mini; 6.1-inch, $799 iPhone 12; 6.1-inch, $999 iPhone 12 Pro; and 6.7-inch, $1,099 iPhone 12 Pro Max -- sport 5G connectivity, including the variety, called millimeter wave, that's much faster than 4G. CNET's Patrick Holland called the iPhone 12 and 12 Pro "simply extraordinary" and said they "mark the beginning of a new generation of iPhone."

Apple typically isn't the first to introduce new technology, like mobile payments and wireless charging. It was at least a generation behind in adopting 3G and 4G LTE cellular capabilities in earlier iPhones. But once it jumps in, it tends to dominate and shape the market in ways other handset makers can't. The same thing is expected to happen with 5G, which industry observers think could drive a huge uptick in iPhone demand. It's a clear way for Apple to differentiate its new devices from its older models, as well as spur new innovations and services that tap into the high speeds and zippy responsiveness 5G offers.

As Apple sells its first 5G iPhones (all four variants are on sale now), it'll immediately become one of the top 5G phone vendors in the world, even though its first phones didn't hit the market until the fourth quarter. 

This year, Apple is expected to leapfrog Samsung -- which has about a dozen 5G phone models available and which shipped over half of 2019's 5G units -- to become the second-largest 5G phone seller after Huawei , according to Strategy Analytics. And next year, Apple will be the world's biggest 5G phone vendor, Strategy Analytics said, shipping an estimated 180 million of 2021's 670 million 5G phones. 

"There's a so-called Apple effect," Strategy Analytics analyst Ville-Petteri Ukonaho said. "Whatever Apple does, it almost immediately becomes a success."

How many iPhone 12 models are there? And how do they differ from earlier iPhones?

For the first time ever, Apple is selling four new iPhone models at the same time. It includes the 5.4-inch iPhone 12 Mini, 6.1-inch iPhone 12, 6.1-inch iPhone 12 Pro and 6.7-inch iPhone 12 Pro Max. For those keeping track, that's one more iPhone than last year's lineup (the iPhone 11 didn't have a Mini version), and the more premium phones -- the Pro and Pro Max -- get a bump in screen size. 

Last year's new iPhone lineup included the 6.1-inch iPhone 11, the 5.8-inch  iPhone 11 Pro  and the 6.5-inch iPhone 11 Pro Max. 

All of the new iPhone 12 models come with 5G connectivity, both in the US and internationally. The superfast millimeter wave 5G connectivity is only available in US models. (Verizon is the technology's main proponent.)

The entire iPhone 12 lineup also 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. 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

Apple has nixed the free EarPods and power adapter that previously came with iPhones. But the new devices do support Apple's revamped MagSafe charger, which uses magnetic pins to connect the charging cable with the back of the gadget. It's not just for charging but serves as a magnetic attachment system for different accessories, all of which can snap right onto the back of the iPhone 12. Included in the box with each new iPhone is a Lightning to USB-C connector. 

What do the new iPhones cost?

The iPhone 12 Pro starts at $999, while the 12 Pro Max retails for $1,099. Apple kept the prices of its premium phones the same as last year's models, despite packing in 5G connectivity and other improvements. The new iPhone 12 retails for $799, which is $100 more than last year's iPhone 11. And the iPhone 12 Mini, with its smaller display, costs $699. 

Apple also lowered the prices for its older iPhones by $100. The iPhone 11 now starts at $599, while 2018's iPhone XR is $499. At the same time, Apple killed off its iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max, preventing consumers from opting for those devices over its new Pro models. It did the same thing in 2018 when it launched its iPhone XS and discontinued the year-old iPhone X, and again last year with the XS and XS Max. It's likely some consumers would choose a discounted Pro model over the newest version, if given the option by Apple. 

Some analysts were surprised that Apple didn't increase the Pro pricing. The new 5G modems are expensive, and they require additional components that also add to the cost of the iPhone's materials. 

When the first Android 5G phones hit the market, they were significantly more expensive than the 4G versions. Samsung's Galaxy S10 5G from last year retailed for $1,299, a whopping $400 more than the 4G-only version. The company's most recent 5G phones -- the only options in the US -- are only slightly more expensive than the previous year's 4G models. The Galaxy S20, for instance, starts at $999 and automatically comes with 5G, while last year's Galaxy S10 started at $899 for the 4G model. 

As Samsung has found, it's not easy to sell a $1,000 phone during a pandemic. But Apple always has fans who clamor for its newest phones, no matter what. A "staggering" 53% of respondents plan to buy this year's iPhone, according to a survey by electronics reseller Decluttr.


Apple set Oct. 13 for its iPhone launch. 


What does it mean to have 5G on an iPhone?

5G is the next-generation wireless technology that will power our phones. It's expected to change our lives, just as 4G brought about Apple's App Store and services like Uber and Instagram. Without 4G, smartphones wouldn't exist in their current form. 5G is expected to bring changes just as revolutionary, but we don't yet know what new products or services could emerge. 

The most noticeable improvement with 5G over what the iPhone offers today is faster connectivity, hence Apple's "Hi, Speed" invite. 5G can run between 10 and 100 times faster than your typical 4G cellular connection, making downloads and video streaming snappier than ever. 

Importantly, 5G's latency -- the amount of time between when your phone pings the network and when the network responds -- is much faster than what 4G and even Wi-Fi provide. In the future, that could enable things like remote surgery or Zoom videoconferences that are actually in sync. We'll be able to do things we could never do before on a mobile device, and do them nearly instantaneously.

For the iPhone, we could see new augmented reality features that take advantage of 5G's high speeds and low latency. Apple included a new lidar sensor in its new iPhone 12 Pro models, which can be used for better autofocus today but could make its way to iPhone AR features.

Why do I need a 5G iPhone?

In a word: future-proofing. Though 5G networks may not be everywhere right now, in the next few years they sure will be. Already, the technology has been rolling out faster than 4G a decade ago, and pricing for devices has been falling farther and quicker than anticipated. 

When 4G first hit the market, Americans bought their phones under two-year plans, typically paying a small amount in exchange for staying with a carrier for a couple of years. That cycle nudged consumers to upgrade their phones every other year. 

Now the US smartphone market has shifted to consumers buying phones outright or purchasing them on monthly payment plans. That means people are holding onto their phones longer than before, about three years instead of two, analysts say. If you buy a new iPhone every year, you might not need 5G yet. But if you'll buy an iPhone in 2020 and not purchase another until late 2023, you'll want to get a model with 5G connectivity.

"Plenty of people will argue they don't really need 5G, but the technology's inclusion in the new line-up is big win for Apple and anyone buying into the iPhone 12 range," CCS Insight analyst Ben Wood noted. "They'll get a future-proof product, which will have better residual value than 4G iPhones. And 5G coverage is only going to get better over the next three to four years, which is the likely lifespan of most new iPhones."

How fast will my 5G iPhone be?

It depends on the type of 5G that you're accessing. Low-band 5G, which is favored by T-Mobile and AT&T , isn't much different from 4G speeds. But millimeter wave, which has been pushed by Verizon , is blazing fast. Qualcomm's Snapdragon X55 modem, which connects most 5G phones today, lets you download data at up to 7 Gbps and upload information at 3 Gbps.

Qualcomm builds a custom modem for Apple, but the mmWave-enabled iPhones are likely to see similar speeds. Apple hasn't specified the exact speeds. 

Qualcomm's next modem, the X60, will be in phones next year. That chip slightly bumps download speeds to 7.5 Gbps, though uploads stay steady at 3 Gbps. You will, however, see faster average speeds, Qualcomm said. The X60 has the ability to aggregate the slower sub-6 networks with the faster mmWave spectrum, boosting overall performance. 

In between, there's a sweet-spot frequency called midband spectrum, which has a nice balance of speed and range. It's commonly used in markets around the world, though in the US, only T-Mobile currently employs it thanks to its acquisition of Sprint

How does millimeter-wave spectrum benefit the next iPhone?

When companies boast about the game-changing benefits of 5G, what they're talking about is the mmWave version of the technology. That's the ultrahigh-speed connectivity that makes 4G seem poky. There's a serious downside to mmWave, though: The signals have trouble going through walls, and they can get blocked by trees, buildings and other items. 


Apple's iPhone 12 Pro lineup comes with four color options, including a new Pacific blue.


Right now Verizon is the main carrier pushing mmWave, and last month, it launched its slower but more reliable nationwide 5G network. AT&T initially introduced mmWave 5G connectivity, but lately it has focused on its lower-band airwaves. And T-Mobile, which has a small footprint of mmWave, has focused on its nationwide low-band coverage, as well as Sprint's midband airwaves. 

Virtually all other countries around the globe have also shunned mmWave in favor of lower bands of 5G, at least right now.

How much does 5G impact my battery?

Early 5G phones had big problems with short battery life and overheating. But Apple created a feature it believes will prevent those problems: a smart switching system called Smart Data Mode. The new iPhone 12 models move between 4G and 5G to conserve battery power. When 5G is needed -- like for high-def video streaming -- it'll automatically tap into that network. Otherwise, the device will activate 4G connectivity. 

The iPhone 12 lineup considers many factors to figure out which network to use. If the screen is off, you're probably streaming music or running apps in the background that don't need 5G. And it looks at how data is delivered over the network to determine if, for example, you need 5G to stream high-definition video or if the lower quality stream requires only 4G. 

Smart Data Mode doesn't distinguish by specific apps but instead examines the kind of data flowing into the iPhone, Kaiann Drance, vice president of iPhone marketing for Apple, told CNET in an interview after the company's event. And the feature can be disabled if you want to use 5G all the time -- though that'll likely drain your battery much faster. 

For more on Apple's Smart Data Mode, check out CNET's interview with Drance

What US carriers will offer a 5G iPhone? And can I buy it unlocked?

We're long past the days of only one carrier offering the newest iPhone. When Apple first introduced its smartphone in 2007, AT&T was its exclusive partner. But now all carriers sell the device at the same time. AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile all sell the new iPhones, as do all major and small carriers around the globe. 

And all models in the US come with mmWave, unlike the strategy followed by Android handset makers. Samsung, for one, has opted to create one custom model in its device lineups that runs on the ultrafast network for Verizon, while most versions only tap into the slower but steadier airwaves.

The mmWave models, dubbed UW or Ultra Wideband by Verizon, have tended to cost more and hit the market later than the lower-band models. They've also dropped some features to make room for the mmWave hardware. Verizon's custom S20 5G shipped with less RAM and lost the microSD card slot found on other S20 5G phones sold by rival carriers.

Samsung priced its mmWave, Verizon version of the Galaxy S20 FE $50 higher than the other $700 models, though Verizon is offering a promotion to lower the cost, and its Galaxy A71 5G UW is also $50 more than the version without mmWave. Likewise, the Pixel 4A 5G on Verizon is $100 more than the base $500 price

Apple isn't charging more for mmWave connectivity, and there are no tradeoffs to get the technology since it's automatically in all US iPhone 12 models. 

Where can I get 5G service for the iPhone 12? 

5G is available in many countries around the globe, particularly China and the US. In the US, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile have all turned on their 5G networks, and they continue expanding their coverage footprints. 

T-Mobile completed its acquisition of Sprint at the beginning of April, immediately giving the combined company a big 5G footprint. T-Mobile's nationwide network went live in December, which meant its network covered over 200 million people. And at the beginning of June, it became the first carrier to have 5G coverage in all 50 states. Its 5G network currently covers more than 225 million people. 

AT&T's 5G service now covers over 205 million people, and its low-band network went nationwide in late July. The company also has deployed millimeter-wave 5G, what it calls 5G Plus, in 36 cities around the country. (To further complicate things, the carrier also rebranded its 4G LTE network as 5GE, but we'll get to that in a minute.)


The iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max pack in many new features to attract buyers.


AT&T also has deployed dynamic spectrum sharing in parts of its network, which will speed up its 5G rollout. The technology lets carriers use the same spectrum bands for both 4G and 5G, allowing them to turn on their 5G networks without having to first turn off 4G. Instead of having different roads for buses and cars, DSS is like having one big highway with separate lanes for buses and for cars. 

Though Verizon long has bragged that its 4G network is in more places than its rivals' offerings, it hasn't been able to say the same with 5G. By initially focusing on mmWave, which it calls 5G Ultra Wideband, Verizon limited itself to big markets like New York, Chicago, Denver and Atlanta. As of late November, it's in 55 cities around the US, but its coverage is available only in certain parts of those cities. Much of its investment has focused on football stadiums -- which are empty this NFL season.

Verizon at Apple's October event said it has turned on its low-band, nationwide network. Before the launch, it had been including support for the forthcoming, wider-coverage network in all its 2020 5G devices. 

Will a 5G iPhone work in rural areas?

Rural areas don't have mmWave now, and it's not likely they ever will. Instead, carriers are relying on low-band airwaves, like T-Mobile's 5G network, to bring faster connectivity to more-remote areas. 

Some experts expect 5G to eventually be a boon for rural parts of the US, including areas that still lack home broadband connections of at least 25 Mbps. But others warn it could take several years or more -- if ever -- for carriers to actually deploy 5G in more-remote, sparsely populated parts of the country, so it may not be worth it to snag a new iPhone just for the 5G.

An estimated 18 million people in the US don't have a broadband connection with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second, according to a 2020 tally from the Federal Communications Commission. Experts say the official figures are almost certainly lower than reality because of faulty maps. 

What 5G can do for you besides fast phone downloads

See all photos

The reason rural areas may miss out on 5G, at least for now, is a combination of technology, geography and finances. The key spectrum needed for 5G covers only short distances, runs into problems when there's even a tree in the way and requires lots of expensive towers installed close to each other.

As part of its agreement with the FCC to get the Sprint merger approved, T-Mobile promised to offer 5G service to 97% of the US population within three years, and within six years 99%. For rural Americans, the coverage would be 85% within three years, and 90% within six.

That said, the 5G iPhones will still connect to 4G networks, and the ePhone 12 models tap into the fastest 4G connectivity available. Your phone could be snappier even if it doesn't access 5G networks. 

Do I have to change my carrier service plan to use a 5G iPhone?

It depends on your carrier. For AT&T, you need a new plan, with T-Mobile, you can stick with your current plan, and with Verizon, it depends on which type of 5G you're using. 

Accessing AT&T's 5G network requires a subscription to one of its latest unlimited plans known as Unlimited Starter, Unlimited Extra and Unlimited Elite. For four lines, pricing for Starter begins at $140 a month ($35 a line) but this doesn't include any mobile hotspot, and data can be slowed when the network is congested. If you have an older AT&T service plan, even one that's unlimited, you'll be limited to 4G LTE even if you have a 5G device. 

T-Mobile's 5G plans are less complicated. Any plan, including those of legacy Sprint subscribers, will be able to connect to 5G if you have a 5G device. Of T-Mobile's new plans, a recent promotion takes the cheapest Essentials plan down to $100 a month for four lines ($25 a line). You get unlimited talk, text and data, but mobile hotspot is capped at "max 3G speeds" (which has in the past meant a still-weak 512Kbps). 

Verizon falls somewhere between AT&T and T-Mobile. Anyone who wants to use its low-band nationwide 5G network when it launches later this year will be able to stay on their older plans. But if you want the full Verizon 5G millimeter-wave experience (which currently is live in 36 markets), you'll need to move to one of Verizon's unlimited plans known as Do More, Get More or Play More. Those plans start at $180 a month for four lines. 

AT&T and Verizon also let you mix plans. One line on a family plan could tap into the highest unlimited offering, for instance, while the others could subscribe to the lowest. 

For a deeper dive, check out CNET's roundup of US carrier 5G plans

What does this mean for the 4G iPhone I already own? 

Right now not a lot. There aren't many services that tap into 5G and none that require it. But as 5G becomes more widespread, that could change. Things like mobile gaming and virtual reality will benefit from 5G, and augmented reality could become even snappier and more lifelike. While your current 4G phone won't have trouble using those types of apps now, it could become sluggish as those services become even more advanced.


The iPhone 12 and 12 Mini are virtually identical -- except for their screen sizes and weight.


At the same time, just because 5G is rolling out across the world doesn't mean 4G will stop working. 5G isn't ideal for all situations, and 4G will still be the default connection in most places for a long time. You don't need to throw away your 4G phone and buy a 5G iPhone, even if Apple's hoping you do. But if you're planning to hold onto a phone for several years, you'll want to opt for a 5G model. The connectivity should be widespread by then. 

At the same time, more people on 5G networks means 4G will be less congested. You're likely to see faster 4G speeds with the phone you already have. 

Will a 5G iPhone still work on 4G networks? And will 5G replace 4G?

You won't be able to buy a 5G iPhone that doesn't also have 4G connectivity. 5G isn't widespread in most places, especially rural areas, and phones will fall back to 4G connections when needed. Think about your 4G phone. It still connects to 3G networks in areas where 4G isn't available. 

The move from 4G to 5G is different from past network upgrades. 5G isn't replacing 4G, like how 4G overtook 3G. Instead, 5G is building on 4G LTE, using updated radios and software. By 2025, one in five mobile connections will be running on 5G networks, according to a March report from GSMA Intelligence, the research arm of the mobile operator group that hosts Mobile World Congress. But that same year, 4G LTE will still account for about 56% of all connections. Even if 5G becomes an even bigger part of the market by 2025 than estimated, "it will complement rather than replace LTE," GSMA said in a separate report from last year. 

Right now, 5G networks in the US are something called non-standalone. They need 4G as the anchor to make that initial handshake between a phone and network before passing the device along to a 5G connection. Using non-standalone technology allows carriers to roll out 5G more quickly than if they had to completely overhaul their entire networks with new hardware.

The next flavor of 5G network, called standalone, lets a phone go straight to 5G, but it could take several years to roll out in the US and globally. It's not until late 2021 or early 2022 that standalone networks will really roll out, carriers have said. Having 5G standalone networks will enable features like much lower latency. 

And "once you've got a standalone network, if you've got a dedicated 5G core underpinning it, it gives operators far more flexibility and control over the network," CCS Insight analyst Geoff Blaber said. "There's far more flexibility that paves the way for some of those richer experiences that we hear a lot about."

Doesn't my older AT&T iPhone already say it's 5G?

What it says and what it actually means are two different things. AT&T chose "5G E" branding for its phones that have advanced 4G connectivity. They're faster than older 4G devices, but they're not actually 5G devices. To get onto AT&T's real 5G networks, or any of the other 5G networks, you'll need a new 5G-enabled iPhone 12. 

If I don't want a 5G iPhone, what are the alternatives?

If you need a new iPhone but want to stick with 4G, Apple's $399 iPhone SE, released in April, could be an option. CNET's Patrick Holland called it "one of the best budget phones you can currently buy" and said he's "enamored with it." There are some trade-offs, like only one rear camera lens and no Night Mode, but some of those features won't matter to people looking for a cheaper device

If you want one of Apple's higher-end phones but only want 4G, buying 2019's iPhone 11 could be a safe bet. The company cut the price of that device by $100 to $599, and it also lowered 2018's iPhone XR by $100 to $499. 

At the same time, you can buy a new 5G iPhone and just not access 5G networks or pay for 5G service. The device will still work on 4G networks, and it can tap into even faster 4G connectivity than before. 

Why didn't Apple have a 5G iPhone earlier?

In the US, there's really only one company that supplies 5G modems that connect high-end phones to cellular networks: Qualcomm. The San Diego chipmaker designs the chips used in the vast majority of 5G phones outside China, including Samsung's Galaxy S20 and Note 20 devices.

Qualcomm and Apple had battled over patents and licensing fees at the time most Android companies were developing their 5G phones, and they didn't reach a settlement until April 2019. That resulted in a delay for Apple to get to market with its first 5G phones. While most Android companies use Qualcomm's Snapdragon chip, which combines the modem with the brains of the device, Apple's devices use a custom modem from Qualcomm that goes alongside the iPhone maker's A Series chips. That can't be done overnight. 

What else can 5G be used for besides phones? What about Apple's AR glasses?

5G has the ability to transform more than just phones. It has huge implications for robots, cars, health devices, retail and nearly every industry you can think of. 5G can link streetlights and other devices that haven't been connected to the internet before, with ubiquitous sensors constantly talking to each other. Emergency responders will be able to do more on the scene of an accident, while farmers will be able to monitor their crops and livestock. Even cows could become connected. 

When it comes to Apple, 5G could be important for its long-awaited augmented reality glasses. AR overlays digital images on the real world using special headsets or your phone. Many of the early examples of popular AR applications include games like Pokemon Go or filters and lenses that go over your face on Instagram and Snapchat. Apple's ARKit software tools, introduced three years ago, have made it easy for developers to build AR features into their apps.

The company has been working on glasses that combine AR and VR for years, as reported by CNET. It initially planned to unveil them this year, but the glasses are likely delayed. 

Will my 5G iPhone 12 give me cancer? Or the coronavirus?

Ever since companies first started talking about 5G, there have been concerns expressed by some people about the technology's impact on health. The mmWave version of 5G runs on very-high-frequency radio waves that can't travel long distances. To get a steady connection, towers have to be placed close together and installed in more locations. That's reignited worries that the radio waves could produce harmful radiation that could cause brain cancer, reduced fertility, headaches and other problems.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Communications Commission say there's nothing to worry about because studies haven't found a link between radio frequency signals from cell phones or cell towers and disease. But because 5G is so new, there's no definitive way to know if it will cause long-term health problems. What can be definitively stated is that 5G doesn't cause or spread a virus. 

As the coronavirus first swept the globe, rumors spread about what caused it. One bogus theory that gained steam online is that 5G started the disease. That's completely wrong. The coronavirus mainly spreads from person to person, through respiratory droplets produced by coughing, sneezing, talking and so on. It doesn't travel through something like radio waves. You can't get it from using your phone or watching TV -- unless the phone itself or the remote control is contaminated with the virus. (And all of that is why you should wash your hands frequently, wear a mask, practice social distancing and take other protective measures.)

Brendan Carr, who serves on the FCC, refuted some efforts to link 5G to the coronavirus, saying the rumor "is straight from the most dangerous depths of tinfoil-hat land." He reiterated that the FCC, Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency all say 5G is safe.