AT&T 5G: Our tests yield the wildest speeds yet

At the AT&T Shape conference, we get a taste of the carrier's blazing 5G speeds. And they sure make for smooth mole-whacking.

Patrick Holland Managing Editor
Patrick Holland has been a phone reviewer for CNET since 2016. He is a former theater director who occasionally makes short films. Patrick has an eye for photography and a passion for everything mobile. He is a colorful raconteur who will guide you through the ever-changing, fast-paced world of phones, especially the iPhone and iOS. He used to co-host CNET's I'm So Obsessed podcast and interviewed guests like Jeff Goldblum, Alfre Woodard, Stephen Merchant, Sam Jay, Edgar Wright and Roy Wood Jr.
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  • Patrick's play The Cowboy is included in the Best American Short Plays 2011-12 anthology. He co-wrote and starred in the short film Baden Krunk that won the Best Wisconsin Short Film award at the Milwaukee Short Film Festival.
Patrick Holland
5 min read

We tested AT&T's 5G network for the first time on a Galaxy S10 5G.

Logan Moy/CNET

It's fitting that I tested AT&T's 5G network at the Warner Bros. studio in Los Angeles. Both Hollywood and 5G aim to take our wildest ideas and make them real. In AT&T's case, it's the promise of high-speed mobile data over a cellular network, which could revolutionize how we use our phones, computers and connected devices. In the little time I spent testing 5G speeds at the AT&T Shape conference at Warner Bros., I was blown away by how fast they were. They cruised past the speeds we've witnessed in similar early 5G tests done with Verizon and Sprint.

AT&T is the third US carrier over the past few months to give us a taste of the power and potential of 5G. After a less than stellar preview in April, Verizon flexed its blazing speed muscles in May around select parts of Chicago on its 5G network. Later that month, Sprint showed off its 5G network in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and it proved impressive in terms of its reliability and the size of its coverage -- even if Verizon's demo was faster. AT&T's approach was to show off a 5G-connected campus on the Warner Bros. lot. Imagine, for example, a film crew being able to instantly share footage with someone on the other side of the lot across a lightning-fast network.

5G is the next generation of cellular technology, and it should allow for faster data speeds with incredibly low latency. The new generation of wireless innovation could lead to a slew of uses that are practical, like downloading movies to our phones in seconds or streaming AR or VR games without lag -- but also hopeful, like being a harbinger for technologies that have yet to be envisioned. The latter could truly revolutionize industries, from self-driving cars to remote medical procedures.

Watch this: AT&T 5G network has some of the fastest speeds we've seen

Usain Bolt-fast 5G speeds

Armed with a Galaxy S10 5G phone, I ran a dozen speed tests around a square back lot at Warner Bros. that was dotted with 5G millimeter wave nodes on rooftops. I was able to measure upload and download speeds and to download hours of movies and TV shows in a matter of seconds. The takeaway? AT&T 5G Plus is faster than The Flash when he has to pee. I got speeds that were consistently over 1Gbps, often hitting 1.6 to 1.7Gbps. That's six times faster than my home internet.

I ran 12 tests with the Speedtest.net benchmarking app to measure speeds, and eight were over 1.4Gbps. The top speed was 1.782Gbps, which is faster than the top speed of 1.3Gbps we experienced on Verizon's 5G network in Chicago and well above the 484Mbps top mark we recorded in Dallas on Sprint's 5G network.

I downloaded and installed PUBG Mobile, which is 1.96GB, in 27 seconds while the download and install time was one minute and 23 seconds. The first season of Blue Planet II (six hours of video) took 17 seconds to download with the Netflix app. And the first four episodes of The Swamp Thing downloaded from the DC app took 52 seconds.

To see how AT&T's 5G speeds compare to Verizon and Sprint, read: Verizon vs. AT&T vs. Sprint 5G throwdown: The battle rages on.

From what I experienced on Saturday, 5G is still very much in its raw cookie dough state. Networks are still being built out, and the tests I ran were a small but wonderful tease of what our future wireless connections should be able to do.

But it's worth noting that the speeds I experienced on AT&T's 5G Plus are available only in small zones for businesses like Warner Bros. and Magic Leap. Consumers could have to wait until at least 2020 before they can experience these insane speeds themselves.

From Apple to Samsung: 5G phones available right now

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Low latency is the real game-changer for 5G

Speed is just one part of what makes 5G so appealing, though. At the Shape conference, AT&T made a point to emphasize 5G's worth to businesses and developers. Interactive demos by companies like Magic Leap, Nvidia, Nokia, Google and IBM gave me a tiny glimpse into how that 5G speed can bring creative dreams and utilities a step closer to reality. As I came across these demonstrations, though, I began to notice 5G's true secret weapon: really low latency. Latency is the time it takes your computer or gaming console to send data to an online server and get data back. The less time this takes, the better.

A whack-a-mole-style game from Ericsson showed off how vastly different the latency is between 5G, 4G and 3G connections. Instead of moles, there was an arcade table console that had small plastic circles across the top. When a circle lit up, you simply pressed it to get a point. While it sounds easy enough, when I played the game I wore a VR headset with cameras on the front. I could see only the live feed inside the headset, which was streamed over a 5G connection. Gameplay felt natural and easy until the connection switched to 4G. Once that kicked in, my timing was immediately off. Things got much worse when the connection switched to 3G. This demo was such an effective and fun way to show how 5G's latency is crazy low, it became one of my most memorable takeaways.

In addition, Nvidia showed off its GeForce Now, a cloud streaming service for games. I played Batman Arkham City over 5G and had no idea I wasn't playing a local copy. Movements were smooth and reflexive gameplay felt no different than on a PlayStation. 

Low latency won't make headlines, but it means businesses can use cloud computing to create more-powerful experiences on our phones and devices. And I think it's smart that AT&T is rolling out its 5G network to businesses and developers first. Back when Apple first released the iPhone, there wasn't an app store until a year later. Perhaps it would have been better for the apps develop first, since they were what made the iPhone truly so innovative.

AT&T is pushing businesses and developers to discover compelling uses for 5G. And those uses will be what ultimately makes 5G go mainstream to consumers. Until then, expect more speed tests and 5G phones that are aimed at early adopters.

Originally published June 22, 11:41 a.m. PT
Update, 6:48 p.m.: Adds details on speeds and demos.

Update, June 25, 12:30 p.m.: Adds possible timing of 5G rollout to consumers