Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Thought Leadership, Speed Desk and How-To. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds.
Jessica led CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
ExpertiseContent strategy, team leadership, audience engagement, iPhone, Samsung, Android, iOS, tips and FAQs.
We all know that
phones are expensive. The ability to connect to ultrafast networks is seen as a premium nice-to-have, but not need-to-have feature that raises the price of any phone by hundreds. High prices will deter billions of people from switching over from 4G phones to faster 5G. Affordable 5G
for all are on the horizon, but good 5G budget phones are still years away.
5G phones are so expensive because the devices and the wireless networks they use cost billions to build. That price trickles down to you. There are a handful of 5G phones that cost less than $1,000, but they trade off features for price and many don't sell widely. Take, for example, the Xiaomi Mi 9 Pro. At $520, it sets an early blueprint for cheap 5G phones, but its limited availability keeps it from coming to US customers.
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With 5G at such a premium, it'll take years for the benefits to become widespread at every tier. Here's what the roadmap looks like to get cheaper 5G phones for all.
Watch this: 5G made simple
"We do see 5G devices becoming quite mainstream," said Durga Malladi, senior vice president and general manager of
4G and 5G chip business, which plays a role in the cost of building a 5G phone. "We can see the price trajectory going in the right direction."
The high price is a stumbling block to a technology that offers huge benefits. 5G is poised to make data transfer speeds 10 to 100 times faster than they are today, with almost no connection lag. 5G represents a leap forward in the kind of things we'll be able to do on our phones, from ultrahigh video resolution to real-time 3D gaming, which is why phone-makers are pushing hard to make it so. (Here's when 5G will actually start affecting your life.)
Cheaper 5G phones are coming, but it'll take a combination of factors to make the phones as inexpensive as good budget and midrange 4G handsets are today.
Another wrinkle is that most of the chips aren't integrated yet -- the modem inside the device that makes the actual connection to the network is on a separate chip from everything else. A separate modem means one more element that the phone-makers have to buy.
Watch this: 5G means more than just fast downloads to your phone
Separating the modem also takes up more space inside the phone's cavity, which means less room for the battery. That's why you see this dual 5G-chip combination in larger phones that have more room for a large battery, to keep power reserves as full as possible while using battery-hungry 5G.
Change is on the way
Separate 5G chipsets and modems may not be the norm for long. Qualcomm is working on a way to integrate the two into a single unit. The world's largest mobile chipmaker also plans to eventually make 5G available on multiple carrier bands. Both these changes will simplify what it takes to build a 5G phone, which in turn should make them cheaper to make and maintain.
Competition will also help lower the price, especially if players like MediaTek, known for undercutting Qualcomm on
and modems, can target the 5G midrange chipset market abroad. Qualcomm itself is also committed to making a midrange 5G processor for cheaper phones.
are other chipset rivals that make processors in-house. As a heavy hitter in 5G networking equipment, Huawei has the advantage when it comes to producing cheaper 5G chips, especially for the world's largest market, China.
The ongoing question, of course, is when we start seeing these cheaper 5G phones emerge.
"As 5G modems start to get integrated into core mobile processors, which vendors like Qualcomm are expected to do in 2020, then that will enable lower-cost 5G phones, but many of those won't be available until the end of next year or into 2021," said Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at market research firm Technalysis.
Mind the trade-off
5G is synonymous with incredible speeds, but -- at least initially -- cheaper 5G phones will have to make some deep compromises to hit a cheaper price. Expect these budget 5G phones to get slower-than-peak 5G speeds, have a lower-powered camera, scaled-back graphics and shorter battery life than more souped-up models.
Over time, some of those features will get better. This happened with 4G, and it will happen with 5G again.
But making a budget 5G phone for the sake of it isn't the right approach, said Qualcomm's Malladi, since you'll need a basic set of features to make the 5G experience worthwhile, like enough battery capacity to support faster speeds, and processors fast enough to take advantage of the increased data you'll draw down.
For example, if 5G speeds lead to killer AR apps, but your phone isn't powerful enough to render those AR graphics without major lag time, you won't be very happy with your phone.
"If you put out a $399 5G phone [today], you're going to have to sacrifice a lot of the elements that people value," Francoise Laflamme,
chief strategy and marketing officer, told CNET in August.
We may start seeing those less expensive 5G phones in the first half of 2020, but don't hold your breath for good, cheap 5G phones to replace 4G phones quite yet.
Galaxy S10 5G set the pace for Samsung's 5G phones