Galaxy Note 9's 5G dilemma: Upgrade now or wait for 2019's mobile revolution

We're on the cusp of massive improvements.

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Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
5 min read

The Galaxy Note 9 comes with new bells and whistles, but they may pale in comparison to next year's upgrade. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's a fine example of a first-world problem: Spend $1,000 on the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 now, or endure the wait until next year and the potentially massive upgrades to come.

That's a decision some of you will have to make after Samsung unveiled its Note 9 on Thursday.

To be fair, this is a question everyone could ask themselves. But it's a particular dilemma for Note loyalists, who tend to be particularly into the latest and greatest. In Samsung's own words, Note customers are "looking for the best of the best when it comes to technology," according to Suzanne De Silva, director of product marketing for its US business.

Watch this: Galaxy Note 9's S Pen stylus is a remote control

But what if the best right now pales in comparison to mega upgrades we'll see next year? The long-anticipated appearance of a fingerprint sensor embedded in the display is widely expected to show up in the Galaxy S10, and presumably the Note 10 as well. We may also finally see Samsung's foldable phone.

The most important advancement, however, will be the ability to tap into the supersonic 5G networks that the carriers are busy building now. That next-generation wireless technology is poised to spur a mobile revolution with enhanced speeds and responsiveness, and the carriers are falling all over themselves hyping up its potential.  

Galaxy Note 9 looks stunning in these photos

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Keep in mind that typical consumers -- even diehard Note fans -- will own their phones for several years. So anyone investing the significant sum to buy a Note 9, which is pricier than the previous version, will do so knowing they'll miss the 5G revolution for one or two generations. And for this crowd, 5G isn't just an ambiguous term. They're probably already salivating over the millimeter wave-powered throughput (translation: a really, really fast connection).

"They definitely are super tech conscious," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst for Creative Strategies.

Making matters worse are the few upgrades Note 9 users will be getting this year. The highlights of the phone include a battery with 21 percent more capacity and a camera that recognizes and optimizes itself for different kinds of scenery. Many of the core internals are already found in the less-expensive Samsung Galaxy S9 or Galaxy S9 Plus.

Samsung doesn't consider this an issue for the most loyal Note fans.

"The most Note-y of the Note users are upgrading every year," Drew Blackard, senior director of marketing for Samsung, said at the sideline of Thursday's launch event. He noted that the company introduced a trade-in program last year to make it easier to upgrade annually.

(Check out CNET's guide to trading in your phone.)

But if you plan to keep your phone for a while, what do you do?

Let the 5G hype begin

Tech-savvy consumers -- and most Note users are -- will have inevitably heard about 5G. Not familiar with the term? Don't worry, the carriers will be blasting it come 2019 when many of the networks go online.

AT&T will launch its 5G network later this year in three cities, with more likely to come next year. Verizon will likewise have 5G available in four cities this year, but only as a replacement for DSL or cable. A mobile service is expected early next year.

Samsung Unpacked 2018 Galaxy Note 9 event in photos

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T-Mobile plans to go big, launching in 30 cities, including big markets like New York and Los Angeles, in 2019. It expects nationwide coverage in the following year. Sprint is shooting for six cities next year, although plans could change if T-Mobile and Sprint seal their merger agreement.

How big of a jump are we talking about? Brian Higgins, vice president of device and product marketing at Verizon, said a 5G modem could get speeds of 5 gigabits a second. Verizon currently averages slightly more than 20 megabits -- yes megabits -- per second, according to a July report by testing firm OpenSignal.

The first phones with 5G will debut next year in the second quarter, according to Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon.

"From a user standpoint, even when you are at the edge of the network, in very poor signal conditions, your movie download, your upload of high-definition photos is going to be seamless," Amon said on the sidelines of the Samsung event. 

In other words, you're not going to want to miss this.

The case for upgrading now

Still, there's something to be said about instant gratification. 

"The Note 9 serves primarily to keep the Note customer base happy until the anticipated design changes expected in 2019 along with new technologies like foldable displays," said IHS analyst Wayne Lam.

It's also unclear how much benefit you'll get from these advances in the near term. For instance, those 5G networks aren't going to be ubiquitous, and depending on your carrier, they may not even be available in 2019.

That optimistic estimate by Verizon will only work if you're actually in the 5G coverage area, which also isn't a guarantee given how sporadic the carrier rollouts will be.

Although it doesn't support 5G, the Galaxy Note 9 will come with the same advanced modem that was in the Galaxy S9, meaning it is optimized for the carrier's LTE Advanced networks. For instance, both the GS9 and Galaxy Note 9 are tuned to run on T-Mobile's 600 megahertz spectrum, a new swath of radio airwaves promising improved coverage across the nation.

As far as other upgrades go, embedding the fingerprint sensor under the display is a nice feature, but isn't a huge step up from the option of unlocking the phone with a reader on the back. The foldable phone, meanwhile, could just be a gimmick with little practical value in the near term. (Samsung insists it won't be.)

"Some are truly driven by the taste of cutting edge technology, others will wait to see if the tech is proven," Blackard said. "For those users, they can enjoy the Note 9."

CNET's Shara Tibken contributed to this report.

The story originally published at 5 a.m. PT. 

Update, 10:25 a.m. PT: Includes analyst comment. 

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