Verizon and Samsung are both restless to get the 5G data speeds that signify a world of ludicrously fast downloads, real-time sports streaming from every angle and pin-sharp online games off the ground. Last week's test of the Galaxy S10 5G in Chicago planted that flag for both of them, one that wavered precariously when I first tested Verizon's then-day-old 5G network -- an experience that left me frustrated and concerned about the reality of what we've been promised. But even though insanely fast download speeds breaking 1Gbps restored my faith in what's to come -- that's about 4x faster than my home internet -- there's still a long road from these early tests to 5G that everyone can use.
5G represents a huge shift for data connections. Not only will you get those ultra-fast downloads, but 5G is credited with being able to bring advanced new AR and camera features to life, and paving the way for remote surgery, connected security cameras and cars and buses that talk to each other on the road. Carriers that can build out the most robust networks first believe they'll have an advantage over rivals for signing on new subscribers.
However, it'll take years for most people to even get ultrafast speeds. 5G phones will cost more, and the service will, too. For example, the S10 5G costs $1,300, which is $300, or 30%, more than the already premium Galaxy S10 Plus. My 5G test in Chicago produced amazing download speeds, but only in specific pockets that Verizon tightly controlled. During my first Verizon 5G test, with the Moto Z3 and 5G Moto Mod in April, speeds were all over the place, a result that demonstrates how wrong 5G can go.
When everything's right, a large game can download in under two and a half minutes (versus 6 minutes over 4G) and an almost two-hour Netflix movie can download in just more than eight seconds (rather than the 15 minutes it took my over a 4G connection). When it goes wrong, your 5G speeds could be inconsistent, if you find them at all.
Here's what went right this time around and why you shouldn't run out and buy a 5G phone.
Ultra fast real-world tests blew my mind
Even more impressive and important than these benchmarking speeds are the real-world tests of downloading movies, TV shows and large apps. It's those that really convey what it will be like to live life in 5G. At one fast spot (and with a 4G phone serving as a stopwatch), I downloaded Season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (in 4K) from Amazon Prime Video in under 5 minutes. That's roughly 10 hours of footage. The 4G phone took 4 minutes to finish downloading the first episode.
At another location, I downloaded and installed the 1.86GB game PUBG in under 2.5 minutes on 5G. It took just over 3 minutes on 5G, which still demonstrates an advantage since Google Play's servers haven't been optimized for Verizon's 5G network, the carrier said.
Similarly, an almost 2-hour movie (Wine Country) downloaded from Netflix in just over 8 seconds. The second attempt took slightly longer, at 10.4 seconds. After two attempts to download over 4G, I gave up after the progress wheels failed to advance two minutes into the download.
Verizon spokespeople suggested that Amazon Prime Video and Netflix have been optimized for its 5G network in varying degrees, something I've asked for clarity on.
The startling real-world download results are encouraging because it means that in the best-case network scenario, you can achieve lightning fast download speeds (it stormed during our tests, so there was actual lightning). It's clear that Verizon has worked to tune its network. Ahead of today's test, Haberman said to expect improved performance, but not improved coverage, though that's coming as well.
"You'll easily see a doubling of sites in the next month," Haberman said over the phone, while also emphasizing Verizon's commitment to launching 5G in 30 US markets by the end of 2019.
Read: How to see 5G networks where you live
Galaxy S10 5G data tests broke the 1Gbps barrier
I took a loaner Galaxy S10 5G that Samsung had preloaded with an account and apps like Speedtest.net, Amazon Prime Video and Netflix out into Chicago for testing. Because coverage is limited to specific areas where Verizon has set up its 5G network nodes, we couldn't just go anywhere we wanted.
For example, you can't use 5G signal most places indoors (Verizon's store on Michigan Avenue is one exception). But we did hit seven areas around downtown.
I ran at least two speeds tests at each of these stops, both on the Galaxy S10 5G and on a 4G-only Galaxy S10 Plus, both on Verizon's network and both using the Verizon Speedtest.net server. Speeds consistently ranged from 400Mbps up past 1Gbps, hitting those peaks in four different locations (oftentimes, but not always, more than once).
While download speeds are 5G, upload speeds are still in 4G ranges, which Verizon is well aware of.
"With the state of the software and where it was, we just needed to see very good reliability," Verizon's network VP, Mike Haberman, told journalists on a call ahead of these Galaxy S10 5G tests in Chicago and Minneapolis. "With the NR uplink in the very early version of the software, we weren't seeing that reliability...so it's an evolution," he said, adding that getting download speeds reliable was more important.
"When you think of 5G, you think of the download," Haberman said.
Read: Verizon uses mmWave 5G, but there are different kinds. Here's what you should know
The Galaxy S10 5G's battery life held on, but...
At 10 a.m., the Galaxy S10 5G started at 100% battery. By 2 p.m., it was at 53%, and at 3:30 p.m., it had dipped down to 40%. That's a steep decline on a device with a 4,500mAh battery. I think the phone actually did OK considering that I pummeled it nonstop with download requests and kept its 6.7-inch screen on full brightness for five and a half hours.
Verizon says it can do better. "You can expect [the phone's battery life] to be augmented. That's not something Samsung does,
Haberman said, "That's something done on the network."
What makes this Verizon 5G test different than the last
This test with the Galaxy S10 5G gave us much better results than our first test using Motorola's Moto Z3, and there are numerous reasons for that.
- Verizon has had 6 weeks to tune its network
- The Galaxy S10 5G has its own 5G modem (Qualcomm X50), where the Moto Z3 gets 5G data through its magnetic Moto Mod.
- The 5G UWB logo (Ultra-wideband) is smaller and didn't flicker as much, giving a more stable indication of when you're using 5G data (the icon drops back to 4G when you're not using 5G data).
- Verizon set expectations on where to stand and what to expect (e.g., the sweet spot is between 100 and 300 feet away within line of sight of the 5G node).
Despite great results, 5G has a long way to go
5G is an inevitability, but right now we're getting a curated sampler platter. The buffet isn't quite ready. Here are the major issues.
- Network coverage: There's not enough to go around yet and it isn't clear what happens when more people come on board.
- Cost: 5G phones cost hundreds more and you should expect to pay more for a plan (Verizon suspended its $10 monthly surcharge for now).
- 70% signal loss of Verizon's mmWave type of 5G through windows and walls, which means you won't get it indoors if nodes are outside (nearly all will be at the start).
- It will take years to get those next-generation benefits like streaming real-time sports from any angle.
- Qualcomm's 5G chips are already obsolete.
From Apple to Samsung: 5G phones available right nowSee all photos
This round of Chicago tests was certainly promising, but it's good to remember that these next-gen "G" rollouts don't happen overnight. This is a reality that affects every one of these fledgling networks.
If money is no object and you're yearning to be ready when 5G comes on board in your area, the S10 5G is a large-screen phone with proven performance (it shares core features with the Galaxy S10 Plus). The rest of us should see these first phones and networks as a starting point that will become more robust and compelling with time. 5G will be up and coming for years while the carriers and phone-makers work out the kinks. Most of us will have to be patient.
Originally published May 16, 8:46 a.m. PT and updated most recently May 20 at 5 a.m. PT.