Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G, like all early 5G phones, isn't a good deal just yet
Even though the AT&T and T-Mobile versions will have Qualcomm's newest 5G modem, the phone won't be able to tap into all flavors of 5G.
Shara TibkenFormer 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."
5G's just getting started, and many companies, including Apple, don't yet have a phone that taps into the super-fast network. With the addition of the Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G, though, Samsung will have two. But that doesn't mean you should buy either one right now.
Along with introducing two new Note 10 phones at an event Wednesday in Brooklyn, New York, Samsung unveiled a variant of the Galaxy Note 10 Plus that works with 5G. Initially, the $1,300 phone will be available only on Verizon before moving to other 5G networks. Later this year, a version with a different modem for AT&T and T-Mobile will become available, and if you live in South Korea and other markets outside the US, you'll be able to buy the smaller Note 10 with a 5G connection.
"Samsung is at the forefront of innovations that's making this possible," DJ Koh, Samsung's co-CEO overseeing mobile, said Wednesday during the company's Unpacked event.
Just because you can buy a 5G phone doesn't mean you should.
Watch this: Galaxy Note and Note 10 Plus are here to wow you
5G is touted as a game-changing technology, with the ability to dramatically boost the speed and coverage of wireless networks. It can run between 10 and 100 times faster than your typical 4G cellular connection today. And latency, the amount of time between when your phone pings the network and when it responds, is faster than what Wi-Fi provides.
The first 5G phones in the US, including the Verizon version of the Note 10 Plus 5G, use Qualcomm's X50 modem, which only taps into certain flavors of 5G. That includes the ultra-fast millimeter wave networks of Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, and Sprint's midband network. It can connect to some low-band, sub-6Ghz networks as well, but not the kind favored by AT&T and T-Mobile in their broader network rollouts.
Millimeter wave is capable of high speeds, but it doesn't travel long distances and is easily blocked by buildings and trees. It'll largely be available in cities like Chicago and in places like arenas. Sub-6Ghz technology isn't nearly as fast, but it's more stable and can travel longer distances.
AT&T and T-Mobile have been waiting for a phone that works on their sub-6Ghz networks before they turn them on. The next Qualcomm modem, the X55, can tap into that version of sub-6Ghz, along with midband and millimeter wave networks. It'll be in the AT&T and T-Mobile version of the phone by the end of the year, likely making the Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G the first device in the world to have the new modem.
Suzanne de Silva, director of product management for Samsung Electronics America, said the Note 10 Plus offers enough of a value proposition beyond the network capabilities.
We "make sure the value proposition of the devices can stand on their own," she said. "Then there's the added benefit of being able to have a device that has 5G in it today. It can grow with those networks."
But if you want to be able to access the broadest range of 5G connections, you may want to wait.
Waiting for the X55
Network limitations are supposed to go away with the X55. The modem, which'll be available in a wide range of devices next year, will be able to run on older generations of wireless technology in addition to 5G, addressing a lot of the X50 issues. You'll also be able to switch between carriers with the same phone -- something you can't do with current 5G devices, which are tied to a specific network. And we could get unlocked 5G phones, much like what's available with 4G LTE devices.
In the case of AT&T, the X55-enabled Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G will let the company finally start offering its 5G service to consumers, instead of just businesses, as it does today. AT&T and T-Mobile both plan to offer nationwide 5G coverage next year.
"We have a pretty aggressive plan to get sub-6 introduced as soon as the ecosystem is ready to support devices," said Gordon Mansfield, AT&T's vice president of converged access and device technology. "We expect that late this year, we will light up our [consumer] network."
AT&T and T-Mobile didn't immediately say why the Note 10 Plus 5G won't work on their millimeter wave networks (the X55 supports the various 5G bands), but it's likely because of the extra antennas required for millimeter wave. Because the signal can be blocked if your hand covers an antenna in the phone, devices using millimeter wave require three or four modules spread around the device. If you cover one of the antennas with your hand, the others can maintain the 5G link.
But the modules add cost and impact the design. There's less room for a bigger battery or other components in the device, and it's part of the reason why the Galaxy S10 5G was larger than its 4G siblings.
Early next year, Qualcomm will integrate the X55 capabilities into a new Snapdragon processor that combines the brains of a phone with the modem. That'll make phones even cheaper and more power efficient, among other benefits.
Samsung at MWC in February said it's planning to use the new integrated chip in future Galaxy S devices (possibly starting with 2020's Galaxy S11). That could mean that device doesn't command as much of a premium as the Note 10 Plus 5G (which costs $200 more than the 4G version) or the Galaxy S10 5G (which is $400 more than its 4G sibling).
Fixing the Galaxy S10 5G's problems
If, however, you must buy a 5G Samsung phone right now, the Note 10 variant may be your best bet. It costs the same as the Galaxy S10 5G but comes with a stylus and slightly bigger display. And if you're a Verizon customer, it will work on the initial network the carrier is rolling out.
"Power and performance users will want the best of everything, and 5G is the fastest and lowest latency connectivity," Moor Insights and Strategy analyst Patrick Moorhead said. "Those users will think the extra investment is worth it."
Verizon said it doesn't plan to lower the price for the Galaxy S10 5G. The carrier declined to say how many Galaxy S10 5G units it has sold since the phone went on sale in mid-May, but Brian Higgins, Verizon vice president of product and device marketing, noted that demand has been "in line with expectations."
Because the Note 10 Plus 5G lags behind the S10 variant by about three months, Samsung has learned from the problems faced by the earlier phone. The Galaxy S10 5G phone had issues with overheating, with some reviewers going so far as to carry around ice chests to cool down their devices.
Samsung said it has included an improved vapor chamber, with about a gram of water, in the Note 10 Plus 5G to stop the device from overheating (it's designed to keep the Note cool during gaming but also should help when accessing 5G, Samsung said). And Samsung has tweaked the software in its phones to improve energy consumption. That's something it'll also improve in the Galaxy S10 5G.
"The algorithms for thermal management are always continually improving," de Silva said. She added that the company has been working with network and chip partners to optimize the devices for 5G.
Though 5G phones will keep getting better, there's only so much the current generation of devices will be able to do. If you want a phone you can use for two, three or even more years, it's better to wait for the Galaxy S11.
Originally published at 1 p.m. PT
Update at 3:10 p.m. PT: Adds comment from Samsung co-CEO.