After a rough start, Verizon, the top wireless services provider in the US, showed off the blazing speeds that 5G is capable of. Now it's Sprint's turn. In a bid to prove its 5G readiness, the country's fourth-largest network operator turned on its network in areas of Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Kansas City on Thursday. In the coming weeks, Sprint expects to launch service in parts of Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Phoenix and Washington, D.C. The company claims the roughly 2,180 square miles of coverage, which covers 11.5 million people, makes it the largest 5G network in the country.
Ahead of the May 31 launch of the LG V50 -- a $1,152 5G phone distinguished by its second-screen attachment that won't be made available in the US -- Sprint invited CNET to try out the phone and its 5G coverage in Dallas. We put the LG V50 through multiple tests in a variety of locations to preview what consumers can expect from the service and whether they should consider buying in yet.
Sprint is the latest to company to hitch its wagon to the excitement over 5G. In perfect conditions, 5G will allow us to download movies to our phones in seconds or stream AR/VR games without lag. Beyond phones, it could revolutionize whole industries, from self-driving cars to remote medical procedures. 5G is still a work in progress, though, and is years away from reaching those levels of speed (as Thursday's tests prove), coverage or reliability. But like the other wireless carriers, Sprint wants lead the way in giving its customers a next-generation experience.
Downloading on 5G was (mostly) a breeze
We timed how long it would take to download PUBG Mobile, a 1.86GB file. The V50 took only 3 minutes and 31 seconds to download and install the game, whereas the G8 on 4G LTE had only installed 73MB (3% of the file) of the game in that same period.
Afterward, we moved onto big media files. We downloaded the first episode of Blue Planet 2 on Netflix in high quality, and the entire season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel from Prime Video. The 50-minute Blue Planet episode took 49 seconds to fully download on the V50. The G8 on 4G LTE wasn't even a quarter of the way through downloading the episode in that same period.
As for all eight episodes of the first season of Mrs Maisel, that took just four minutes and 5 seconds. This would give you plenty of time, say, to quickly download a full season of a show as you board a plane after realizing last-minute you didn't save any offline entertainment. The G8, unfortunately, was still far from completing the download of the pilot episode by the time the V50 finished downloading the season.
There was one instance, however, when 5G was slower than expected. While downloading Wine Country, a one hour and 43 minute movie from Netflix, the phone stalled after it reached 90% in a couple of minutes. After restarting the test twice, both 5G and 4G LTE connections were incredibly slow. In the end, it took three minutes and 45 seconds to download the movie on 5G (the G8 on LTE made no progress the entire time). That's a great time to clock in on LTE, but it felt somehow glacial on 5G (we've been spoiled!). Sprint later told us the location experienced "heavy load testing" that might have caused problems at the site. We do believe the result was wonky because we ran a speed test a few minutes later, and timed our fastest results yet (more on that below).
Speed tests: Sprint vs. Verizon
We used the Speedtest.net app to compare 5G speeds on the LG V50 to 4G LTE on another premium LG phone, the LG G8. Average download speed was 109 megabits per second (Mbps) over six trials, compared to 3.74Mbs download on the G8. As for upload rates, that was being carried out by Sprint's 4G LTE network. Because 80% of traffic on its network are on the downlink, Sprint prioritized fast download speeds only on 5G. However, 5G will handle uplinks "in the coming weeks," said Sprint.
At another location in downtown Dallas, we ran another series of speed tests. This time, speeds topped at 434Mbps, the fastest we saw all day. That's impressive, but not nearly as fast as what we saw on Verizon's 5G network earlier this month, which topped out at 1 gigabyte per second. Note, however that Verizon's millimeter wave-based network is faster but has a shorter range, whereas Sprint's 5G is based on a 2.5GHz mid-band radio airwaves, which offer a nice mix of speed and coverage range. For more on how these two 5G networks compare, read: Verizon 5G vs. Sprint: We put real-world download speeds to the test.
One important thing we kept in mind while we tested was the fact that hardly anyone was on 5G. As one of the few people that were able to test Sprint's network on its inaugural day, its understandable that we sped along as were just part of a handful of cars on the highway, so to say. As more people buy 5G phones and get on 5G, network speeds will surely be impacted.
5G on the go, in a bus and a car
Unlike Verizon's 5G network, you don't have to be near or within eyesight of a node to get high-speed data from Sprint. To get a sense of the network's consistency while traveling, we hopped on a shuttled bus to take a small route around Dallas. We watched the data speeds of a V50 on screens that hung above our seats. On the left of the screen we watched the download rate, which we saw clock in at 700Mbps during the ride.
Every now and then the rate dipped to 4G speeds as the device started a new cycle during testing, but Sprint claimed that when users experienced a hand-off, they would not discern any differences in service. On the right was our route traced out in real time. The route was drawn in green to denote 5G and when our coverage switched to 4G LTE, it was supposed to turn black. During our 25 minute ride though, we didn't see it make the switch, meaning the 5G connection remained consistent.
A few hours later in the afternoon, we took a 20 minute car ride from a town north of Dallas named Addison toward downtown Dallas. We cruised at about 60 miles an hour and throughout the ride we saw the icon switch between 5G and 4G LTE. As we ran speed tests, download rates reached as low as 10Mbps and as high as 168Mbps. So while Sprint's network is broad, it doesn't have blanketed coverage all around its markets.
LG V50 impressions and battery life
The LG V50 packs a 4,000-mAh battery, and Sprint claimed that you should expect a similar battery life on 5G as you would other high-end phones operating on 4G LTE. We started testing our phone in earnest at 1:00 p.m. with the battery at 82%. By the afternoon at 4:39 p.m. when we wrapped up the last of our tests, the phone was at 32%. Finally, after about three more hours on standby, the phone had 19% of its reserves left at 8 p.m.
Because that's definitely longer than a work day, I consider the battery life to be pretty solid. We put the phone through a lot of tests, downloaded tons of things and the screen was set from 50% to 80% brightness the whole time. While it needed juice at the end of the night, battery didn't become a concern at any point in the day.
In general, the V50 is solid phone to debut a 5G phone with. I only spent one day with it, but its big 6.4-inch OLED display was sharp and vibrant, and the fact that it was water resistant gave me extra peace of mind as I was running around town with it. It's also one of the last few high-end phones with a headphone jack. The phone is wide though, so it was hard to maneuver with one hand, and the back got pretty scuffed up at the end of the day -- perhaps because I was laying it down on stone surfaces.
Overall, speeds were incredibly fast. In some spots we averaged 100Mbps and other times we topped over 400Mbps. We were particularly impressed with how quickly the LG V50 downloaded a full season of a show under five minutes.
Compared with Verizon though, we never came close to topping 1 gigabit per second. The S10 5G was also able to download PUB-G about a full minute faster than we did. But Sprint's approach to 5G isn't necessarily about peak performance or having the highest speeds. Instead, it wants to offer an excellent, reliable experience for the average user, and for the most part, that's what we got.
What we liked most was that we didn't have to be near any nods or towers to get 5G. We simply drove up to a designated area and we were consistently connected to the network. There were some exceptions -- like while we were in the car or downloading Wine Country -- but for the most part the ordeal went smoothly.
Personally I wouldn't go out and buy a 5G phone right now. The technology is still very expensive for consumers: the LG V50 is $1,152 and the Galaxy S10 5G that will come to Sprint in the end of June costs around $1,300. In addition, Sprint's Premium Unlimited plan to access 5G costs $80 to $90 a month. Meanwhile, 5G is only available in a handful of cities for each carrier. That'll change as the year progresses, so I'd wait at least until the end of this year or into 2020.
Still, it's promising. 4G LTE enabled lots of industries to flourish, like video streaming and rideshare services. While we don't know exactly what kind of niche companies will be on the horizon with 5G (and it's no guarantee that every company that emerges will have a positive impact), we're excited to get yet another glimpse of 5G's capabilities.
LG V50 doubles the fun with a second-screen accessory
The story originally published on May 30, 7:30 a.m. PT.
Update, 8:57 a.m. PT: Adds clarification that the 5G networks are being turned on. 9:33 a.m. PT: Adds early speed test results. 11:33 a.m. PT: Adds test tweet comparing 5G to 4G LTE. 3:27 p.m. PT: Adds "On the go" testing section.
Update, May 31, 3:00 a.m. PT: Adds additional testing information and "Final Thoughts" and "Battery" sections. 11:10 a.m. PT: Adds hands-on impressions of LG V50 and Galaxy S10 5G availability on Sprint.