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Why iPhone 12's 5G won't completely drain its battery

5G is a known battery hog. Smart Data Mode is Apple's way of getting around the problem.

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The iPhone 12 family finally give Apple users access to 5G. But there are potential drawbacks to watch out for. 

Apple

For anyone fortunate enough to get a 5G signal -- particularly the super-fast version that Verizon touts -- the speeds can be mind-blowing. But the price you pay on battery life is equally jaw-dropping because 5G is a power hog. Fortunately, Apple thought this through with its iPhone 12 family.

Apple's newest phones, all of which are 5G-capable, have a feature called Smart Data Mode that lets an iPhone 12 automatically choose which network to run on. And it isn't just based on what network is available. The phone will actually figure out the best network -- either 4G or the many flavors of 5G -- based on what you're doing and will automatically switch over. 

That the new iPhones can invisibly figure out the optimal network at any given moment -- freeing customers from needing to know the difference between gigabit LTE and millimeter wave spectrum -- is textbook Apple. The company has a knack for simplifying complicated technologies and features so a device just works.

"We don't feel the need to expose the consumer to all this confusion," Kaiann Drance, vice president of iPhone marketing for Apple, said in an interview last week. "We try to make it simple and transparent to them."

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It's a tack that the entire wireless industry needs to take, with 5G rolling out in a confusing, muddled mess. Here are just a few examples: Verizon, the headline partner to Apple for the iPhone 12, touts a ludicrously speedy version of 5G powered by millimeter wave spectrum, which it calls branded Ultra Wideband. It's great if you can find it -- and that's a big if. T-Mobile, on the other hands, touts more coverage than anyone with its low-band 5G, but the speeds are only modestly better than 4G. 

The other aspect that no one really talks about are the drawbacks to when you're actually on a 5G network -- particularly that super-speedy millimeter wave flavor. Early tests have shown that battery life drains down quicker when tapping those frequencies, and devices can get uncomfortably hot. Phones in the early days of 4G also ran into similar problems as the industry grappled with a new generation of cellular technology. 

Because of these issues, other handset makers that have been working on 5G for much longer offer similar capabilities.

"Early Android-based 5G devices had similar 'smart 5G' settings to reduce power consumption," said Wayne Lam, an analyst at CCS Insight. 

But Apple believes its work with individual carriers gives it an edge in experience. 

"We worked with carrier partners to define new requirements for better battery life," Drance said. 

5G on autopilot

Smart Data Mode is Apple's way of directly addressing issues like battery life. 

The iPhone 12 will take into a consideration a number of factors to figure out the best network. For instance, if the screen is off, chances are you're streaming music or running apps like e-mail in the background and won't need 5G. 

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The phone, however, will get even more granular and look at how the content is delivered over the network. For instance, with video streaming, the phone will be smart enough to know if the quality of movie being delivered over the network would require 4G or 5G. It'll even get specific enough to figure out which band of spectrum within 5G would be appropriate, whether it's that super-fast millimeter wave variety or the slower low-band version.

Drance noted that Smart Data Mode doesn't distinguish by specific apps, and would instead look at what kind of data gets ferried into the phone. Apple worked with both the carriers and the infrastructure providers to get a better handle on how data moves. She added that it was an evolving process, and that Apple would adjust how it works based on usage. 

If users want to take advantage of 5G all the time, they can always disable Smart Data Mode in the settings menu. But you'll probably want to pack in an extra portable battery pack just in case. 

Apple also optimized its own apps, including making high-definition available on FaceTime and a higher bitrate of streaming on Apple TV on 5G. The company also quadrupled the speed of its wireless hotspot capability on iPhone 12 devices.

The benefits aren't limited to Apple. The company provided application developers with software tools to allow for a way to stream faster content while consuming less power. Power consumption was a big priority for Apple. 

Also, depending on your carrier plan and the amount of data allotted to you, the iPhone 12 will automatically switch to capabilities like software updates over cellular. 

Future-proofing the iPhone 12

A word of warning to anyone -- particularly in the US -- turning on their iPhone 12 and tapping into a 5G network for the first time: Be prepared to be disappointed. 

If 5G is available near you, chances are that you will have access to that low-band network. Verizon's so-called Ultra Wideband 5G is largely focused on city centers and stadiums -- places people are likely to avoid during the pandemic. T-Mobile is rolling out its mid-band 5G, which offers a nice mix of speed and range, but it's only in a few markets right now. Both AT&T and T-Mobile have their own millimeter wave 5G too, but the deployments have been minimal. 

So 5G may not blow you away -- at least for now. But buying a 5G device isn't necessarily about immediate benefit, but to future-proof yourself. 

Like many high-end Android phones, the iPhone 12 family supports 5G capabilities like carrier aggregation, which allows you to tap into multiple radio bands at the same time, as well as a type of 5G called "Standalone," which will bring big gains in speed and responsiveness when it gets more broadly rolled out over the next few years. 

And unlike some Android phones, Apple managed to pack in millimeter wave radios into every version of the phone. Other companies have opted to pack MMW as an extra, more pricey option. For the instance, the Google Pixel 4A 5G on Verizon costs $101 more than the stock version offered by Google

The iPhones support bands that the carriers are in the middle of acquiring and deploying, so they will support future rollouts of 5G. For Apple, the important moment is getting these phones in people's hands and seeing how 5G will be used. 

"We're at the start of an exciting moment," Drance said.