This week, Apple announces this year’s new iPhones. We expect there to be four of them: iPhone 12 Pro, iPhone 12 Pro Max, iPhone 12 and a smaller one that can be called iPhone 12 mini. Apple’s invitation to Tuesday’s event included the slogan ‘Hello, speed.’ Bold capitalization decisions aside, the “speed” hint built into the tagline is in line with rumors: these will be the first 5G-enabled iPhones.
If you want to buy a new iPhone this year, even before I see these phones, I can give this simple advice: do not buy one just because it has 5G.
It has been my advice for every single 5G-enabled Android phone that has been released so far, and unless Apple has some reality-challenging modem that enables 5G speeds in several places, it is also my advice for the upcoming iPhone.
The problem with 5G is that it is not good yet. In a comprehensive test for 5G speeds in the United States, PC Mag found them seriously missing. In many cases, 5G speeds were actually lower than 4G speeds. And the study also found that the other hyped cause of 5G, low latency, is not here yet either.
That everything agrees with my experience of using 5G on T-Mobile in the Bay Area. When it goes faster, it̵
The cause of these speed and latency problems is due to some complicated spectrum limitations. Which means that in the future, carriers will be able to unlock faster speeds for 5G, but that will not happen overnight. This is how PC Mag Sascha Segan characterizes the current state of 5G gaming:
AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon take very different approaches to 5G. To make a long story short, the AT&T 5G right now seems worthless. T-Mobile 5G can be a big boost over 4G, but the speeds are just what we expect from a good 4G network – it is not a new experience. Verizon’s 5G is often impressive, but very difficult to find.
As you have probably heard by now, there are really two different types of 5G for phones, each operating in different parts of the radio spectrum. It is the so-called “sub-6” 5G that is similar to LTE in how it can travel longer distances and penetrate buildings. Then there is the mmWave 5G, which Verizon has distributed so far. It provides incredibly high speeds, but only if you find it.
I often joke that mmWave is great if you want to park somewhere outside next to a certain Verizon tower in a certain city – but that’s not really a joke. Verizon’s 5G is so hard to find and use that I’m legitimately confused as to why anyone would want to spend the extra money on building it into a phone. I’m doubly confused that many phones cost $ 100 or more extra for mmWave compatibility.
Except I’m not confused, not really. In recent years, the growth of the 5G Hype Industrial Complex has grown. US operators, Qualcomm and phone manufacturers have all collaborated (one might say collaboration) to drive a huge cycle of hype for 5G. They have promised streaming games, telemedicine, self-driving cars and rural broadband for everyone. Some of these promises will happen, but the clear confidence is that the networks are nowhere near clear, and these 5G phones are the clearest proof of the gap between hype and reality.
We always give the same advice when considering a phone: do not buy anything today in the hope of future updates that make it better. Usually this advice applies to software, because so many promises that errors are really being addressed come to naught.
For 5G, the advice still holds – but there is some nuance in it. I do not think you should buy a phone because it has 5G, but if the phone you already looked at has 5G, go for it.
Phone upgrade cycles decrease. More people hold on to the phone longer. I think this is a great thing: it means phones are good enough to last several years, it means less waste, and it saves consumers money. However, given a time period of two or three or more years, it may make sense to get a 5G phone, even if there is still nothing to seek out.
Buying a 5G phone this year is an insurance against the future more than it is an immediate benefit today. Some upgrades are large enough to push an upgrade cycle, even if you did not plan it. 5G is not that kind of upgrade this year, but it does not hurt to have if you are planning to upgrade anyway.
To bring it back to the new iPhones, my fear is that Apple will become part of the 5G Hype Industrial Complex. It’s unfortunate to promise immediate benefits from 5G – at least in the US – and I hope Apple does not give in to the temptation to do so.
The new iPhones should have other big reasons to update: a new design, better cameras, exciting AR features or other things I have not thought of. Some of these things may be a good reason to buy a new iPhone this year. Just getting 5G is not one of them.