On Tuesday at its Unpacked event, Samsung finally told us what we all expected to hear: Its new flagship phone line is called the Galaxy S20, and all three models support 5G.
This is big news for fans of speedy mobile networks. A handful of 5G-enabled devices launched in the United States last year, but Samsung is going all in. These aren’t just more expensive models of existing phones like the Galaxy S10 or Note 10; these are arguably Samsung’s most important phones, and they all work with 5G out of the box for the first time.
That brings us to the biggest question everyone has about 5G: Is it worth it? We’re still at the stage where you’d be considered an early adopter for investing in 5G, but how early is too early? We talked to multiple industry professionals in the hopes they could answer those questions and more.
What can 5G do for me now?
Maybe the biggest problem with 5G as it exists right now is that plenty of customers don’t really know what it is. In layman’s terms, 5G is a new standard for mobile internet that, at its best, is going to be much faster than what you’re used to now.
5G is separated into two camps: Low/mid-band and mmWave. We have a more detailed explainer on this, but all you really need to know is that the former covers more area at the expense of speed, while the latter is significantly faster at the expense of coverage. The regular Galaxy S20 can only access the (comparatively) slower network, while the S20+ and S20 Ultra are mmWave-enabled.
T-Mobile launched its “nationwide” low-band network late last year. In a phone call with Mashable, T-Mobile VP of network technology and strategy Karri Kuoppamaki explained that mobile gaming (with upcoming services like Project xCloud) could be one of the best reasons to get in now. Google Stadia and xCloud need fast, stable internet to deliver high-fidelity game streaming to mobile devices.
“The feedback from people who have used [xCloud] has been absolutely fantastic,” Kuoppamaki said. “I think it’ll extend the reach of those games to outside homes, but also to new groups of consumers who don’t necessarily do gaming today because maybe they are not interested in buying a console.”
Other obvious applications include 4K video streaming, high-quality video chats, and the fact that everything you already do is generally going to be faster in a functional 5G network. That’s extremely cool, but you might want to pump the brakes if you’re thinking about getting a Galaxy S20 phone just for 5G.
Why shouldn’t I buy a new phone just for 5G?
For as fun as it is to use a 5G phone in a place with good service and see just how fast it can be, there are several very real limitations to it in 2020. At the most basic, practical level, large carriers such as Verizon and AT&T don’t have comprehensive networks yet. You can get service in certain parts of certain cities, but it’s nowhere near as widespread as 4G LTE.
When we tested Sprint’s 5G network last year, the service would often vary wildly from one city block to the next, if that gives you an idea of how it works right now.
That will obviously change over time, but that time isn’t now. Cell service providers like Ting utilize networks built by those bigger carriers, and Ting director of content Andrew Moore-Crispin told us he wouldn’t buy a 5G phone right now or recommend that his loved ones do the same.
“If it’s me and I’m offering advice to my brother, or my wife, or my mother, or a friend, I’m saying I wouldn’t be buying a 5G phone myself at this point unless I’m sort of in a 5G test area,” Moore-Crispin said. “It basically is spending money on something you’re not going to be able to use to its full capacity just yet.”
The “spending money” part of that quote is key here. The cheapest of Samsung’s three new 5G phones is $1,000 without any kind of carrier discount. On top of that, you might have to pay extra on your monthly bill just to use 5G. T-Mobile doesn’t charge extra, but Sprint customers aren’t so lucky.
And while gaming, streaming, and downloading will undoubtedly be streamlined by 5G, there aren’t many 5G killer apps just yet. The tech certainly holds promise for things like autonomous vehicles, but right now, all we have is the fairly limited deployment of technology and almost nothing unique to do with it.
The best reason to get in now: Planning for the future
It’s hard to come up with one concrete, unimpeachable reason to hop on the 5G bandwagon with Samsung’s new phones right now. The closest thing that both Kuoppamaki and Moore-Crispin came up with is the idea of future-proofing your phone.
Think about it this way: 5G may not be ubiquitous and perfect yet, but it could be in five years. Kuoppamaki pointed to the S20+ and S20 Ultra, both low/mid-band and mmWave, as a reason to consider either of those phones. As time goes on, mmWave deployment can improve and make that purchase worth it in the long haul.
“As the network and its capabilities start to gel together through the deployment across all bands, this phone can [take advantage of it],” Kuoppamaki said. “And I think that’s a fantastic value proposition in and of itself.”
Moore-Crispin pointed to a consumer survey Ting conducted last year which found that the majority of respondents kept their phones for two to five years. The Galaxy S20’s beefy specs will keep it viable for a few years, so even if the 5G aspect isn’t the greatest right now, that could change over time.
Still, Moore-Crispin warned against buying a Galaxy S20 based on 5G hype alone. Get one if you can make it work financially and it appeals to you, but understand what you’re getting.
“I guess the thing we’re cautioning against is just purchasing based on some sort of buzz as opposed to making an informed purchase decision,” Moore-Crispin said. “That’s always the way we tend to land on these things.”