Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband network still faces challenges, but strong real-world tests put Samsung and Big Red on the right track.

Four hours, seven cell sites and dozens of tests later, Verizon’s 5G data network and Samsung’s Galaxy S10 5G achieved what I thought was impossible: they made me excited about 5G again. The expensive new phone (it costs $1,300) and fledgling network still face hurdles in bringing this new technology to the masses. Things could still get messy. But after seeing consistently fast real-world and benchmarking tests, the 5G future we keep hearing about — the one that promises ludicrously fast downloads, real-time sports and pin-sharp online games — doesn’t feel as pie-in-the-sky as it did six weeks ago when I came to Chicago to test Verizon’s then-day-old 5G network.

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This is what I’m talking about.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

My experiences were night and day. A month and a half ago, Verizon’s network launch was rocky. The Moto Z3 and 5G Moto Mod loan unit I used to test the network on ran out of battery, and while Speedtest.net showed fast speeds, it took 6 minutes to download a large file that today took me under 2 and a half. Another time this afternoon, I downloaded a Netflix movie in just over 8 seconds.

5G data speeds represent a profound shift for the industry, promising exponentially faster download speeds on your phone, which can make AR and new camera features come to life. The ultrafast data transfer also paves the way for next-generation capabilities including remote surgery, connected security camerasand cars and buses that talk to each other on the road to reduce accidents and help keep lanes clear. Carriers that can build out the most robust networks first believe they’ll have an advantage over rivals for signing on new subscribers.

Jessica Dolcourt

@jdolcourt

Hot damn, this is like a whole different 5G network

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So what went right for Verizon and Samsung this time and why, and what does all of this mean for you — should you run out and buy a 5G phone? Hang tight and I’ll break it all down.

Galaxy S10 5G data tests broke the 1Gbps barrier

I took a loaner Galaxy S10 5G that Samsung had preloaded with an account and apps like Speedtest.net, Amazon Prime Video and Netflix out into Chicago for testing. Because coverage is limited to specific areas where Verizon has set up its 5G network nodes, we couldn’t just go anywhere we wanted.

For example, you can’t use 5G signal most places indoors (Verizon’s store on Michigan Avenue is one exception). But we did hit seven areas around downtown.

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That 5G icon is much improved. Six weeks ago it flickered on and off, making you doubt you were locked onto 5G speeds.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

I ran at least two speeds tests at each of these stops, both on the Galaxy S10 5G and on a 4G-only Galaxy S10 Plus, both on Verizon’s network and both using the Verizon Speedtest.net server. Speeds consistently ranged from 400Mbps up past 1Gbps, hitting those peaks in four different locations (oftentimes, but not always, more than once).

While download speeds are 5G, upload speeds are still in 4G ranges, which Verizon is well aware of.

“With the state of the software and where it was, we just needed to see very good reliability,” Verizon’s network VP, Mike Haberman, told journalists on a call ahead of these Galaxy S10 5G tests in Chicago and Minneapolis. “With the NR uplink in the very early version of the software, we weren’t seeing that reliability…so it’s an evolution,” he said, adding that getting download speeds reliable was more important.

“When you think of 5G, you think of the download,” Haberman said.

Jessica Dolcourt

@jdolcourt

Holy shit, I just downloaded Wine Country from Netflix on 5G (1 hour, 43 minutes) in just over 8 seconds. Night and day compared to my tests here 6 weeks ago @CNET

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Real-world tests delivered mind-blowing speeds

Even more impressive and important than these benchmarking speeds are the real-world tests of downloading movies, TV shows and large apps. It’s those that really convey what it will be like to live life in 5G. At one fast spot (and with a 4G phone serving as a stopwatch), I downloaded Season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (in 4K) from Amazon Prime Video in under 5 minutes. That’s roughly 10 hours of footage. The 4G phone took 4 minutes to finish downloading the first episode.

At another location, I downloaded and installed the 1.86GB game PUBG in under 2.5 minutes on 5G. It took just over 3 minutes on 5G, which still demonstrates an advantage since Google Play’s servers haven’t been optimized for Verizon’s 5G network, the carrier said.

Jessica Dolcourt

@jdolcourt

Willis Tower is definitely a place where you want 5G, and this node has been consistently delivering. Three tests at 1Gbps+, one at 750, one at 643 (side by side with a 4G test) @cnet

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Similarly, an almost 2-hour movie (Wine Country) downloaded from Netflix in just over 8 seconds. The second attempt took slightly longer, at 10.4 seconds. After two attempts to download over 4G, I gave up after the progress wheels failed to advance two minutes into the download.

Verizon spokespeople suggested that Amazon Prime Video and Netflix have been optimized for its 5G network in varying degrees, something I’ve asked for clarity on.

The startling real-world download results are encouraging because it means that in the best-case network scenario, you can achieve lightning fast download speeds (it stormed during our tests, so there was actual lightning). It’s clear that Verizon has worked to tune its network. Ahead of today’s test, Haberman said to expect improved performance, but not improved coverage, though that’s coming as well.

“You’ll easily see a doubling of sites in the next month,” Haberman said over the phone, while also emphasizing Verizon’s commitment to launching 5G in 30 US markets by the end of 2019.

A word on the Galaxy S10 5G’s battery life

At 10 a.m., the Galaxy S10 5G started at 100% battery. By 2 p.m., it was at 53%, and at 3:30 p.m., it had dipped down to 40%. That’s a steep decline on a device with a 4,500mAh battery. I think the phone actually did OK considering that I pummeled it nonstop with download requests and kept its 6.7-inch screen on full brightness for five and a half hours.

Verizon says it can do better. “You can expect [the phone’s battery life] to be augmented. That’s not something Samsung does,
Haberman said, “That’s something done on the network.”

What makes this Verizon 5G test different than the last

This test with the Galaxy S10 5G gave us much better results than our first test using Motorola’s Moto Z3, and there are numerous reasons for that.

  • Verizon has had 6 weeks to tune its network
  • The Galaxy S10 5G has its own 5G modem (Qualcomm X50), where the Moto Z3 gets 5G data through its magnetic Moto Mod.
  • The 5G UWB logo (Ultra-wideband) is smaller and didn’t flicker as much, giving a more stable indication of when you’re using 5G data (the icon drops back to 4G when you’re not using 5G data).
  • Verizon set expectations on where to stand and what to expect (e.g., the sweet spot is between 100 and 300 feet away within line of sight of the 5G node).
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The Galaxy S10 5G will eventually come to carriers worldwide.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Despite great results, 5G isn’t for everyone right now

5G is an inevitability, but right now we’re getting a curated sampler platter. The buffet isn’t quite ready. Here are the major issues.

  • Network coverage: There’s not enough to go around yet and it isn’t clear what happens when more people come on board.
  • Cost: 5G phones cost hundreds more and you should expect to pay more for a plan (Verizon suspended its $10 monthly surcharge for now).
  • 70% signal loss of Verizon’s mmWave type of 5G through windows and walls, which means you won’t get it indoors if nodes are outside (nearly all will be at the start).

This round of Chicago tests was certainly promising, but it’s good to remember that these next-gen “G” rollouts don’t happen overnight. This is a reality that affects every one of these fledgling networks.

If money is no object and you’re yearning to be ready when 5G comes on board in your area, the S10 5G is a large-screen phone with proven performance (it shares core features with the Galaxy S10 Plus). The rest of us should see these first phones and networks as a starting point that will become more robust and compelling with time. 5G will be up and coming for years while the carriers and phone-makers work out the kinks. Most of us will have to be patient.

Originally published May 16, 8:46 a.m. PT and updated throughout the day.

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