The iPhone 12 series is finally here, and while the new devices offer a range of awesome new hardware features and a redesign, perhaps one of the most intriguing features is that they’re the first iPhones to support 5G.
Carriers have been building out their 5G networks for a couple of years now, and both T-Mobile and now Verizon are starting to talk about having a nationwide 5G network. Pretty much every Android phone over $400 released in the last year has had 5G as well. It’s no longer niche. But what can 5G bring to the iPhone experience? And will 5G change how iPhone users actually use their phone? We have everything you need to know right here.
Is 5G really worth getting excited for?
While 5G has been the carrier buzzword for years now, the vast majority of people probably still haven’t used it. Sure, AT&T may be trying to convince people they’re using it with “5GE” status bar icons, and you can’t watch TV for more than a few minutes without seeing a Verizon 5G ad — note that Verizon calls its 5G Ultra Wideband, or UWB. But once 5G does finally hit the mainstream, it will offer an actually noticeable boost in download and upload speeds, on top of a huge decrease in network response time. That means quicker downloads of apps, games, websites, files, and media. And dramatically higher-quality streaming video, audio, and video chats. All with the same phones and apps we use today — just running on a better network.
But we’re not there yet. And we’re not particularly close.
There are two forms of 5G that you should be aware of: Millimeter-wave (or mmWave), and Sub-6 (sub-6GHz). The general rule of radio waves is this: The higher the frequency, the more information that can be transmitted. But higher frequency radio waves also can’t travel as far, and have a lot of trouble getting through obstacles like walls, trees, and buildings. Lower frequencies can get through those obstacles pretty easily — but they also can’t transmit as much data (and there’s a lot more competition in that area).
Those mmWave connections run on those ultra-high frequencies, typically in the 25GHz to 40GHz range, and carry tons of data very quickly. While Sub-6 connections can traverse much further distances, often similar to many 4G networks, they can’t quite transmit as much data. Ultimately, a good 5G network makes use of both, with mmWave inside buildings and in highly populated areas, and Sub-6 blanketing the rest of the country in conjunction with low-band 4G to fill in the very sparse areas.
5G coverage and performance varies dramatically by carrier and location.
None of the major networks in the U.S. truly offer that just yet. T-Mobile was the first to offer a “nationwide 5G network,” but that network was mostly with Sub-6 in order to tout widespread coverage. Only since its Sprint acquisition has it started to pull together enough spectrum and resources to build a multilayer 5G network using a large amount of Sub-6, plus mmWave.
Verizon chose to adopt mmWave only at first, and just now turned on some of its Sub-6 network for “nationwide” coverage to coincide with the launch of the iPhone 12. But Verizon’s 5G is still very much focused on mmWave, which has huge gaps in coverage and consistency. And because it launched its Sub-6 later, with minimal spectrum, its Sub-6 speeds may often be slower than 4G.
While 5G may be on the way, and will be the network of the future, actually using 5G today isn’t a very compelling experience. In fact, for some carriers 5G connections are actually slower than 4G ones, while others offer barely any coverage.
“We discovered that AT&T’s 5G network is actually slower than its 4G network in almost all of the 26 cities we tested, and that T-Mobile’s low-band 5G network, while faster than 4G, isn’t very fast at all,” noted PCMag’s recent and comprehensive Race to 5G report. “Verizon’s network, meanwhile, is compellingly fast but its 5G was only available in a single-digit percentage of our test locations.”
While 5G networks will eventually get there, that will take a very long time. The carriers need to build physical cell towers, install millions of “small cells” in dense cities for mmWave, and acquire or shift spectrum from existing 4G networks to make it all work. Ultimately, 5G is barely a thing right now — but considering all the money that these networks are pouring into building out their tech, it may not be long before you start seeing 5G in some of the places you go.
That’s kind of the point of Apple adopting 5G right now. Let’s set aside the business reasons of Apple adding 5G to keep up with the competition. The fact is the iPhones are known for the longevity. It’s not uncommon to see people still using an iPhone 7 or iPhone 8 today, thanks to reliable hardware design and great long-term software support.
That’s almost unheard of in the Android world, considering that Android phones slow down or lose software support in two years or so. In three or four years, when plenty of people still have their iPhone 12, they will want to connect to what are hoped will be widespread 5G networks — and if they can’t, they won’t be able to make use of the latest apps and services that require low latency and high download speeds.
5G’s only as good as the apps you can use on it
Of course, that’s assuming that iPhone users will actually have apps and services at their disposal. While it’s very likely that Apple will eventually cave and allow game-streaming services onto iOS devices, for now, it’s not a great time to be a gamer with an iPhone.
Game-streaming services are a perfect use case for 5G. These services are still in their infancy, but they essentially allow people to play AAA games straight from a server, rather than having to install the games on the device itself. This requires high download speeds and low latency — exactly the promise of 5G.
Microsoft has been testing its xCloud game streaming tech for some time now, and the service is finally on the brink of launching on mobile. But not on iOS. At the time of this writing, Apple had clarified some rules to create loopholes for cloud gaming services like Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud, but they require companies like Google and Microsoft to jump through some serious hoops, and it’s currently unclear if they will actually do so.
Still, that could all change — if it wasn’t for 4G, services like Netflix may not be as popular as they are now. The same will happen with 5G. With faster connectivity and lower latency, all kinds of new, previously unthought of services could pop up. And when they do, you’re going to want your iPhone to support them — even if they take a few years to get there.
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