Product marketing manager Drew Blackard at Samsung Unpacked (Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)
There are now 5G phones on every carrier in the US, and we're about to see the second generation. LG, Motorola, OnePlus, and Samsung are all selling 5G devices, although it looks like Apple is waiting until 2020. HTC, Inseego, and Netgear all have 5G hotspots out on the market.
But should you, an average consumer, buy a 5G phone now? No.
If you're developing 5G applications or solutions, or you want to use a 5G hotspot to run your business in the extremely limited current 5G areas, you'll want one of these first-gen phones since you're building the technology that regular consumers will use next year.
But everyone else — regular, everyday phone users — should wait. Here's why.
Current Phones Won't Support Broader Coverage
There's just very little 5G out there right now. While AT&T and Verizon are claiming more than a box of cities each, their coverage is limited. My walk tests of Verizon's network in New York showed that it's covering only a few blocks or each neighborhood in that city where it says the network is present.
That's going to change, with both AT&T and Verizon launching long-range networks soon as well. But the phones currently on sale won't be able to support both the current fast, short-distance networks and the upcoming slower, longer-distance networks ̵
T-Mobile has a fast, short-range network in six cities and is planning to launch a slower , longer-range network covering 200 million people at the end of this year. Once again, there is no phone that supports both of those networks. Sprint has the most coverage right now, claiming to cover 16 million people in nine cities. But its phones don't support the T-Mobile network, which Sprint could still merge with or roam onto if the two companies fail to merge.
It will be frustrating to be left behind as big new 5G coverage announcements happen in 2020 , with your 2019-era phone not able to tune to those channels. Wait until it shakes out a bit.
It Doesn't Differentiate Enough From LTE Yet
On Sprint and T-Mobile, 5G feels like good 4G. That's because they aren't using very much spectrum for it. 5G isn't magic, and the frequencies it's on don't make it magic. Its primary magic is that you can use a lot more bandwidth for 5G than for 4G, but you have to have the airwaves available to do that.
In our Fastest Mobile Networks Canada 2019 tests, we found that Canadian 4G networks were faster than Sprint's 5G network, basically because they use more spectrum. This "4G-plus" experience will go for AT & T's and Verizon's upcoming long-range networks, too. New airwaves will become available over the next two years, and new aspects of the 5G spec will make 5G more efficient and flexible. The phones available now won't be able to support any of that. Wait.
Sprint and T-Mobile Might Merge
While Sprint's first 5G phones are well-positioned to access Sprint's network, Sprint and T-Mobile still say they're merging, and Sprint's 5G phones don't support T -Mobile's low-band, long-range network. T-Mobile has new long-range 5G phones coming out that support Sprint's network, but don't support T-Mobile's own short-range millimeter-wave network.
By the time coverage is better, there will be better phones. The devices are improving faster than the network buildouts. Verizon keeps talking about launching by the end of the year in 20 to 30 cities. AT&T talks about turning on long-range 5G next year. More broadly compatible phones will be available then.
I'm not trying to be a downer about this. 5G has huge potential, and over the next 10 years its capabilities will greatly outstrip anything that was possible with 4G. But that's about the next 10 years, with broad adoption probably starting in 2021. We're following all the 5G announcements on our Race to 5G page.