You Shouldn't Bother With 5G Networking on Your Phone Yet—Here's Why

4G is fast enough for almost everything already

  • 5G is fast but too fast for most things we do on phones. 
  • It also has worse range and shorter battery life than 4G. 
  • 5G might be better for non-phone-related tasks.
Closeup on a hand holding a smartphone on a busy city street with a speed check displayed on the front of the phone.

Frederik Lipfert / Unsplash

5G promised a lot, and while it's probably the inevitable next stage of cellular connections, it's not really worth thinking about yet. 

It's been plagued by slow adoption, spotty service, and no clear advantage. It's especially pointless on cell phones, where the most demanding network activity is watching an HD video, which 4G can already manage just fine. Handset makers got excited about 5G because it's an opportunity to sell new phones to people who may not otherwise upgrade.

"5G is supposed to be the next big thing in wireless technology, but so far, it's been pretty slow to take off. In fact, only a tiny fraction of people in the United States have access to 5G service, and even fewer have actually tried it out," Rick Costa of the House Electric blog told Lifewire via email. 

5G Advantages

The big advantage of 5G is speed. A phone with a solid 5G connection can pull down (and send up) data at home broadband speeds. Often faster, in fact: 5G should be capable of speeds of up to 2.5 GB/s. 

5G is also quicker to respond because it has lower latency than 4G and 3G. You know how when you tap a link, and it seems to take a while before the page loads, even on a fast connection? That’s network latency, and it can make the internet frustrating to use, taking a long moment to send and receive the results of each click. 

Only a tiny fraction of people in the United States have access to 5G service, and even fewer have actually tried it out.

5G’s ideal latency is down at around 1-4 milliseconds, compared to 4G’s 50–100 ms. And for day-to-day use, this might make the most significant difference: speeding up the response to every tapped linked is a significant upgrade in terms of feel. 

5G Disadvantages

These ideal speed numbers are rarely reached in real life. 5G is no different than 4G or 3G in that respect. All wireless networks have their coverage problems and bad spots, but 5G has a few of its own shortcomings. 

One is that a 5G tower doesn't have as much range as a 4G tower, which means you need more of them to cover the same area. On the other hand, 5G is much more directional, and a tower can support many more connections than 4G, so more people can connect at once. 

"No one talks about 5G because no one talked about 4G," Kevin Jones, co-founder of wireless startup Tarana Wireless told Lifewire via email. "Even the founder of Broadcom said that carriers promise high speeds, but you never get those speeds unless you are standing under the cell tower."

5G also drains your phone's battery faster. This is because the 5G modems in the first wave of 5G capable phones (like the iPhone 12) were more power-hungry than the 4G modems. That should change as the technology improves each year, but the iPhone still has a setting that lets you automatically switch to 4G to save battery. 

But mostly, it seems that 5G is built for other purposes. 

5G’s Real Purpose

On its 5G blurb page, even Verizon can't come up with a good use for this technology on mobile. It cites "the ability to do things like download movies in seconds rather than minutes," but when you actually need to download a movie on a phone rather than stream it?

A 5G cell tower at sunset.

bjdlzx / Getty Images

However, it starts to make more sense when we get away from phones. "5G's low latency could help eventually enable driverless cars and even remote surgery," says Verizon. 

Highly directional, high-bandwidth data is also suitable for home use. Instead of getting a cable or phone company to run internet into your home via a wire or fiber connection, you could opt for a 5G connection. As long as your device has a clear line of sight to the cell tower and is nearby, you should get amazing speeds. 

On the other hand, there's little advantage compared to having fiber in the house. The benefit would be with the telco because they would not need to wire you up. 

Like any new tech, especially one that involves such a massive rollout infrastructure, things will take time to become clear. But right now, 5G should probably not factor into your phone purchase decision. A 5G computer or tablet, perhaps, but not a phone. 

I have a 5G plan on my phone and it's fine. But I notice almost no difference in day-to-day use in the street. In fact, because my phone often clings to a poor 5G connection rather than dropping down to a healthy 4G connection, it often fails to load a page at all, which is the worst of all worlds.

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