You might want to go faster, but it'll cost you.
It’s been several months since the UK’s fifth-generation mobile network launched, offering speeds well in excess of its predecessor. Most phone manufacturers have released a 5G handset, and all the major mobile networks have started offering access to 5G services. But just because something is available, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should buy it. In fact, there several reasons why you shouldn’t upgrade to a 5G phone – at least not for now.
Before we get into that, what are the big advantages of 5G?
Everyone wants to go faster, and with 5G, the headline feature is speed. It offers theoretical maximum speeds of 20Gbps (gigabits per second) for downloads and 10Gbps for downloads. This is equivalent to 2.5 and 1.25 gigabytes per second – an incredible amount of bandwidth. In comparison, the newest version of 4G has maximum theoretical speeds of 1,000 (megabits per second) for downloads and 500Mbps for uploads. The fact these speeds are theoretical is important – and we’ll come to that momentarily.
^ 5G promises speeds to compare with fixed-line broadband.
When data is sent from one place to another, there is a small delay data is transferred from one place to another. This is called latency. With 4G, it’s about 40 to 50 milliseconds – not long but just about noticeable. 5G cuts that down to around one millisecond, which means it's undetectable to humans. For most uses, this won’t make a massive difference, but low latency is useful for things like online videogames, virtual reality and self-driving cars, where these fractions of seconds can have a significant effect on the experience.
The extra bandwidth of 5G is going to be a major boon in future, as more and more devices come online. As well mobile phones, tablets and laptops, the 5G network will serve the rapidly growing number of Internet of Things devices that are coming to market. As well as consumer products like smart speakers, in-car AI and smart watches, internet connectivity can be brought to advertising screens, bus stops, train carriages and more. With 5G, these can all be catered for without the user experience suffering.
Is 5G Worth It?
Being an early adopter of any new technology is a mixed experience. On one hand, you get to try something new, before most other people get a chance to, and you get to benefit from any advantages it offers. But you also tend to pay through the nose for it, and you're essentially a guinea pig, subject to any problems that have yet to be ironed out.
As an early adopter, you get the honour of helping to separate the hype from the fact. Take, for example, the promised speed of 5G. Like, 4G before it, you never get anywhere near the maximums. Real-world 4G download speeds are in the region of 15-30Mbps - nowhere near the maximum. Meanwhile, when news network CNBC tested Vodafone and EE’s 5G networks in London, it reported downloads speeds in the region of 200Mbps and uploads of around 90Mbps. At one point, the reporter managed to get a 500Mbps download speed, but that was only on one phone, using a particular speed testing tool, so we’d take that with a pinch of salt. Nonetheless, it's a substantially improvement on 4G.
CBNC highlighted another significant problem with 5G, though: coverage. Its reporter only managed to connect to 5G in certain parts of the city, so their phone frequently reverted back to 4G. As things stand, 5G is only available in certain major cities. Mobile networks are quickly rolling out services throughout the country, but it’s worth investigating whether you can get a connection before you invest in a 5G phone or contract. All the network providers have service checkers you can use to check your location, and you search all of them from sites like www.signalchecker.co.uk.
Of course, it’s only a matter of time before 5G is more widely available. The same thing happened when 4G was first released, and 3G before it. Nevertheless, it’s a factor to consider before making the leap to a new phone.
Speaking of new phones, you’ll need a handset that supports 5G. The choice is still somewhat limited, and you’re looking at least £600 for a 5G phone, or monthly payments of about £50. Many 5G phones are more expensive than this, though. For example, a 5G version of the Samsung Galaxy S10 will set up back over a grand. A typical contract deal from EE for the S10 offers 120GB of data for £69 a month – not cheap, especially if you’re not getting consistent access to 5G, but not so expensive that it’s out of the question.
The big question is: do you need 5G? As great as it might be, would it be of any benefit to you?
^ Google chose to leave 5G out of its latest phone, the Pixel 4.
Do You Need 5G?
Today, mobile internet is used predominantly on smartphones. Some tablets and laptops have 4G or 3G abilities, but this is far from a standard feature and is largely unnecessary thanks to phone tethering. We’d guess the majority of mobile data is used on emails, web browsing, streaming music and a bit of video. The most bandwidth-intensive of these activities is undoubtedly video streaming, especially high-definition movies. Yet any 4G phone is now capable of streaming full HD video over 4G, so why do you need 5G?
For everyday multimedia streaming, the answer is that you don’t. The main limitation 4G users face is download caps, which can run out too quickly to be useful for video viewing, but unlimited connections are available for both 4G and 5G.
Where 5G could make a massive difference is with file transfers and remote working. Assuming you can get a 5G signal, you will have an internet connection that can compete with fixed-line broadband. If you need to send or receive a lot of large files or if you’re a frequent videocaller, this is perfect.
But if you’re not absolutely sure you need 5G or that you can actually get a signal, we don’t recommend getting a 5G phone or contract just yet.