These Are the 5G Phones Worth Buying This Year

These Are the 5G Phones Worth Buying This Year

Illustration for article titled These Are the 5G Phones Worth Buying This Year
Photo: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo

There’s more to 5G than overblown marketing hype and some really weird (and in some cases, dangerous) conspiracy theories. Here’s what you actually need to know: 5G offers faster download and upload speeds, more bandwidth, lower latency, and enough throughput to support a household of people trying to connect to the internet (though 5G home broadband is...limited, to say the least).

And 5G connectivity isn’t as scarce as it was in the beginning times. Carriers are rolling out more towers and installing more nodes on existing towers across the U.S. If your carrier has already flipped the switch on 5G where you live, or if you’re thinking of upgrading your phone this year, buying a 5G phone is a good idea.

Apple, Google, Samsung, OnePlus, and even some budget smartphone players have all fully committed to the new wireless specification, though it’s not equal across the major carriers. There’s a bit of nuance to 5G and its different frequencies, which can make choosing a compatible device kind of annoying!

Figuring out 5G is complicated because of the way it’s been rolled out in the U.S. When buying a phone, you need to know that there are three frequencies that make up 5G: low-band, mid-band, and high-band. The low-band frequencies are often considered “blanket” 5G because of their far range, but their 600 to 700Mhz spectrum is quite slow. Mid-band frequencies are faster at 1.7GHz to 2.5GHz, and they’re like the just right tier of 5G you could hope for at this stage. High-band frequencies are called millimeter-wave 5G at 24GHz spectrum and higher, but the higher frequency means shorter range. Signal can’t travel very far and can’t penetrate, say, walls or windows. That means you can get lightning-fast speeds if you’re standing directly under a 5G node, but not in your home. The carriers have deployed 5G in varying bands, but the ideal 5G network is made up of all three. That’s a work in progress.

T-Mobile is known for its mass offering of low-band frequencies since it gobbled up Sprint, which is how it gets away with advertising that it has the most coverage. Verizon and AT&T rely mostly on the high-band mmWave 5G. Not only do you need to pay attention to what kind of 5G service your carrier is offering in your area, but some 5G phones only support specific types of 5G. That’s becoming less of an issue now, but if you’re buying a 5G phone, make sure it can support both mmWave and sub-6Ghz 5G.

5G phones are no longer as expensive as they once were. It’s possible to spend as little as $300 on a 5G-compatible phone, though devices are limited in band support at that price point and are often reserved for low-cost networks. Here are our recommendations for 5G phones to buy this year.

Staff Writer, Gizmodo.

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Apple iPhone 12

Apple iPhone 12

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Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo

Apple leaned into 5G by making its entire iPhone 12 lineup compatible with next-gen networks. All you have to do is pick a flavor: iPhone 12 Mini for $699, iPhone 12 for $799, iPhone 12 Pro for $999, or iPhone 12 Pro Max for $1,099. The latter is the Apple handset with the best battery life—which is definitely useful for the ultra-fast, battery-sucking mmWave flavor of 5G—though you’ll have to adopt a giant 6.7-inch display.

The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro are probably the best phones for most Apple fans. The 12 Pro gives you a camera boost with a telephoto lens and a more premium design, but the iPhone 12 shoots perfectly good photos and is also cheaper.

For those with smaller hands, how about the delightfully compact iPhone 12 Mini? It only has a 5.4-inch display, which may sound measly but is still a more comfortable size for many folks. The iPhone 12 Mini has an ultra-wide and wide camera and up to 2x optical zoom range. The battery life is a little stinky, though, and tends to burn out with lots of 5G use. But at $699, it’s more affordable than Apple’s other 5G offerings. And it’s little, which is the main selling point here.

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

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Photo: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo

This is the creme de la creme, as they say of both the Cadbury cream-filled Easter egg and the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. Samsung’s top-tier flagship smartphone will set you back a cool $1,200. You get a Samsung signature 6.8-inch AMOLED display and a ridiculous 40-MP selfie cam and 100X optical zoom, as well as support for Samsung’s S Pen stylus (though S Pen not included), wireless and reverse charging, and a whopping 5000 mAh battery.

If you don’t want to shell out for the Ultra, the Galaxy S21 and S21+ (which start at $800 and $1,000, respectively), are also very good phones. The Ultra is the only S model this year that supports a stylus, but the main difference between the models is screen size and battery life. All three work on high to low 5G spectrum.

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Google Pixel 4a 5G

Google Pixel 4a 5G

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Photo: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo

The Google Pixel 4a 5G is only $500, making it one of the cheapest sort-of flagship 5G smartphones. It has a 6.2-inch OLED screen, base storage of 128GB, and two rear cameras capable of some of the best low light shots in the industry. There are no fancy features like wireless charging and water resistance, but the latter is in exchange for the now-rare headphone jack. Unfortunately for Verizon users, you’ll have to pay an extra $100 for the Pixel 4a 5G model that’s compatible with the carrier’s mmWave 5G.

The $700 Pixel 5 is also a 5G-compatible option if you’re particularly committed to Google, though it costs $200 more for the bump in the processor, battery, and water resistance. The camera hardware remains the same between models, so save your money if you think it’s worth the compromises.

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OnePlus 8

OnePlus 8

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Photo: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo

We really like the $700 OnePlus 8, which not only has 5G support—it offers a 90 Hz display and the same processor as the $900 OnePlus 8 Pro for nearly $200 less. The only glaring concession is that the OnePlus 8’s 5G support varies depending on where you buy it. Verizon has a different design to accommodate the antenna for the carrier’s mmWave 5G network. The unlocked version works fine on Big Red, but it’s not fully compatible with its 5G speeds. It also means cases aren’t interchangeable between models.

If you’re willing to splurge on the Pro, you get more camera lenses, a screen with a higher refresh rate, and goodies like wireless charging and reverse charging.

But one caveat: OnePlus is rumored to have a new flagship phone on the horizon, so you may want to wait to see what’s in store.

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TCL 10 5G

TCL 10 5G

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Photo: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo

Verizon users have access to the TCL 10 5G, a worthy mid-range 5G smartphone for $400. It has the same Snapdragon 765G processor as the Pixel 4a 5G, though it sports a larger 6.53-inch display. It’s $100 less than the Pixel 4a 5G for 6GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, a 4,500 mAh battery, and a headphone jack.

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T-Mobile Revvl 5G

T-Mobile Revvl 5G

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Screenshot: T-Mobile (Other)

T-Mobile users might consider the $400 TCL-manufactured Revvl 5G as an alternative. It’s well-rated and boasts good performance for the price, a sharp display, and a battery that can handle the demands of 5G. It also has a headphone jack. It doesn’t have better camera hardware than the Pixel 4a 5G, but it does have the same amount of base storage, plus 6GB of memory and microSD support.

T-Mobile also has the best 5G smartphone data plan around. The carrier just announced its Magenta Max plan, which offers truly unlimited—that means no throttling—data for 5G phones. That’s a big deal.

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Samsung Galaxy S20 FE

Samsung Galaxy S20 FE

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Photo: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo

The Galaxy S20 FE was the cheapest option in Samsung’s lineup in 2020, and it remains a relatively thrifty way to get 5G access and hardware that won’t bog you down. It’s the same size and has most of the same hardware as the Galaxy S20+, and it comes in a spectrum of cool colors. You can often find it under $400 on some sites, and you can buy it unlocked or through your carrier. Note that the unlocked model has trouble supporting AT&T’s Wi-Fi calling and Verizon’s mmWave 5G despite the presence of bands. If you are on Verizon, buy the Galaxy S20 FE through the carrier.

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Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra

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Photo: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo

Before the latest Galaxy S21 lineup, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra was Samsung’s marquee 5G device. It’s a whopper of a smartphone with a 6.9-inch display, but it works with every available 5G network. Rumor has it that Samsung may discontinue the Note line this year now that it’s brought S Pen support to the Galaxy S line, so this may be a chance to snag a classic while you can. Though the phone originally retailed for $1,300, you can find it as low as $600 with sales and carrier subsidies.

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Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2

Illustration for article titled These Are the 5G Phones Worth Buying This Year
Photo: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo

Last but not least: The Galaxy Z Fold 2 is an indulgent $2,000, but that has to do squarely with its cyberpunk design and not the 5G support. It has other premium features that contribute to that price tag, too, like a 120Hz refresh rate, 12GB of RAM, 256GB of base storage, and reverse wireless charging. You might not find it gets the battery you want with both 5G antennas and the rapid-fire refresh rate. But again, you do get bragging rights. At this price point, that’s what it’s really about.

If it seems like Samsung dominates this list, well, that’s true. But that’s because Samsung was out the door early with some of the best 5G phones Gizmodo has reviewed. Hopefully the competition heats up so people have plenty of options across all price points.

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Staff Writer, Gizmodo.

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