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.