Sometime in the next few weeks, I expect we'll have an iPhone event. You know, the kind of high-profile product launch during which Apple rolls out its new flagship device and all its fancy new features. And I'm not the only one. The Apple rumor mill has pegged October 13 as the date, and many iPhone users are widely expecting a redesigned form factor that brings back the flat sides of the iPhone 5, similar to the current iPad Pro and iPad Air.
In this case, however, one feature stands out at the top of most people's list of expectations: 5G. Despite the fact that most people aren't entirely sure what 5G actually means, cellular companies have done a fantastic job making everyone think it's the thing we need the most.
That, combined with the fact that the iPhone hasn't seen a major redesign in a few years, could lead to a massive wave of upgrades this fall. Most of the predictions expect we'll see four new iPhones, all of which may feature some version of 5G. We've already waited longer than usual, largely due to the way pandemic life has made just about everything a little more complicated, including launching a brand new iPhone.
Here's the thing, while everyone expects that the next iPhones will have both a new look and 5G, there's more to it than that. And, it's not what you think. The term "5G" covers a range of different technologies, and they have very different performances, as well as limitations.
The fastest version of 5G, known as millimeter wave (mmWave), because it uses a high-frequency wavelength, is what most people probably think of when they imagine the promise of incredibly fast mobile internet. This is the version that delivers 1GB/sec and faster download speeds. However, most 5G isn't mmWave.
That's because mmWave only works in close proximity to a cell tower. And by close proximity, I mean in terms of feet or yards, not miles like LTE. If you have mmWave in your kitchen, it's entirely possible--even likely--you won't have it in your living room. It's just that finicky.
Mid-band (also known as sub-6) 5G networks use longer wavelengths, which means they can reach a wider area. The trade-off is that they aren't as fast. They're still likely faster than what you've experienced on your mobile phone before but are likely comparable to what you would get from your cable broadband connection.
Low-band 5G is generally just a rebrand of some versions of the 4G LTE we've had for years. You won't notice anything different, except your phone will probably say 5G next to the signal indicator because, again, cellular companies have spent a lot of money convincing people they need 5G, so the phones better say that's what they're giving you.
Joanna Stern from The Wall Street Journal points out: "In spots in Jersey City with optimal sub-6 coverage, I saw download speeds around 120 Mbps on T-Mobile and 90 Mbps on AT&T--just like my home broadband. But in other spots, while the phones still showed 5G reception, the speed was more like 4G. Those 5G indicators on these new smartphones are mostly just wishful thinking, in my experience."
All of that means your 5G iPhone will likely have 5G long before you actually have 5G. The fastest version, mmWave, is only available in major cities, and even then, only in areas where you're close enough to the transmitters. Of the new iPhones, we'll likely only see mmWave on the higher-end Pro versions, with the regular iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Max getting only the sub-6 flavor.
If you happen to live in an area with reliable 5G service, you might notice a difference. If you live in a city with mmWave coverage, it might even mean you see 1.5GB/s speeds. More likely than not, however, if you're expecting that getting a new iPhone will change your life, 5G isn't what you think.