When's the right time to buy a 5G smartphone? Your wireless carrier will probably try to convince you that time is 2019--maybe even sometime this summer. Don't listen to them.

5G, for the uninitiated, is the next standard of mobile phone networks. Just as 4G was a big leap forward from 3G, allowing for the smooth streaming of video and audio, for example, 5G will be another such leap. It will allow connectivity to be optimized for different apps, allowing all of them to work better. It will enable the rollout of self-driving cars by giving them better and more reliable connectivity. It may even replace your home wireless someday.

But the key word here is someday. For now, 5G is available in some cities but even where it's available it's far from available everywhere. In Chicago, for example, where Verizon has launched 5G with much fanfare, it's only available in the South Loop, West Loop and at certain landmarks. And, in all locations, 5G is only available outdoors because the millimeter wave (mmWave) technology U.S. carriers are currently rolling out for 5G service can carry a lot of data, but is much more easily blocked than 4G signals--by walls and even by a hand, according to a New York Times piece that explains in detail why it's not yet time to buy a 5G phone. 

Unsurprisingly, wireless carriers say that 5G will be widely available any minute now and are encouraging people to buy 5G-ready devices, which makes sense from their point of view. AT&T has upped the ante on 5G hype--that carrier has made it seem it already has 5G widely available with millions of customers now seeing "5GE" pop up on their phones to identify the network they're on where it once would have said "4GLTE." Don't be fooled: AT&T's 5GE is basically just a new name for 4GLTE. 

5G-ready phones are here now. You can order a special modification that makes the Motorola Moto Z3 5G compatible, and as of next week, you can also buy the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G. Given that widespread 5G is certainly coming at some point, why not get ready by buying a 5G-compatible phone right now? Here are some reasons you should probably hold off:

1. You'll pay top dollar for not much service.

5G phones cost more than 4G ones--a lot more. The Galaxy S10 5G costs $1,299 for the least expensive model, for example. And after you buy the phone, you may not be done paying extra. Most carriers will likely charge extra for 5G service.

2. The phone will be worse than a 4G phone.

What do I mean by "worse"? Heavier and thicker, for one thing. That's because in order to work on 5G where it exists, while still working on 4G where it doesn't, the new phones will need to contain both a 5G-compatible modem and a 4G-compatible chip. And guess what? The fact that they have to run both  running both also gives 5G phones shorter battery life.

And don't feel like you need to buy a 5G phone to get all the other latest features. For example, Sam

3. You'll probably be locked in to one carrier.

Have you ever moved your phone from one carrier to another? I certainly have, many times. A 2015 law obligated carriers to unlock phones for customers who requested it and it's made it fairly easy to switch if you're unhappy with the service you're getting or you find a more attractive deal. That ease of switching has also forced carriers to be careful of mistreating existing customers or adding onerous charges. 

That all changes with 5G. The different carriers all seem to be using different frequencies for their 5G signals, which means you won't be able to switch among them, at least not for 5G service. That may conceivably iron itself out at some point, but for the moment, if you're going to spend more than a grand on a 5G phone, you'd better be very sure you'll be happy with the service you're using for some time to come.

4. You'll be much better off if you wait until next year.

That's because Qualcomm, which likes to announce these things well in advance, has already announced its new X55 5G modem for sometime late this year, which will go some way to fixing the problems of added size and weight and of shorter battery life. And by sometime 2020, 5G networks may be widespread enough that, depending where you live and travel there might be enough connectivity available to make the extra cost of 5G more worthwhile. It's worth noting that Apple, a company known for its smarts and high-quality products, has already said it won't sell a 5G phone before 2020. Whether you opt for iOS, Android, or some other operating system, that may be the right year to start thinking about 5G.

Published on: May 11, 2019
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