Upgrading To A 5G Phone: When’s The Right Time?

If you’ve even glanced at a tech blog this year, you’ve surely seen the term 5G. Hailed as the next big advancement in mobility, 5G will be an enormous breakthrough for smartphones and other connected devices, letting us download movies in a blink of an eye, while eliminating frustrating slowdowns once and for all.

But just because you can buy a 5G phone right now doesn’t mean you should. Like all new tech, the earliest 5G phones are expensive and underwhelming, with soon-to-be-outdated parts and a vague promise of future-proofing.

But all that’s going to change very soon.

In 2020, the 5G vision will begin to take shape in a real way, and if you’re interested in getting on board, you’ll want to make sure you upgrade to the right handset at the right time. Here’s what to look for, so don’t pull the trigger too early…

Most people don’t give much thought to modems when they buy a phone, but you’ll want to check the spec sheet before buying your first 5G phone. Since Intel dropped out of the race and U.S. companies are forbidden from doing business with Huawei, Qualcomm is the only game in town when it comes to modems, and the first-generation X50 modem that’s in the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G and other phones is truly a freshman effort.

But fret not! The first phones equipped with Qualcomm’s second-generation X55 5G modem will start hitting shelves in 2020, and it’s a massive improvement over the X50 modem that powers first-generation 5G phones.

The Galaxy S10 5G (left) uses the X50 modem.

Here’s how Qualcomm explains it: “Snapdragon X55 is a 7-nanometer single-chip integrated 5G to 2G multimode modem that supports 5G NR mmWave and sub-6 GHz spectrum bands with up to 7 gigabits per second (Gbps) download speeds and 3 Gbps upload speeds over 5G, and Category 22 LTE with up to 2.5 Gbps LTE download speeds.”

So let’s break all that down. Because it’s an integrated chip, it’s smaller, faster, and more efficient than its predecessor. The X50 modem was strictly a 5G modem, so it needed to be paired with a second 4G LTE modem alongside the Snapdragon 855 processor. But now that the X55 is a fully integrated solution, it will be much more versatile, and the next crop of 5G phones will likely be thinner and lighter than the current crop. And since the X55 is a standalone part, it will be able to integrated into mid-range processors too, so you won’t have to break the bank to get 5G.

And it’s faster too. While both chips support the mmWave and the sub-6Ghz spectrum bands that comprise the two common forms of 5G, the X50 topped off at 5Gbps, while the X55 is capable of reaching speeds of 7Gbps. Granted, no network is even close to achieving those speeds and probably won’t be for many many years, but a higher ceiling should make things speedier throughout.

Even more importantly, the X55 has an integrated LTE modem on board, so switching between the two networks (5G and 4G) should be faster and more seamless. That’s important because 5G networks are still being built out, and phones will need to jump between the networks regularly. So whether you’re buying an Android phone or an iPhone with 5G, you’ll want Qualcomm’s latest X55 modem inside.

There are a lot of ways to break down the definition of “service.” Let’s start by discussing why you’ll want your network to robustly support both mmWave and Sub-6Hz.

When you hear about 5G’s insane multi-gigabit speeds, mmWave is what people are talking about. And I can attest that it’s real and it’s spectacular. However, it’s also extremely limited. mmWave service relies on communication with small towers, so it’s deployment is often limited to discrete blocks in an urban environment rather than across multiple miles of uninterrupted service.

mmWave is also very finicky, has trouble penetrating walls and thick glass, and needs a straight line of sight, so if you’re walking away from a tower you might lost service. That said, carriers are working on technologies to enhance the reliability and reach of mmWave, and it will definitely be a major component of 5G, especially in major cities. But it’s going to be quite limited for many years to come.

While mmWave is nice, Sub-6Hz 5G is the 5G most people will be experiencing. Similar to LTE, it uses common wireless frequencies and antennas to broadcast its signal, much like 4G LTE. While there are limitations when compared to mmWave—mainly speeds and bandwidth—it’s far more realistic on a nationwide scale, so you’ll want to make sure your carrier is bringing Sub-6Hz to your town before committing to a 5G phone. The good news, though, is that the infrastructure rollout should be much quicker than mmWave, which has been frustratingly slow.


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