October 5, 2022


5G was once synonymous with premium pricing, but has become the norm in most news phones — even ones that cost less than $300 in some cases.

But you might be wondering if 5G is necessary in a new phone. Maybe you’re getting too much for one refurbished device from a few years ago that does not support 5G. Maybe you’re looking at the iPhone 11, one of the cheapest phones Apple currently sells at $500, but it can’t connect to 5G.

For US buyers, the answer largely depends on what carrier you have, how much you’re willing to spend, and how long you plan to keep your next phone. Since 5G is available in almost every new phone at no extra cost, there are few reasons not to buy a 5G-capable phone.

Combine that with the fact that carriers build their own medium band networks — which offer faster speeds than low-band 5G offerings as well as wider coverage than the fastest millimeter wave networks — and the argument for buying a 5G phone is even stronger.

Read more: Not all 5G is the same: We explain the different names and flavors

At the same time, it’s important to remember that 5G speeds and coverage will vary depending on your carrier. And 4G phones will continue to work for years to come.

“They’re not going to shut down these 4G networks anytime soon,” said Avi Greengart, president and chief analyst at research and advisory firm Techsponential. “Your phone will be dead before you have to worry about it.”

Understanding 5G

Figuring out whether you need 5G in your next phone starts with understanding the current state of 5G. All three major network providers in the US offer 5G, and there are three main flavors to be aware of.

There’s low-band 5G, which is widely available but provides similar speeds to 4G LTE, and 5G millimeter wave, the ultra-fast version that only works at short range. You probably won’t notice the difference between 4G and 5G when you’re on a low-bandwidth network. But millimeter wave networks are so rare that you probably won’t find yourself near one on a regular basis unless you frequent crowded venues like stadiums, arenas, or airports. Even then, coverage is often only in select locations.

The happy medium between these networks is midband 5G, which provides faster speeds than 4G but can also cover much longer distances than millimeter wave. AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile are all in different phases of their midband development, with T-Mobile currently taking the lead. The carrier said in February that its Ultra Capacity network, which consists primarily of midband spectrum acquired from Sprint, reached 210 million people by the end of 2021. T-Mobile expects to reach 300 million people with its mid-band, Ultra Capacity 5G network by the end of 2023.

Verizon, on the other hand, is aiming to cover 175 million people with its Ultra Wideband network, which uses millimeter wave and midband spectrum, in 2022. AT&T plans to cover 200 million people with its own midband network by the end of the year.

read more: Apple needs another affordable 5G iPhone

T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T 5G

Faster 5G network access

Time frame

T mobile

210 million people

2021

Verizon

175 million people

2022

AT&T

200 million people

2022

All these technologies can work together to provide better coverage, speed and performance than 4G LTE.

“So we’re not just talking about cities, but much of the country where people live is covered by T-Mobile 5G,” Greengart said. “And so you’ll want to buy a 5G phone for both coverage and speed.”

How much are you willing to spend?

iphone-11-home-screen-7793

The 2019 iPhone 11 is one of Apple’s cheapest iPhones, but it doesn’t support 5G.

Angela Lang/CNET

The biggest factor in determining whether you should buy a 5G phone is how much you’re willing to spend. If you have less than $200 to spend on a new device, it can be difficult to find a decent 5G phone.

If your budget allows you to spend more than $400, there are several exciting 5G options like this $429 iPhone SE and $450 Galaxy A53 5G. The $450 Google Pixel 6A, recently released on July 28, also supports 5G. This is a significant departure compared to when the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G it was released about three years ago for a high price of $1,300.

Cheaper phones may not support all flavors of 5G, meaning the fastest millimeter wave networks, but that shouldn’t be something that stops most people shopping today. With its advantages in speed and range, the three major networks have prioritized 5G mid-band deployment over the past year. As long as your new phone supports 5G midband, you should be able to connect at faster speeds in more places.

It’s important to consider what’s most important to you in a phone and how long you plan to keep a device. If you’d rather have a bigger screen, more modern design, dual cameras and plan to upgrade your phone again in two years, 4G The $500 iPhone 11 might be a better choice from the $429 5G-enabled iPhone SE.

But if you’re looking for a phone that can see you through the next three years or so, you’re probably better off looking for a 5G device. Most Android phones in the $400-$500 range have 5G and modern features like multi-lens cameras and large displays.

The situation is different for Apple fans. The only 5G-capable option under $600 is the 2022 iPhone SE, which has Apple’s latest smartphone chip but lacks other essentials like a big screen and multiple cameras. That may change this fall when the rumored iPhone 14 launches and Apple rejects it iPhone 12 and 12 Mini price accordingly.

Bob O’Donnell, president and chief analyst for Technalysis Research, says 5G will likely feel most necessary in early 2024. By then, carriers will have more time to roll out their midband networks.

“You’re going to get faster speeds,” O’Donnell said. “Hopefully by then we’ll see some additional services and applications taking advantage of 5G.”

The bottom line

Stack of phones

Sarah Tew/CNET

To decide if you need 5G in your next phone, consider how much you’re willing to spend, how long you plan to keep your phone before upgrading, and what kind of coverage your carrier provides.

Investing in a new 5G phone is generally the best move if you can afford it, as it ensures your device will feel fast and relevant for years to come. But if you’re on a tight budget or the 5G phones you currently have don’t meet your needs, you won’t lose too much by opting for 4G instead.

“As a pure feature phone, you can’t go wrong with a good LTE phone,” O’Donnell said.



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