Apple's 5G iPhone is here — but 5G isn't ready for showtime

Daniel Howley
·Technology Editor
·6 min read

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

This article was first featured in Yahoo Finance Tech, a weekly newsletter highlighting our original content on the industry. Get it sent directly to your inbox every Wednesday by 4 p.m. ET. Subscribe

Apple's 5G iPhone is here — but 5G isn't ready for showtime

From more durable displays to improved cameras and a new, more refined style, Apple’s (AAPL) latest iPhones sure seem impressive at first blush. But it’s the inclusion of 5G cellular technology, which promises far faster upload and download speeds than current 4G LTE connections, that makes these iPhones stand out.

Apple's new iPhone 12 line gets 5G cellular technology, but don't expect the new standard to change your life overnight. (Image: Apple)
Apple's new iPhone 12 line gets 5G cellular technology, but don't expect the new standard to change your life overnight. (Image: Apple)

5G is the first new cellular specification to hit the iPhone since the iPhone 5 got 4G in 2013. The big carriers say 5G will lead to life-altering advancements ranging from truly immersive virtual reality to self-driving cars interfacing with road signs and even traffic lights. But for all of the promise 5G offers, the networks and apps just aren’t there yet.

That’s because 5G is still in its early stages. And that could leave new iPhone users let down when they take their slick new phones out of the box.

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5G expectations are through the roof

The Big Three U.S. carriers, AT&T (T), T-Mobile (TMUS, formerly T-Mobile and Sprint), and Verizon (VZ, Yahoo Finance’s parent company) have been talking up 5G for years as the next big thing, promising huge advancements in the mobile landscape on par with how 4G opened up whole new sectors of the economy, including food order apps and ride hailing services — heck, the gig economy wouldn’t even exist if not for 4G.

But, and this is a big but, 5G has little to show users outside of, well, faster download and upload speeds and reduced latency and bandwidth. Don’t get me wrong, when used in the right scenario, that will unlock new ways of using our smartphones.

Remember, we wouldn’t have apps like Spotify (SPOT) or GrubHub (GRUB) or Instagram (FB) without 4G LTE. 3G networks were simply too slow to handle the immense demands the software required. Seriously, try loading your Instagram feed over 3G and tell me you’d still scroll through the app if it were so painfully slow all the time.

The iPhone 12 Pro lineup. (Image: Apple)
The iPhone 12 Pro lineup. (Image: Apple)

And like 4G LTE, 5G will provide users with far better overall performance including seriously impressive upload and download speeds and greater bandwidth. That means you’ll be able to download movies and music faster with no delay even in an incredibly crowded area.

My current iPhone gets download speeds as high as 175 megabits per second over 4G LTE. The iPhone 12 though, will get 4 gigabits per second in ideal situations, and 1 gigabit per second in normal use. So yeah, just a tick faster I’d say.

But our current apps are optimized for 4G LTE. They’re not built around the capabilities offered by 5G. Which means you’re not going to see many apps that take advantage of those increased speeds and reduced latency. Sure, you’ll be able to stream movies, but you can do that over 4G LTE and WiFi. And yeah, you’ll be able to download albums off of Spotify, but you can already do that in less than a minute or two with ease.

In other words, when you get your shiny new iPhone, or any 5G phone really, don’t expect your world to change overnight. The apps that actually require such speeds haven’t been created just yet. When will they finally hit the market? It’s not entirely clear.

The iPhone 12 will certainly be the catalyst that gets developers to start working on 5G apps if they haven’t been already. That’s because developers know Apple users are more willing to spend money on apps, and so with the iPhone finally getting 5G, they now have a greater incentive to create such apps that take advantage of Apple’s latest and greatest offering.

UKRAINE - 2020/10/13: In this photo illustration a screenshot from Apple's launch promotional material of the the new iPhone12 seen displayed on a smartphone screen with the apple logo in the background. (Photo Illustration by Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
The new iPhones will work will all versions of 5G. (Photo Illustration by Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

If I had to guess, I’d say in the next year or two we’ll start to see apps that truly need 5G to function properly.

Once it is fully operational, 5G will largely benefit grander technological movements more than the latest apps, though. Think networks of self-driving cars or real-time remote surgeries. 5G will certainly help make consuming and creating content faster and easier, but its promises are far greater than that.

5G isn’t everywhere yet

Leaving apps aside, it’s important to recognize that 5G technology still isn’t as ubiquitous as current 4G LTE networks. T-Mobile boasts it has the largest nationwide 5G network, and according to its coverage map, it certainly looks like it does. But there are still plenty of areas across the country that its 5G network doesn’t reach.

AT&T’s map has even larger gaps in 5G coverage, leaving out entire swaths of states. And Verizon, which turned on its national 5G network to coincide with the iPhone 12 announcement, covers even less than that. Despite those gaps, you’d think from all of the carriers’ commercials that 5G covers everything the light touches.

There’s no doubt that each of the carriers will continue to build out their 5G networks until they blanket the country as much as their 4G LTE networks do. But at the moment, there’s no guarantee that your brand-new 5G iPhone will have a readily available 5G connection.

Should you still get a 5G phone?

None of that necessarily means you should avoid getting a 5G iPhone. By all means, if you’re thinking of upgrading, go for it. I’m going to upgrade, that’s for sure. The phone itself promises myriad improvements outside of its new cellular connection.

What’s more, getting a 5G phone now means that when we begin to see apps that take advantage of those high speeds and 5G networks expand to more regions, you’ll be ahead of the game.

Just don’t expect to get all of those benefits carriers have promised the minute you take your phone out of the box.

By Daniel Howley, tech editor. Follow him at @DanielHowley

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