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Does 5G drain your battery?

No matter the size of your phone, or how you use it, you’ll always be looking for just a little longer battery life. That leads us to do some pretty wacky things. We carry around portable batteries, use crazy power-saving modes, close apps (when it doesn’t actually do anything), and blame our cellular networks. That makes 5G, the new high-powered network technology, an easy target for potential battery savings. And, well, the carriers aren’t doing themselves any favors here either.

So, does 5G drain your battery? Yes … and also, no. Let me explain.

When 5G can actually save battery

Simply having 5G in your phone isn’t going to drain its battery any faster than if it only has 4G. It’s more so about how you’re using that connection.

In ideal circumstances, 5G can actually reduce battery usage. That’s because 5G is faster than 4G — it takes less power to transmit the same amount of data because it takes less time. Engineers use “time to rest” as an important measurement of efficiency and power in electronics — be it in a processor, graphics chip, or in our case, cellular modem. It describes how quickly a given task can be completed so that the component goes back to its lower-power “resting” state. This is critical because while these little components are very efficient overall, they’re still incredibly power hungry when they’re working at their maximum capacity.

5G can download the same data in a fraction of the time 4G can — and that saves battery.

In the case of modems, they’re using a tiny amount of power to simply sit there, holding a faint connection for phone calls and minuscule background transmissions. But when they’re pulling down gigabytes of data for a prolonged period, the power quickly drains your battery — just turn on your hot spot and let a few devices connect, and you’ll see.

That’s how 5G can actually be more efficient than 4G. Because 5G is faster, it can offer a faster time to rest than 4G in the same scenario. If you’re trying to download a large file, on 5G you could be done with the task 10 times faster than on 4G — using a fraction of the power to accomplish the same task, saving battery. Add up that efficiency over the course of the day, and you have substantial battery savings, not drain.

These modems, the software running them, and the carrier networks are also quite smart with managing power usage. Phones can intelligently switch between networks, idle on 4G, use Wi-Fi, and skip over weak connections automatically without you knowing. Networks load-balance traffic between towers and provide quality-of-service tweaks to get your data through as efficiently as possible. You have to give this system a little credit — it’s trying to use as little power as possible.

When 5G can drain your battery

Thing is, when you have those 5G speeds at your fingertips, you can quickly overcome any battery savings by simply using more data than you would otherwise — and, in turn, use more of everything on your phone. With an always-ready superfast 5G connection — tied to an unlimited data plan, no less — you’re going to use your phone differently. You’ll download apps on a whim, stream video in higher resolution, hot spot to your computer, make video calls, and play multiplayer games.

In this case, it isn’t necessarily the 5G connection that’s draining your battery — it’s everything that 5G enables. This can lead you to falsely accuse 5G of being inefficient, and turn it off. But this would be misguided.

If you truly do use your 5G phone exactly how you used your 4G phone, there will be little-to-no difference in battery drain. I’ve experienced this first-hand: My iPhone 12 Pro had battery life effectively identical to my iPhone 11 Pro. My Galaxy S21 Ultra gets superb battery life, ending every day with at least 40% remaining.

5G doesn’t drain your battery inherently, but having bad or inconsistent coverage does.

There is one big exception to keep in mind, though: 5G networks aren’t as big or robust as 4G networks. They’re relatively new and don’t have the same coverage. When your phone doesn’t have a strong signal — whether it’s 5G, 4G, or 3G — it uses more battery to hang onto that signal or search for a better one. If your phone is on the edge of 5G coverage, or in and out of 5G coverage, it can use more power to negotiate all of the extra hand-offs. To be clear, this exact same problem can occur on 4G — we just take for granted nowadays that we have 4G in nearly every square mile of the U.S.

This exception is particularly important to keep in mind when talking about mmWave 5G. It has a massive coverage problem.

I won’t get into the nuances of mmWave here — we have in-depth articles explaining it — but all you need to know is that the technology has an extremely short range, is prone to being blocked by anything, and as such has very finicky coverage. Using mmWave, it can take dozens of cell towers to cover one side of a single city block, compared to a traditional low-frequency cell tower covering several blocks on its own. With coverage that spotty, in a mmWave area your phone could be searching for a connection, or acquiring and dropping it, dozens of times more often than if you’re nowhere near mmWave coverage.

Carriers try to mitigate this by not actually connecting to mmWave until data is being actively transmitted — again, focusing on time to rest — but there’s still a battery hit to negotiating all of these handoffs. So, was Verizon’s customer service Twitter account right? Yeah, sort of. If you’re in an area of weak or inconsistent 5G coverage — particularly with mmWave — your phone could use much more battery if it has 5G turned on.

How to turn off 5G

If you ever have issues with your 5G connection, or just want to test whether it’s actually using more battery, you may be able to turn it off entirely. If you have an iPhone 12, it’s dead-simple to turn off 5G entirely and go back to a 4G-only experience. You can turn it back on at any time — it doesn’t even require rebooting your phone.

On Android, the settings to turn off 5G differ from company to company. Samsung makes it easy to turn off 5G, as do Google and OnePlus. (Samsung phones even let you turn off only mmWave, if you use the service menu.) But there’s one potential catch: Your carrier may not let you turn off 5G. The cellular settings menus in your phone are actually, in part, controlled by the carrier. If the carrier (looking at you, Verizon) doesn’t want you to have options to change your connection settings, the buttons simply won’t show up.

5G isn’t the biggest battery drain on your phone

Be it 5G or 4G, your phone’s network connection likely isn’t the biggest battery consumer over the course of the day. Not even close. Using your phone for more than a couple of hours a day, the screen is going to be the biggest battery drain — this varies widely by phone, but could be as much as 25% of your battery usage. Even more so if you spend time outside with it cranked up to 100% brightness.

There are so many things that can drain the battery on your phone; don’t let 5G distract you.

Next is just the operating system that’s constantly running. Then, depending on how you use your phone, will be the half dozen (or so) most-used apps. Once again, depending on how you use your phone — watching Netflix in 4K for an hour will use considerably more battery than Gmail checking for new email in the background. But you may not realize just how many apps are constantly running, each using a small slice of your battery.

Of course, 5G uses some of your battery. And in some cases, it can use more battery than 4G. But chances are if you’re upset with your phone’s battery life, 5G isn’t the biggest problem. Eliminate your other potential issues, then look at your 5G settings.

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Andrew Martonik
Andrew Martonik is the Editor in Chief at Digital Trends, leading a diverse team of authoritative tech journalists.
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