5G is here. No, really, it is. There have been times over the past days when my phone has not only claimed it had a 5G connection — and not 5GE or something silly — but backed it up with some very impressive performance too. I’ve been testing the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G on U.K. network EE’s recently-launched 5G network, and while my initial statement is absolutely true, I didn’t see spectacular download speeds a majority of the time.
EE’s 5G network is available in six cities around the U.K. including London, but as we’ve seen with Verizon in Chicago, it’s not blanket coverage; but rather you’ll just find small pockets of fast 5G speeds as you move around the city. Every other time you make do with 4G LTE. EE supplied me with a map pinpointing where I’d definitely find 5G, but it did pop up on my phone in other areas too.
From Soho to The Strand and Chancery Lane, via Covent Garden and St Paul’s, I wandered around London over the period of a few days to find high-speed data nirvana.
The first, most important point to make is that coverage is hyper-localized. Take Covent Garden as an example. EE directed me to Floral Street, which runs by the entrance to the famous tourist spot, and while 5G did arrive on my phone, it disappeared when I took 20 steps in the “wrong” direction. Even then, speeds weren’t as impressive as I’d hoped.
The Fast speed test app showed consistent data download speeds of 360Mbps and above.
What about when it did fly? Near St Paul’s Cathedral, the Fast speed test app showed consistent data download speeds of 360Mbps and above. Walking down The Strand also returned results of at least 200Mbps and higher. During all my tests I’ve used a standard OnePlus 7 Pro with an EE 4G LTE SIM card inside for direct comparison. Notably at this spot, 4G LTE was very slow, rarely going above 20Mbps, mostly due to the amount of people using their phones, and the time of the day.
Speed tests are one thing, but they don’t really demonstrate the real-world benefits of 5G. I carried out an effective test of 5G’s speed and low latency while sitting down for coffee on The Strand. Playing a 4K YouTube Video at 1440p on both the 5G and the 4G phones, scrubbing to the halfway point from the beginning saw the 5G phone start playing again almost instantly with no image degradation, while the 4G LTE connected phone took much longer to resume playing. Elsewhere on my expedition, I downloaded a 45-minute, 1080p Netflix episode in around 25 seconds over 5G, while the same episode took more than 1 minute 40 seconds over 4G LTE.
Using the 5G OnePlus 7 Pro generally, when the connection was strong in either 4G or 5G, is a fluid experience most of the time. Google Maps loads quickly and viewing Street View images is smoother and more usable than over an average 4G connection. Even viewing webpages in Chrome, and navigating around links is fast. This may have been a placebo effect, but it felt instantaneous when 5G was active. These are simple tasks, yet not having any wait time removed frustration and increased usefulness.
Being connected to 5G even for a short time shows the potential it has, and how much we’re all going to enjoy it when coverage is higher, so speeds are faster and more consistent. However, that’s going to take some time.
Where is the 525Mbps shown in EE’s marketing material for 5G? In the real world, at least so far, this doesn’t exist yet. EE’s 5G — which operates on sub-6 frequencies, like Sprint and T-Mobile — is faster than EE’s 4G LTE, often by many magnitudes, but it’s inconsistent. The promise of 5G that we’ve been sold over the past year will only arrive when coverage improves.
For now, even understanding when you’re actually connected to 5G is a problem. While the phone will show maximum reception on a 5G connection, it would not only often hang when trying to complete a task — downloading app updates, or browsing the web, for example — but also the speeds were sometimes lower or very similar to the 4G LTE signal on my other phone.
For now, data downloads come at 5G speeds, but for uploads, the 5G EE network reverts to 4G.
This is because EE’s 5G network relies on 4G, and it will fall back to 4G when the signal is not strong enough. EE told me when the phone’s antenna is in a crossover area, it will show the fastest possible connection available on the phone’s screen, but may actually be connecting at 4G LTE at the time. This can be confusing, and in some ways misleads about the level of 5G coverage. It’ll become more accurate as more towers deliver 5G.
At the moment it also appears the phone’s software is not always very good at switching between cell towers in these cases, resulting in the connection messing around. Restarting the phone or turning Airplane mode on and off was often required to jump start it back to life. It’s also worth knowing that for now, data downloads come at 5G speeds, but for uploads, the 5G EE network reverts to 4G.
The final word on 5G data speed comes when looking at results from speed test apps. EE recommended we use the FAST Speed Test app, which connects to Netflix’s servers. I also used Ookla’s Speedtest app and this sometimes delivered different results. Often it was around the same as Fast, but other times it showed 4G-like speeds while Fast returned two or three times faster speeds, which is possibly a result of the phone swapping between the 4G and 5G masts.
What about the phone? The OnePlus 7 Pro 5G is a technical marvel, with almost completely redesigned internals to cope with the many antennas, new modems, and other components, all squeezed into a body that’s visually identical to the 4G OnePlus 7 Pro.
Major concerns over the battery capacity not being increased look unfounded so far. The OnePlus 7 Pro’s battery life without 5G is poor, but the 5G model ended most days so far at around 10% less battery remaining than the 4G model. Higher consumption, especially as it wasn’t my main phone, but not so much that it will only last a few hours.
The rest of the phone is identical to the 4G OnePlus 7 Pro, and that makes it very good indeed. It’s absolutely a recommended purchase, and is currently an EE exclusive in the U.K., where it will work out to be slightly more than the regular 4G OnePlus 7 Pro as it’s only available on a 5G plan and contract.
If you’re on the fence about buying a 5G phone in the U.K. right now, and aren’t in a position where a new phone and contract is essential, it’s probably worth waiting for a while. The coverage just isn’t there yet to make it a worthwhile investment if you’re banking on getting a 5G signal on a regular basis.
If it’s really time for a new phone and contract, going 5G now should be a consideration.
That said, if it’s really time for a new phone and contract, going 5G now should be a consideration. Over the next two years of a normal EE contract, you’re going to see the coverage increase exponentially, so if you’re patient and very keen to be an early adopter, the experience will only get better. The OnePlus 7 Pro 5G is also excellent, and a compelling reason to not only get 5G, but also to do so through EE where it’s currently exclusively sold.
The amount of hype surrounding 5G was in danger of making the launch a disappointment. However, the often astonishing level of excitement from companies with heavy investment in it actually ended up keeping my expectations in check. The fact 5G has launched in 2019 with a selection of phones that really do connect to 5G at all, is extremely impressive. That there are phones you genuinely want to own at the same time is another pleasing surprise.
Connection to 5G may be spotty, and the speeds not quite as incredible as hoped, but there’s something special and exciting about using 5G today. It’s like using half throttle in a very fast car — you can feel there is a whole lot more speed to come, and you can’t wait to use it. I’ll continue using EE’s 5G connection in the U.K., and to track its progress. For now, it’s a small step in the right direction for the future of mobile connectivity, and its importance can’t be underestimated.
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