I’m in Chicago. Again. It’s my second trip to the windy city in the past month, and I don’t expect it to be my last.
Why? 5G! Verizon’s the first carrier in the U.S. to deploy a 5G network — the next-gen wireless connectivity standard — but it’s only available in select cities. By select cities, I mean Chicago and Minneapolis. I was here in early April to check out Motorola’s Moto Z3 and the 5G Moto Mod, which was the only phone that worked on 5G as Verizon launched its network. But now the first real 5G phone has arrived. Samsung’s Galaxy S10 5G.
I say “real” phone because unlike the Moto Z3, you don’t need to attach a mod to get 5G service. It’s built in, so it looks and feels like a normal smartphone. That does come with one downside: the price. The Galaxy S10 5G will set you back a ridiculous $1,300. It’s safe to say there’s no need to buy it (and you do need to eventually buy new hardware to get 5G connectivity). Not just because it’s so expensive, but because Verizon’s 5G network is still in its infancy. Remember, you can only access 5G speeds in two cities at the moment — though up to 30 more markets are on the way by the end of 2019.
Nevertheless, 5G is exciting. This time around, I saw the tangible benefits of using 5G in everyday situations. Here’s what it was like.
A brief primer on Verizon’s 5G
First, we need to talk a little about what exactly 5G is and how it works. Currently we’re all using 4G LTE on our smartphones for data service; its predecessor was 3G, and 2G came before it. The next evolution is 5G, which promises speeds between 1Gbps to 10Gbps, with latency (the measure of the delay between data transfer speeds) less than 10 milliseconds. This doesn’t just mean it will take less time to download a 4K Netflix movie. 5G has the potential to impact a wide range of industries, and will pave the way for smarter cities.
As a reference, 4G LTE download speeds tend to peak between 150Mbps and 300Mbps, though you’ll usually see around 15Mbps on average.
A Verizon 5G node in Chicago can only deliver 5G speeds for about a block and a half
There are a few approaches carriers are using to roll out 5G, but the pertinent one here is millimeter wave, which is Verizon and AT&T’s approach (Verizon calls its 5G service “Ultra Wideband”). This spectrum can deliver super fast speeds and low latency, but it has poor penetration and low range.
That means a Verizon 5G node in Chicago can only deliver 5G speeds for about a block and a half. 4G LTE is not going anywhere soon; 5G is meant to complement it, at least for the next few years. This also means that if you walk into a restaurant on the same block as a 5G node, you will no longer see 5G service. Millimeter wave has trouble going through buildings and cars.
These 5G nodes are easy to identify. Verizon’s nodes look like giant black boxes connected to poles, and they’re scattered in a small area of Chicago and Minneapolis. The carrier is continuing to roll out more nodes, but don’t expect blanket coverage like you get with 4G LTE. You may see 5G one block, and it will disappear the next.
For more in-depth details on 5G and how other carriers like T-Mobile and Sprint are implementing it, check out our 5G explainer.
Speeding through Chicago
When I tested the Moto Z3 with the Moto Mod in April, when Verizon launched its 5G network, my average download speeds were around 450Mbps, according to the Speedtest app by Ookla. The highest download speed I hit was 624Mbps.
The Galaxy S10 5G put those numbers to shame. The network is more developed, so the highest I hit on the S10 5G with the same Speedtest app was 1.35Gbps. That’s right, Gigabit.
But just like before, it wasn’t consistent. As I traversed the streets of Chicago node to node, I saw varying results, though it never dipped below 550Mbps. As with the Moto Z3, losing line of sight with the node also meant losing 5G service. Walls are the network’s kryptonite. (Reliability and consistency will improve as the network matures, Verizon told me.)
I had to think about how I held the phone. If you cover up all the sides of the S10 5G with two hands, you won’t be able to connect to 5G, just 4G LTE. This is due to the positioning of the antennas in the phone. For the most part, holding the phone normally with one hand didn’t give me trouble, but I did see faster speeds if I shifted my fingers toward the middle and didn’t block much of the top or bottom.
5G is fast, but there’s a lot of caveats right now
Verizon says standing right next to the node won’t deliver better results. Standing directly opposite it is also not ideal, as I couldn’t connect to 5G at all. That’s because the node is shooting 5G parallel to the street. As the network matures, beamforming technology will help target 5G straight to your phone, so this shouldn’t be as big of an issue.
I’m also not talking about latency or upload speeds, because Verizon’s still using the 4G LTE framework for them. I saw less than 30 millisecond latency, but that should drop soon. We won’t see better upload speeds for a while.
So 5G is fast, but there are a lot of caveats right now. It’s sparse in the few places it exists, it’s not consistent, and upload speeds and latency aren’t too different from 4G LTE.
Downloading movies, games, and shows
During my last trip, I tried downloading games and movies on the Moto Z3 with the 5G mod and was disappointed by the results. The Moto Z3 on 4G LTE downloaded content faster than the 5G model — Verizon said this was largely because those apps and services needed to add proper 5G support.
One month later, the story is completely different. It took me just 93 seconds to download the entire season of Sneaky Pete (10 episodes) from Amazon Prime Video. It took 23 seconds to download PUBG: Mobile from the Galaxy Store (around 1.86GB); and it took around 30 seconds to download one episode of The Flash from Netflix.
To compare, a Galaxy S10 Plus connected to Verizon’s 4G LTE network took almost exactly 2 minutes to download PUBG: Mobile from the Galaxy Store, and it took more than a minute to download just 5% of the same episode of The Flash from Netflix — I impatiently gave up on finishing the download. The difference is dramatic.
Imagine if these 5G nodes were at the airport — you could potentially download several seasons of a show in minutes before boarding the plane. This is the most immediate and most noticeable improvement we’ll see with 5G.
One thing to note is while almost all the downloads I attempted utilized the 5G speeds, app downloads from Google Play did not (it’s why I downloaded PUBG: Mobile from the Galaxy Store instead). I tried downloading the game from Google Play, and it took around two minutes, so Google needs to add support (this may arrive with Android Q).
The cost conundrum
5G is amazing when it’s available, but it’s still not worth it at the moment. Take all the caveats I mentioned earlier, and now add the fact that the S10 5G costs $1,300. That’s absurd. Now think about how Verizon is charging an additional $10 per month to access these 5G speeds on top of your current unlimited plan. 5G is expensive, and you’re better off waiting.
The S10 5G is available now exclusively from Verizon, but it will be coming to other carriers
Next year, we will see more 5G phones that are more affordable. There will also be wider 5G coverage across the country — from various carriers, too — so you will have a higher chance of actually getting to use it. Speaking of other carriers, the S10 5G is available now exclusively from Verizon, but it will be coming to other carriers later this summer.
The only people who should consider the S10 5G are early adopters with money to burn.
The S10 5G
If you’re wondering about our impressions on the phone, check out my Galaxy S10 5G hands-on review. It feels very similar to the Galaxy S10 Plus, despite having a larger 6.7-inch screen. There’s a larger 4,500mAh battery, but it’s impossible to tell exactly how long you can expect it to last with the limited testing I’ve done. After about five hours of use, three of which involved continuous speed tests, the phone is sitting at 50 percent.
The cameras are the only other difference between the S10 5G and the S10 Plus — there’s an extra time-of-flight camera on the rear, as well as an improved one on the front. Live Focus shots (Samsung’s portrait mode) should deliver more accurate outlines of subjects and better-looking blur, and the results compared with the S10 Plus are marginally better. Samsung also has a Live Focus Video mode that adds the blur effect in videos using the front or rear cameras. It’s hit or miss, but it’s a neat look if the subject is standing relatively still.
The time-of-flight cameras mean better tracking for Samsung’s augmented reality AR Emojis, but I didn’t get a chance to try this yet. I’ll be doing further testing with the phone in the coming weeks, and will finalize our review with a verdict on the parts of the phone that have nothing to do with 5G.
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