We tested Sprint’s 5G. It might not be worth an upgrade yet

Testing 5g
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

For the third time in two months, I’m in a different city in the U.S. to see the rollout of a 5G network and a 5G smartphone. The last two trips involved the launch of Motorola’s 5G Moto Mod and Verizon’s 5G network, as well as the arrival of Samsung’s Galaxy S10 5G on Verizon a month later. Now, it’s Sprint’s turn. The carrier launched its True 5G Mobile network in Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, and Atlanta.

Sprint CEO Michel Combes said the rollout is the “largest initial coverage footprint in the country,” and he’s right. In total, there’s around 2,200 square miles of coverage that has the potential to impact 11.5 million people, at least according to Sprint. The 5G network is limited to select areas in these launch cities, and the carrier is expecting to roll it out in select areas of New York City, Washington D.C., Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Chicago in the coming weeks.

But ? How is Sprint’s approach different to Verizon’s? Here’s a quick primer before we jump into our speed tests with the new LG V50 ThinQ and the HTC 5G Hub in Dallas.

What is 5G?

5G is the next generation of wireless technology, following 4G LTE. It’s faster, with the capability to hit peak download speeds between 1Gbps to 10Gbps. It also promises to deliver incredibly low latency, which is the measure of the delay between data transfer speeds. Low latency allows you to interact with people in a multiplayer game instantaneously, for example.

At the moment, 5G means it’s possible to download a high-resolution Netflix movie in mere seconds, instead of minutes on 4G LTE. I saw this for myself in Chicago using the S10 5G on Verizon’s network — I downloaded an episode of The Flash on Netflix in around 30 seconds; it took a minute just to hit 5 percent on 4G LTE. But 5G also goes beyond faster data speeds on phones, as it will usher in a new world of interconnected devices that constantly talk to each other. Think smarter cities with autonomous cars.

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

You will need to upgrade your smartphone to access 5G networks, as it requires a newer modem. The problem is 5G phones right now are incredibly expensive — the Galaxy S10 5G is $1,300, and the LG V50 ThinQ 5G is $1,152.

These devices are also not interoperable, so if you swap carriers and have an S10 5G from Verizon, you won’t be able to connect to Sprint’s 5G network. It will take time for phones to work interchangeably on 5G networks as our 4G LTE phones do right now.

Coverage is also sparse. But now we’re getting into the differences in 5G rollouts from each of the carriers. Verizon and AT&T are utilizing millimeter wave (mmWave), which is a type of spectrum that delivers super fast speeds and ultra low latency, but the downsides are that it has poor range and cannot penetrate objects like walls or cars.

In Chicago, a Verizon 5G node using mmWave delivered speeds over 1Gbps on the S10 5G, but walk a block away or into a store on the same street, and the phone swaps back to LTE. This approach will require these two carriers to install 5G nodes and repeaters on almost every block, so it will take a long time for it to blanket a city.

Sprint’s approach

Sprint is utilizing what’s known as the mid-band spectrum, specifically 2.5GHz. The benefits of mid-band are that it has longer range than mmWave and slightly better building penetration, but it’s not as fast.

Sprint is able to roll out 5G to a large area so quickly because it’s just adding it to its existing cell towers. Massive 4×4 MIMO (Multiple-input, Multiple-output) technology allows the carrier to add 128 antennas in a cluster to these towers, and then coverage is split between LTE and 5G, so if you have a 5G phone, you can access the 5G network.

The addition of Massive MIMO also improves 4G LTE speeds, so if you’re in one of these 5G launch cities and are on Sprint, you should see slightly improved download speeds. Upload speeds aren’t expected to improve until later down the road, as well as latency.

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Sprint said it expects 5G device owners on its network to hit more than 100 to 200Mbps consistently in these launch areas, though you could potentially hit peak speeds over 1Gbps. The carrier said on average people in these areas hit 30Mbps download speeds, so that’s at least 5 times as fast.

Very much like 4G LTE, when you are connected to 5G, you’ll see the 5G logo at the top right of the screen. That’s unlike Verizon’s implementation, which requires a data request to show a 5G connection, so it constantly looks like it’s flip flopping between 4G and 5G in supported areas.

Sprint has a few cell towers that do this split mode of LTE and 5G, but it’s not blanket coverage in its 5G launch cities. Certain areas of Dallas and Fort Worth, for example, can maintain a 5G connection for about a mile from the cell tower. It will seamlessly switch to LTE when 5G is out of range.

This is one thing I like about Sprint’s rollout — I don’t need to think about a 5G node on the block and make sure I have line of sight of it (the case with Verizon’s approach). I just need to be in the right area, and the radius is large enough for me to utilize 5G for several blocks before I see it swapping back to 4G. It’s much more natural because it’s very similar to the existing experience with 4G.

The tests in Dallas

There are two devices you can use to connect to Sprint’s 5G network at the moment: The LG V50 ThinQ smartphone, as well as HTC’s 5G Hub, which you can use to tether 5G service to other devices (or use it alone as a standalone hub). The former costs $1,152, whereas the Hub costs $600.

5g speed test
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Both are limited in availability, as you can only get them where Sprint’s 5G network has launched. For detailed impressions on the devices themselves, check out our LG V50 ThinQ hands-on review, and our HTC 5G Hub post. You will have one more option soon: The Galaxy S10 5G is coming to Sprint this summer.

Sprint first gave us a bus tour, showing live demos of the LG V50 and HTC 5G Hub connecting to the 5G network as the bus drove a mile radius around a cell tower (which could not be seen). Both devices performed admirably, with the V50 even hitting more than 700Mbps.

But that’s a controlled demo, so I grabbed a V50 and drove to certain areas in Dallas to see the results for myself. Again, unlike Verizon’s 5G nodes, the radius is much wider so there’s no specific block I need to stand on to access 5G. The first stop was the Reverchon Recreation Center — a 5G/LTE cell tower was nearby, but I didn’t know exactly where.

My experience here was poor. I had a 5G connection, but the V50 ThinQ was consistently delivering a measly 0.70Mbps download speed. That’s terrible. An LG G8 ThinQ connected to Sprint’s 4G network peformed far better, delivering more than 70Mbps — sometimes even breaching 100Mbps. Chalking it up to an issue with the tower, I went on to the next area.

What surprised me is how I was able to maintain a 5G signal while in a car heading to the Hard Rock Cafe. Speeds we’re pretty good too, hitting more than 200Mbps. That’s not possible on Verizon’s mmWave.

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My V50 latched onto 5G as soon as I entered the restaurant. Whether I was indoors or outdoors, the V50 managed to hit around 319Mbps — this was my record in my own testing, as download speeds didn’t go higher throughout the day. Surprisingly, the LG G8 on 4G LTE hit 306Mbps.

Walking away from the Hard Rock Cafe, the V50 typically hit more than 110Mbps and sometimes even 229Mbps. That is, until about a mile from the restaurant. That’s when my phone swapped back to LTE. These numbers are decently lower than the average speeds of more than 500Mbps I hit using the S10 5G on Verizon’s mmWave network — but at least I wasn’t relegated to one block.

The HTC 5G Hub fared a little better, hitting more than 400Mbps while inside the Hard Rock Cafe. However, I tried to connect my iPad Pro to it and only saw download speeds of 54Mbps. Not ideal if a number of people are meant to connect multiple devices to the hub.

How about a download? I installed PUBG: Mobile from the Google Play Store on the LG G8 on 4G LTE and afterwards I tried the same on the V50 on 5G. On 4G LTE, it took one minute and 31 seconds to download the game, whereas the V50 took 53 seconds. It was faster, but not by much. On Verizon’s 5G network in Chicago, I was able to download PUBG: Mobile in just 30 seconds.

What about battery life? It’s difficult to gauge when doing random speed tests and not using the phone naturally, but after three or so hours of consistent speed tests, the V50 only hit 60 percent. I don’t think there’s any reason to be worried, but we’ll have to wait and see after prolonged testing — especially in a 5G area. Manufacturers are adding bigger batteries in 5G phones as a precaution.

Sprint, T-Mobile, and the merger

Sprint’s use of midband isn’t the best path for a full nationwide 5G rollout. CEO Combes said so himself. It’s why the carrier wants the merger with T-Mobile (which would then become “The New T-Mobile) to go through.

T-Mobile is using low-band in its 5G rollout, which can travel far distances — more than mid-band — at the expense of bandwidth. Expect slower speeds, but Combes said the merging of the two companies would allow the new carrier to deliver high speeds that are consistent and with far more coverage.

“We’ll have the scale and financial resources to lead the world in 5G,” Combes said at the launch event in Dallas. “If the merger goes through, it will help solve the digital divide; rural America has been left out for too long.”

Combes said the New T-Mobile would accelerate and deploy 5G in underserved, so more people will have improved access to the internet.

Whether the merger will happen is up in the air, as it looks like the U.S. Justice Department may intervene and block it over competitive concerns.

The takeaway

Verizon’s 5G network feels far more futuristic. I was able to download a whole season of a show on Amazon Prime Video in just 93 seconds — it blew me away. The speeds on Sprint’s 5G network are impressive, but what I frequently saw is that its 4G LTE was able to keep up, or was never terribly behind. That shows there’s no incentive to buy a 5G phone right now, especially when they cost so much.

But Sprint’s approach was never about delivering the fastest download speeds. It was to deliver a consistent and faster experience with broad coverage.

“Our competitions are offering 5G for few,” Combes said. “We are offering 5G for many.”

More people will see a bump in download speeds, even if they don’t necessarily upgrade their phone just yet. What I appreciate about Sprint’s strategy is that it’s not charging more for 5G (sort of). If you have the top tier Unlimited Premium plan, you’re good to go to connect to 5G networks if you have the right phone. Verizon subscribers need to pay an additional $10 on top of its top tier unlimited plans to access 5G.

Naturally this rollout is just the start, so expect speeds and coverage to drastically improve over the year.

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