Testing Sprint’s 5G speeds on the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G in New York City

The cheapest 5G smartphone you can buy on Sprint is the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G, but that’s “cheap” only when compared to other 5G phones available on the carrier — like the LG V50 ThinQ and the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, both of which cost $1,000 or more. The OnePlus 7 Pro 5G is $840, and its launch is tied to Sprint’s latest wave of 5G cities: New York City, Washington D.C., Phoenix, and Los Angeles.

That brings Sprint’s total number of 5G cities to nine, including Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Kansas City, Chicago, and Atlanta, which means it covers around 2,100 square miles and 11 million people. With Sprint’s 5G now available in my home city, I took the OnePlus 7 Pro out for a spin to see what speeds are like.

Note that the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G already launched in select international markets — and we tested it in the U.K. — but this is its debut stateside. It’s the same as the standard OnePlus 7 Pro (read our OnePlus 7 Pro review for in-depth impressions) except you can only get it in the blue model with 256GB of internal storage and 8GB RAM.

What is 5G? Sprint’s approach

First, a quick primer on 5G. It’s the next-gen network, following 4G LTE, and it’s bringing faster internet speeds and lower latency. It has the potential to radically alter the tech landscape, but it’s early days so what you’ll see for the next few years are faster download speeds on your phone, allowing you to download that 4K Netflix movie in seconds rather than several minutes. You can read up our 5G primer for more details. Keep in mind, 4G LTE is not going away anytime soon. 4G speeds will get better, and the network will work in tandem with 5G for years to come.

The four major U.S. carriers each have different approaches to 5G, and it might be a good idea to read our explanation of the different spectrum variants before going any further. Here’s the tldr; AT&T and Verizon are focusing on the millimeter wave spectrum, which has a short range but produces the fastest speeds. Its biggest downside, aside from range, is that it has poor building penetration. I’ve tested Verizon’s mmWave 5G in Chicago several times and have hit more than 1Gbps download speeds.

OnePlus 7 Pro 5G
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Then there’s mid-band, which is what Sprint is using, specifically the 2.5GHz spectrum. The carrier is adding 128-antenna massive Multiple-Input, Multiple Output equipment to its existing cell towers to create a 4G/5G split, making it faster and easier to deploy 5G than building and installing 5G nodes around a city (as AT&T and Verizon have to do).

Mid-band has significantly better range than mmWave and better building penetration (though it’s still not great), but this comes at the cost of speed. It will be faster than 4G LTE, but it won’t hit mmWave’s peak speeds. In Dallas, I tested Sprint’s initial 5G launch and recorded speeds over 400Mbps using the HTC 5G Hub.

T-Mobile is focusing on low-band, specifically 600MHz, and it has even greater range and penetration than mid-band — though even slower speeds. The carrier has also deployed some mmWave nodes in places like New York City, but its end goal hinges on the T-Mobile and Sprint merger. The new T-Mobile would then have a robust 5G network across the U.S. with low-band, mid-band, and some mmWave.

The test

Unfortunately, I did not have a 4G LTE Sprint SIM card to use alongside the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G for a direct comparison, but I did track speeds on two other phones: the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus using 4G LTE+ on AT&T, and the LG V50 ThinQ 5G on Sprint’s same 5G network.

Sprint provided me with a map of hotspots where the company measured strong 5G signals (note: these are not 5G nodes). I started at 55 West 47th Street and recorded 400Mbps downloads and 21Mbps uploads on the OnePlus 7. That’s immediately better than most of my results back in Dallas, where the LG V50 on Sprint’s fledgling 5G network hovered under 320Mbps. The Galaxy Note 10 Plus on AT&T at this location in New York reached just 52Mbps download speeds and 15.4 upload speeds on LTE.

More interestingly, I walked around 14 blocks away from this location toward the Digital Trends office, and the OnePlus 7 maintained a 5G signal. It kicked back to 4G LTE when I reached the 15th block. But maintaining a 5G signal doesn’t necessarily mean maintaining 5G speeds. Multiple speed tests between 47th and 33rd saw download speeds such as 180Mbps, 69.2Mbps, and 116Mbps. Finally, when the phone reverted to 4G LTE, I recorded 69.2Mbps. It can wildly fluctuate, but these speeds are still generally better than average LTE speeds on Sprint’s network.

OnePlus 7 Pro 5G
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Sprint’s advantage is coverage. You can’t get the same kind of multiple-block coverage on mmWave 5G networks from AT&T and Verizon — at least not yet. Walking more than two blocks away from 5G nodes in Chicago saw my Galaxy S10 5G losing signal and switching to 4G LTE. The same rings true for T-Mobile’s mmWave network in New York.

I next walked 16 blocks south toward the next point on the map: 496 6th Avenue, near Union Square Park. Five blocks before I arrived, I did a check-in: Both the OnePlus 7 and LG V50 held a 5G connection, and they saw respective download speeds of 242Mbps and 243Mbps. The Note 10 Plus on AT&T’s LTE+ network hit 21.3Mbps. At the exact location, I actually saw slightly lower speeds: 183Mbps for OnePlus, 206Mbps on the V50, and 54.7Mbps on the Note 10 Plus. I ran multiple tests and found the results quite often varied, sometimes barely hitting 100Mbps. More often than not I saw the 200+Mbps listed speeds as I mentioned above — but not always on the first try.

Next up I went to the map marker at 129 Prince Street — Soho, that is. The OnePlus 7 Pro 5G fared well here, hitting 345Mbps downloads and 22.9 uploads. The LG V50 ThinQ hit 364Mbps download with 21.7Mbps in upload speeds. Finally, the Note 10 Plus on AT&T’s LTE saw its highest download speed of the day at 168Mbps, but it only had 3.51Mbps for uploads. Just a block away, the OnePlus 7 and LG V50 drastically dropped, offering up speeds of 63.2Mbps and 122Mbps, respectively (the Note 10 Plus here hit 92.2Mbps).

Clearly, the network speeds are wildly fluctuating, even if the phones are connected to 5G. I can say for sure that the OnePlus 7 and the LG V50 connected to 5G over longer distances on Sprint’s network than phones on other carriers. While the results may not have been consistent, on the whole, they were better than average LTE speeds on Sprint’s network.

OnePlus 7 Pro 5G
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Speed tests are fine and all, but what about some real-life tests? I downloaded an episode of Our Planet (297MB) from Netflix on the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G, and it took exactly 60 seconds. Next, I downloaded Bird Box (HDR, 678MB), and it took just 75 seconds. Now, that’s not close to Verizon’s 5G network in Chicago (around 20 seconds), but it’s far better than how long it takes on LTE. To compare, I ran the same test on the Note 10 Plus on AT&T’s LTE+ network, and by the 2-minute mark, the download was still crawling at 11 percent. Downloading and watching content on the go will be so much more commonplace on 5G.

Not all the spots Sprint recommended were winners. The 252 Mott Street location (still in Soho) saw dismal speeds on both 5G phones — around 8Mbps each. Moving a block away to the 47 E Houston marker saw speeds improve to 286Mbps on the OnePlus and 230Mbps on the V50. The Note 10 Plus hit 148Mbps. Why the drastic change? Sprint said I was in a “handover zone,” which disrupted my test. The carrier said it’s a launch day issue and that it will be fixed.

A quick word on upload speeds: They were typically higher than 20Mbps, which isn’t amazing, but it’s better than LTE uploads. The Note 10 Plus on AT&T, for example, barely went higher than 10Mbps.

What about speeds indoors? Apart from the first test I ran, where I hit 400Mbps indoors, I saw slower speeds inside, though the phones still maintained a 5G connection. In a coffee shop near the 47 E Houston spot (where the OnePlus 7 hit 286Mbps outside), I hit 134Mbps. This is still significantly better than mmWave 5G on Verizon’s network, which completely dropped the 5G connection and switched back to LTE as soon as I stepped inside a building.

The takeaway

Sprint’s 5G network speeds won’t blow you away like Verizon’s mmWave network speeds, but it’s still pretty darn fast, even if it isn’t consistent. You can also get reasonably fast speeds over longer distances on 5G, whereas you’re restricted to a few blocks at a time on Verizon.

But remember the caveats. The 5G network is inconsistent, and it isn’t going to blanket cover the entire city. If you travel, you’ll likely be on 4G LTE most of the time, and if you plan to switch carriers, your 5G phone will not work on another carrier because it’s not interoperable. I think it’s worth waiting for the wave of more affordable 5G phones that will arrive in 2020 — especially because there will be more mature networks and better coverage.  Also, keep in mind that you will need to upgrade to Sprint’s $80 a month unlimited plan to access its 5G network.

Sprint asks for $1,000 if you want the LG V50 ThinQ or $1,300 if you want the Galaxy S10 5G. Both are good phones, but I do not think they are worth such high prices. The OnePlus 7 Pro’s $840 price tag is much more stomachable, and it’s just $140 more than the 256GB standard OnePlus 7 Pro. If you’re in a city with 5G and you’re planning on upgrading your phone soon — and you like the sound of the OnePlus 7 Pro — it just might be the only 5G phone worth buying.

It’s available now in select Sprint stores, with wider U.S. availability launching on September 6.

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