It’s not going to be long before any phone you want to buy will come with a 5G modem, whether you want to take advantage of the fast mobile data connection or not, and almost regardless of how much the phone costs. One of the first smartphones to push 5G as a feature, the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, cost $1,299 when it was released in June 2019. Now, you can buy a Samsung 5G phone for a little over $200.
The 4G era is well and truly over. Long live 5G.
Massive changes in just two years
The 5G connection started out in the same way as all new mobile innovations do — as a feature found only on the most expensive phones, ready for early adopters to try out. However, in a surprisingly short amount of time, a 5G connection has gone from being a rarity found on spinoff versions of existing 4G phones and a feature phone companies wanted to shout about to being something so expected it’s barely mentioned at all.
Just two years ago, 5G phones were very different. In June 2019, I tested the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G in London, on the EE network’s newly launched 5G service, and colleagues in the U.S. were doing the same in Chicago with Verizon. The 5G connection was so new, it was probably only journalists using it at the time. This was also when most 5G phones were separate versions from the main 4G devices launched earlier in the year.
The Samsung Galaxy S10 5G was one of the first widely available 5G-capable phones and it cost $1,300, yet the availability of a 5G signal was almost nonexistent. The OnePlus 7 Pro 5G was the first smartphone with 5G to be widely available to the public in the U.K., but the phone was only sold with a pricey contract and wasn’t available SIM-free. How things have changed. Speedy advancements in 5G technology mean that 5G coverage today is considerably more widespread and, crucially, some of the cheapest phones you can buy have a 5G modem inside.
Rapid price drop
How cheap are 5G phones today? The Realme 8 5G that launched in May 2021 costs 200 British pounds/$283 U.S. The Xiaomi Poco M3 Pro 5G is also new and has a price in Europe of just 180 euros/$220. Xiaomi has the Redmi Note 10 5G coming out very soon for 200 pounds/$283, and Oppo’s A54 5G is out now for 220 pounds/$268. Samsung has already released the Galaxy A32 5G, and although you pay a slight premium, it’s still just $280, or 250 pounds.
Now, 5G has also been around long enough for you to find good deals if you don’t mind shopping around. The Xiaomi Redmi Note 9T with 5G is just 150 pounds/$212 through the company’s online store at the time of writing. In the U.S., if you have an old phone to trade in, Samsung will sell you the Galaxy A32 5G right now for $205. If you decide to buy a phone with a contract, practically every deal you get will give you a 5G-capable phone for free, and most plans include 5G data at no extra cost. Price simply isn’t a barrier any more.
As you can see, it’s not just one phone with 5G that’s out there for less than $300 — it’s several. And in the right circumstances, a Samsung 5G phone could cost less than the 4G-only Nokia 5.4 and most of the phones on our recommended “cheap phone” list, yet it has a feature many people may still think of as “premium.”
How is this possible?
New technology is always expensive at first, but eventually it becomes cheaper and easier to produce, and in the case of 5G, demand has increased as the infrastructure makes the technology more usable for more people. Analysts at Strategy Analytics report that 24 million 5G phones were shipped during the first three months of 2020, a figure that increased to 133 million over the first three months of 2021. That’s a 458% year-over-year rise. Data from S&P Global shows 67 markets around the world now have an active 5G network, with 158 carriers offering the service.
A 5G report by Ericsson estimated there were 220 million 5G subscribers around the world at the end of 2020, with a massive 80% of them in China, where the number represents 11% of its total subscriber base. As more networks offer 5G connections, the need for more affordable phones increases, and that’s where companies like MediaTek come in.
What’s particularly notable about several of the cheapest 5G phones announced recently is that they all use the MediaTek Dimensity 700 processor. MediaTek has long offered high-performance mobile chips at a reasonable cost to manufacturers, and the 5G Dimensity chips are no exception. MediaTek says the 700 Series is suitable for midtier 5G phones, indicating 5G chips for even cheaper entry0-level phones are still to come.
Despite MediaTek’s increased visibility in the latest round of 5G phones, Qualcomm still leads the way in 5G mobile chips in terms of market share. It has both the 600 Series and 400 Series chips ready to power lower-cost 5G phones. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 480 5G chip is inside the new Nokia X10 and Nokia X20, which is priced at 320 pounds/$450 in the U.K. for example.
The fact that the cost of a new 5G phone effectively fell by $1,000 in less than two years shows how invested both carriers and smartphone makers are in getting us quickly signed up to the next-generation mobile network. But it’s not just falling prices that have pushed 5G further into the limelight. Apple’s entry into 5G with the iPhone 12 series has been transformational, helping to provide more widespread credibility to the technology and putting it in the hands of people other than early adopters.
Data from Strategy Analytics highlights the importance of a 5G iPhone, putting Apple at the top of its charts for 5G phone shipments during the first three months of 2021, during which it sent out 40.4 million iPhone 12 models to take 30% market share, compared to Oppo in second place with 21.5 million phones and 16% market share. Samsung is in fourth place with 17 million 5G phone shipped over the same period. The iPhone 12 was announced in October 2020 and those that won’t pay Apple’s prices may turn to one of the new, cheaper 5G phones to get the same network functionality for less.
The next milestone for 5G, and where affordable phones will be even more essential, is when 5G arrives in key emerging markets like India and Africa. India may see its 5G network active by the end of 2021, according to some reports, while a launch Africa — where 51% of mobile connections are still 3G — may be much further in the future as tests have only recently begun. The speed of these rollouts, and others, may also be affected by the availability of 5G infrastructure hardware, due to the impact of continued tensions between the U.S. and China.
The future is here
If you want to buy a new phone in the U.S., U.K., China, and other parts of Europe and Asia today, the chances of it not coming with 5G are rapidly diminishing. What was an uncommon, expensive emerging technology has grown to become almost ubiquitous on the latest devices, regardless of cost, in a little less than two years.
This isn’t to say you’ll be able to use the 5G feature, though, as coverage, which although far better than when we tested those first 5G phones in 2019, is still nowhere near the level of 4G. However, the 5G price drop means you really don’t need to worry about checking to make sure your new purchase is future-proofed with 5G anymore, as it’ll almost certainly be there waiting for the network to catch up.
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