Mobile network operators around the world are sprinting to deploy 5G networks to more efficiently serve the increasing number of devices users and businesses are connecting to mobile networks. Though smartphones are already ubiquitous, the increased use of mobile broadband adapters, always-connected computers, and consumer and enterprise IoT devices will require more data than current 4G networks can sustainably supply.
Naturally, smartphone manufacturers are eager to be the first out of the gate with a 5G phone. Because of this, some mobile network operators and smartphone manufacturers may label proprietary or transitional network technologies as being 5G, though these devices will not receive all of the benefits that "true" 5G offers (or, at least, promises).
TechRepublic's cheat sheet for 5G smartphones is an overview of smartphones marketed as being 5G capable, as well as a forecast of when manufacturers will release new devices. This article will be updated periodically as new announcements and products are released.
SEE: 5G technology: A business leader's guide (Tech Pro Research)
What is 5G?
5G refers to the fifth generation of cellular mobile communications. Strictly speaking, the industry standard is called 5G NR (New Radio). Unlike the fourth generation of cellular mobile communications, which had two competing standards—LTE and WiMAX—there is no competing standard to 5G NR. However, the 5G NR standards are designed to be quite versatile in order to accommodate a diverse range of use cases.
5G NR allows for networks to operate on a wide variety of frequencies, most notably recycling the frequencies vacated by decommissioning 2G and 3G networks, as well as the digital dividend of spectrum vacated from the transition to digital TV broadcasts, as well as previously unused extremely high frequency (EHF) or millimeter wave (mmWave) frequencies, which comprise the 30 to 300 GHz range.
The 5G NR standard allows for speeds up to 20 gigabits per second, though this is a theoretical maximum based on laboratory testing of proof-of-concept hardware. While initial rollouts may only reach speeds already attainable on current 4G networks, 5G is engineered to minimize latency compared to 4G. Further, mature 5G modems are anticipated to have modestly lower power requirements than 4G, thereby extending the battery life of 5G-powered smartphones.
It is important to note that 5G is not an incremental or backward-compatible update to existing mobile communications standards. 5G is separate from 4G standards like LTE or WiMAX, and cannot be delivered to existing phones, tablets, or wireless modems by means of tower upgrades or software updates. Mobile network operators are deploying upgrades to their LTE infrastructure, including technologies like LTE Advanced and LTE Advanced Pro, which allow for download speeds over one gigabit on smartphones. While these are worthwhile and welcome advances, these are ultimately transitional 4G technologies and do not provide the full range of benefits of 5G NR.
For a technical overview of 5G networks, when and where 5G networks are being deployed, and how businesses and consumers can benefit from 5G technologies, check out TechRepublic's cheat sheet for 5G mobile networks.
- IT pro's guide to the evolution and impact of 5G technology (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
- What is 5G? Everything you need to know about the new wireless revolution (ZDNet)
- Here's the FCC's plan on speeding up 5G deployments and lowering their cost (TechRepublic)
- Why 5G is coming to the US faster than expected (TechRepublic)
- Wiring for wireless: 5G and the tower in your backyard (ZDNet)
- AT&T showcases disruptive potential of 5G with world's first mm wave browsing session (TechRepublic)
What are the benefits and drawbacks of 5G smartphones?
The two most obvious benefits of 5G smartphones are reduced latencies compared to 4G networks, and resilience against performance degradation in densely packed areas. Structures that have been historically difficult to serve via cellular networks are often subject to network degradation or service disruption due to the number of devices connected to the available infrastructure; examples include high-rise office buildings, which are architecturally difficult to serve due to the physics of radio waves, and large stadiums intended to accommodate tens of thousands of spectators. As 5G extensively utilizes small cell towers communicating on millimeter wave frequencies, these towers can more effectively serve customers in these types of structures.
SEE: More 5G coverage (TechRepublic Flipboard magazine)
The use of millimeter wave frequencies is also a significant drawback, as prototype antenna and modem designs are rumored to cause excessive heat in smartphones, which can deplete the battery charge quickly. Likewise, for traditional Lithium-ion batteries, excessive exposure to elevated temperatures can shorten the lifespan of the battery.
- What 5G wireless devices will do that 4G cannot (ZDNet)
- Tech experts rank cloud, AI, and 5G among technologies that will be important in 50 years (TechRepublic)
- How 5G aims to end network delays that slow everything down (CNET)
- What are consumers willing to pay for 5G? (ZDNet)
- Tech companies are dialling down the hype around 5G mobile - here's why (ZDNet)
When will 5G smartphones be released?
With the accelerated pace of 5G deployments by network operators, smartphone manufacturers are working to catch up. In February 2018, 18 manufacturers announced plans to release 5G-capable devices in 2019 powered by Qualcomm's X50 5G modem, though this comes with significant caveats. Of the 18 companies mentioned in the announcement, seven produce only mobile broadband adapters or IoT devices, and five have limited to no sales infrastructure outside of Asia.
Below is a forecast of when 5G-capable phones from popular vendors will be released.
Historically, Apple has taken a very conservative stance toward networking technologies in the iPhone. The original iPhone, released in June 2007, lacked 3G capabilities despite 3G networks being widespread at the time. Likewise, the iPhone 5, released in September 2012, was the first LTE capable iPhone, making Apple slightly more than a year late to introduce 4G compared to Android smartphones.
For that reason, it is safe to presume that Apple will continue its conservative stance toward mobile standards, making the prospect of a 5G-capable iPhone in 2019 unlikely. Further, rumors indicate that Apple is planning on a 2020 release for the first 5G iPhone.
The iPhone XS and XS Max are capable of Gigabit LTE, allowing those phones to take full advantage of upgrades in existing LTE networks.
ASUS has not announced a 5G phone yet, though the Taiwanese giant is typically the first to adopt new networking technologies. The ZenFone 4 Pro and the ROG Phone both support 802.11ad—also known as WiGig—allowing for high-speed wireless communication over the 60 GHz frequency band, giving ASUS experience in designing phone antennas capable of using ultra-high frequencies.
SEE: Mini-glossary: 5G terms you should know (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
It is difficult to predict if Google will be ready to launch a 5G-capable phone in 2019. Historically, new Google phones are released in October, giving a modest amount of lead time for a 5G Pixel 4 and 4 XL.
The Nexus 4, released in October 2012, was widely criticized for lacking LTE. At an entry-level price of $299 for the 8 GB model, the Nexus 4 (and arguably the Nexus series) was positioned as a budget-minded option, which the Pixel series is decidedly not.
Like the the iPhone XS and XS Max, the Pixel 3 and 3 XL are capable of Gigabit LTE, allowing those phones to take full advantage of upgrades in existing LTE networks.
HTC is one of the companies that signed a pledge to release a Qualcomm-powered 5G phone in 2019, though the likelihood of HTC releasing a new flagship phone is doubtful, as the once-top Taiwanese firm sold half of its design and research team, as well as non-exclusive rights to smartphone patents, to Google for $1.1 billion USD in a deal that closed in January 2018.
In July 2018, HTC announced layoffs of 1,500 employees (about 22%) from its workforce. Days later, the company announced a 68% drop in sales in June 2018, year-over-year, to $72 million USD ($2.23 billion NTD).
As a major vendor of networking equipment to mobile network operators, as well as manufacturing its own Kirin brand chips in smartphones, Huawei is well positioned to be one of the first vendors to release a 5G-capable smartphone. The company announced plans to release its first 5G handset before the end of June 2019, though it seems unlikely that this will be available stateside. In 2018, pressure from the US government reportedly forced the cancellation of Huawei phones being sold AT&T, Verizon, and Best Buy.
LG is one of the companies that signed a pledge to release a Qualcomm-powered 5G phone in 2019. In August 2018, the company announced what it touts as "the first 5G smartphone in the US" to be released in a partnership with Sprint in the first half of 2019.
The Moto Z3, which was released as a Verizon exclusive in August 2018, is touted as being "5G capable" through the use of an add-on, which will be available in early 2019. It is unclear if the add-on, which is part of Motorola's "moto mod" ecosystem of Pogo pin connected add-ons, will be compatible with other Motorola phones featuring the connector.
Nokia (technically, HMD Global) is another company that announced plans to release a Qualcomm-powered 5G phone in 2019, but there have been no further developments since that announcement.
Oppo, which sells phones in the west under the OnePlus brand, is one of the companies that signed a pledge to release a Qualcomm-powered 5G phone in 2019.
The OnePlus 6 and 6T support Gigabit LTE, allowing those phones to take full advantage of upgrades in existing LTE networks.
In August 2018, Samsung indicated its collaboration with South Korean mobile network operators to release its first 5G phone, noting that this will not be the Galaxy S10. However, CNET reported in September 2018 that the larger Galaxy S10 Plus may be the company's first 5G phone. The Galaxy S10 Plus is expected to be released around February or March 2019.
The Galaxy S8, S8+, and Note 8 support Gigabit LTE, allowing those phones to take full advantage of upgrades in existing LTE networks. Likewise, the Galaxy S9, S9+, and Note 9 support speeds up to 1200 Mbit/sec.
Sony is one of the companies that signed a pledge to release a Qualcomm-powered 5G phone in 2019, though no concrete information about these plans are available.
Xiaomi is one of the companies that signed a pledge to release a Qualcomm-powered 5G phone in 2019, though no concrete information about these plans are available. Xiaomi has started focusing on the US market recently, with the release of the Pocophone F1.
ZTE is one of the companies that signed a pledge to release a Qualcomm-powered 5G phone in 2019, though the company is struggling to survive, as pressure from the US government left it unable to purchase chips from Qualcomm for an extended period of time in 2018. While the company was granted a reprieve, it is unclear how this supply chain disruption has impacted ZTE's product release schedule.
- 5G phones are coming. Here's a (probable) list of them (CNET)
- 5G is coming, but not everyone is happy about it (CNET)
- Huawei plans to pack 5G into its foldable phone, says report (CNET)
- 5G mobile: Arriving not with a bang, but a whisper (ZDNet)
Who is making 5G modems for smartphones?
Five companies are publicly known to be developing 5G modems for use in smartphones: Huawei, Intel, MediaTek, Qualcomm, and Samsung.
Huawei's first-generation Balong 5G01 modem was announced in February 2017, and claims to be capable of 2.3 Gbps download speeds. Huawei's Kirin SoCs are not sold to third-party phone manufacturers; as a result, they only appear in Huawei phones, as well in its Honor sub-brand.
Intel announced the XMM 8160 5G modem, which it touts as supporting peak speeds of 6 Gbps when connected to 5G networks. The XMM 8160 supports 5G NR in standalone (SA) and non-standalone (NSA) modes, as well as 4G, 3G, and 2G standards for backward compatibility. Intel indicates that this modem will be available to manufacturers in the second half of 2019, with commercial devices using the modem expected to be available in the first half of 2020. Intel is rumored to be the vendor of choice for Apple's first 5G-powered iPhone. Additionally, rumors indicate that an "XMM 8161" variant is anticipated to be manufactured on a 10mm process for additional power savings. At MWC 2018, Intel announced a collaboration with Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Microsoft to bring 5G connectivity to Windows PCs using XMM 5G modems.
MediaTek's Helio M70 claims to be ready "in 2019," though performance information has not been disclosed.
Industry leader Qualcomm is developing its X50 modem, which the company touts as being capable of up to 5 Gbps download speeds. Qualcomm is generally the SoC (system on a chip) vendor used by most mainstream Android device manufacturers.
Samsung announced the Exynos Modem 5100, which the company indicates is capable of 2 Gbps download speeds for sub-6 GHz networks, and 6 Gbps in millimeter wave networks. Samsung uses Exynos SoCs for global unlocked smartphones, though North American models often use Qualcomm Snapdragon SoCs since those feature fallback compatibility with Verizon and Sprint's CDMA networks. It is unclear if there are ancillary reasons for those changes, and also unclear if Exynos-powered 5G phones will be sold in North America, as this compatibility is not necessary for use with T-Mobile and AT&T.
- Samsung, Qualcomm partner in 5G small cell, networking push (ZDNet)
- Europe's 5G pace is slow and steady as others race (ZDNet)
- MWCA: '5G is a race that everybody should win' (ZDNet)
- Why 5G won't be the great equalizer for SMBs and rural communities anytime soon (TechRepublic)
How do I get a 5G smartphone?
Before considering whether you should upgrade to a 5G smartphone, first check to see if 5G mobile networks have been deployed in your region. TechRepublic's cheat sheet for 5G mobile networks provides a technical overview of 5G networks, when and where 5G networks are being deployed, and how businesses and consumers can benefit from 5G technologies.
Since no 5G smartphones are available for purchase, your best bet is to upgrade to a phone that supports Gigabit LTE. Recent models of iPhone and Android smartphones contain upgraded modem and antenna pairings that enable substantially improved download speeds.
- A peek behind AT&T's 5G debut and $700 million spent in Kentucky (TechRepublic)
- AT&T hits new 5G milestone with standards-based mobile device (ZDNet)
- Andy Penn on how Telstra is deploying 5G (ZDNet)
- SK Telecom syncs Samsung, Ericsson, Nokia 5G equipment (ZDNet)
- Vodafone 5G goes online in a first for the UK (ZDNet)
James Sanders is a technology writer for TechRepublic. He covers future technology, including quantum computing, AI, and 5G, as well as cloud, security, open source, mobility, and the impact of globalization on the industry, with a focus on Asia.