5G smartphones: A cheat sheet

This comprehensive guide covers plans from leading smartphone vendors as the industry begins wide deployment of 5G mobile networks and devices that leverage them.

How Louisville is poised to be one of AT&T's first 5G cities AT&T has spent $700 million in the past three years in Kentucky to improve wireless and wired networks and support the debut of 5G in Louisville. Louisville is one of 12 cities slated for 5G from AT&T in 2018.

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 (TechRepublic Premium)

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 wider variety of frequencies, recycling frequencies vacated from the decommissioning 2G and 3G networks, as well as the digital dividend of spectrum vacated from the transition to digital TV broadcasts, and 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.

SEE: All of TechRepublic's cheat sheets and smart person's guides

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 its 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.

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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 early antenna and modem designs are 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.

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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.

Apple

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

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)

Google

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 was decidedly not, prior to the release of the budget Pixel 3a and 3a Max.

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

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.

HTC has released a 5G-capable mobile hotspot, using sub-6 GHz frequencies, in the US, Europe, and Asia.

SEE: How 5G will transform business (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

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).

Huawei

As a major vendor of networking equipment to network operators, as well as manufacturing its own Kirin SoCs for use in smartphones, Huawei would theoretically be well positioned to be among the first vendors to release 5G-capable products. 

Huawei's ability to ship products is uncertain, due to sanctions from the US government effectively prohibiting companies that trade in US-origin technology—including norminally foreign firms—from working with Huawei. This has stymied 5G deployments by network operators around the world. Notably, Google has suspended Huawei's Android license, which may result in the company deploying its "plan B" smartphone OS

The Huawei Mate 20 X 5G is the first 5G-capable phone from Huawei. It has a 7.2" OLED display, with a 1080x2244 resolution, 8 GB RAM and 256 GB flash (an increase from the 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB flash from the non-5G model) and 40 MP wide-angle lens, 20 MP ultra wide-angle lens, and 8 MP telephoto rear cameras, as well as a 24 MP selfie camera, powered by a 4200 mAh battery.

It was announced as a launch device for the rollout of 5G by Vodafone and EE in the UK, though these plans were scrapped in May 2019. Despite that, the Mate 20 X 5G is anticipated to launch in China, as well as potentially in Italy and the United Arab Emirates, in July.

The Huawei Mate X was previously announced at Mobile World Congress as a 5G-capable foldable Android smartphone, with a flexible OLED display. Considering the issues with the foldable display in the Samsung Galaxy Fold, Huawei quietly announced a delay for the Mate X. Given Huawei's current challenges, the Mate X may be vaporware.

LG

Released in May 2019, the LG V50 ThinQ is a 5G-capable android smartphone. It has a 6.4" P-OLED display, with a 1440x3120 resolution, 6 GB RAM and 128 GB flash (expandable using microSD) and a triple main camera featuring a 12 MP standard lens, 16 MP ultra-wide angle lens, and 12 MP telephoto lens, with a dual 8 MP standard and 5 MP wide-angle selfie camera. It is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset, specifically the Snapdragon 855 paired with the X50 5G modem. Depending on carrier, the V50 ThinQ uses either sub-6 GHz or mmWave frequencies for 5G.

In the US, the V50 ThinQ is available on Verizon or Sprint. In South Korea, it is available on  KT, SK Telecom, and LG U+.

The LG V30, LG V30S ThinQ, LG G7 ThinQ, and LG V35 ThinQ are all capable of Gigabit LTE, allowing those phones to take full advantage of upgrades in existing LTE networks.

Motorola

The midrange 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. CNET's Jessica Dolcourt tested the Z3 and 5G add-on in Chicago during Verizon's 5G launch in April 2019, noting that "something isn't working well—the network, the phone, the Moto Mod attachment or the way they all come together," adding that "It's an awkward place to be for a network boasting to be the world's first live 5G network."

The Moto Z2 Force and the Moto Z3 (without the use of add-ons) support Gigabit LTE, allowing those phones to take full advantage of upgrades in existing LTE networks.

Nokia

Nokia (technically, HMD Global) is another company that announced plans to release a Qualcomm-powered 5G phone in 2019, though CNET reports that Nokia's first 5G phones are unlikely to arrive until 2020.

OnePlus (Oppo)

Oppo, which sells phones in the west under the OnePlus brand, announced a 5G variant of the OnePlus 7 Pro, which is anticipated for release in 2019.

The OnePlus 6 and 6T support Gigabit LTE, allowing those phones to take full advantage of upgrades in existing LTE networks.

Samsung

Samsung's first 5G phone was the Samsung Galaxy 10 5G, released in May 2019, powered by a Snapdragon 855 and X50 modem, and is the first to feature Samsung's dynamic AMOLED screen technology.

Some variant of the Galaxy Note 10 is anticipated to support 5G, though it is unclear if a 5G-enabled variant will launch simultaneously with the LTE model anticipated for release in August 2019.

The ill-fated Samsung Galaxy Fold is expected to re-launch in September with design improvements. A 5G variant was announced, though it is unclear if that model will launch simultaneously with the standard LTE model. The Galaxy Fold will only be available in select countries, with Samsung's native South Korea a safe bet for the launch. T-Mobile has opted out of offering the redesigned Galaxy Fold when it is available in the US.

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.

SEE: Samsung Galaxy Fold, S10, S10 Plus and S10e: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

Sony

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.

The Sony Xperia XZ2, XZ2 Premium, and XZ3 support Gigabit LTE, allowing those phones to take full advantage of upgrades in existing LTE networks.

TCL (Alcatel)

The Alcatel 7 5G is expected from TCL for release in Europe in late 2019 or early 2020, to coincide with wider deployment of 5G mobile networks in the region.

Xiaomi

A 5G variant of the Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 was expected for release in May 2019, though appears to not yet be commercially available. The Mi Mix line is Xiaomi's experimental model, featuring more creative designs than its budget-focused mobile phones.

Xiaomi is also planning 5G models for its Black Shark gaming phone and Redmi brand.

Traditionally, Xiaomi phones lack the LTE bands to be useful in the US, though the company has started focusing on the US market recently, with the release of the Pocophone F1.

ZTE

The ZTE Axon 10 Pro 5G was released in May 2019, with an in-display fingerprint sensor and AMOLED display. The 5G capabilities in the ZTE Axon are powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855 SoC. Release of the Axon Pro started in Germany, as the company is focused on Europe. According to CNET, "a company spokesman said ZTE is watching the US market and if it does release the phone, it will probably be later in the summer priced appropriately for the US market."

ZTE is on uneven ground, 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 disruption has impacted ZTE's product release schedule.

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Who is making 5G modems for smartphones?

Five companies are publicly known to be developing 5G modems for use in smartphones. MediaTek, Qualcomm, and Samsung will produce modems available for device manufacturers. Samsung phones sold in North America use Qualcomm modems, though Samsung's internally-developed parts are used in phones sold in Asia. Traditionally, Samsung does provide access to components to third-party manufacturers, while Huawei's HiSilicon division—which is also producing 5G modems—does not. 

The fifth manufacturer, Intel, was all-in on 5G as late as MWC 2019, though scrapped the entire division in April immediately following a settlement in Apple's lawsuit against Qualcomm over patent licensing royalties. With that settlement, Apple announced a surprise multi-year chipset supply agreement, making the announcement on July 25 that Apple is purchasing the bulk of Intel's 5G modem business a significant surprise. 
 
Huawei's first-generation Balong 5G01 modem was announced in February 2018, 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. 

SEE: The 5G revolution is upon us. Here's everything you need to know (CNET)

MediaTek's Helio M70 launched in May 2019, though is likely to be featured more in phones destined for the Chinese market, as the M70 is built for sub-6 GHz frequencies, while mobile network operators like AT&T and Verizon focus on mmWave frequencies. According to CNET, the M70 "has download speeds up to 4.7 Gbps and upload speeds of up to 2.5 Gbps. It can run on cellular networks from 2G to 5G."

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 in the United States.

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 eventually be sold in North America, as this compatibility is not necessary for use with T-Mobile and AT&T.

Additional resources

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.

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