5G has been buzzing about for a while – as much as a buzzword can buzz, in fact. It’s the next numerical step after 4G but does it really improve smartphone use for the average person?
While it’s not quite as simple as being faster (we’ll get to that) 5G has officially launched as a consumer product in the UK. BT-owned EE got there first, and lent me a OnePlus 7 Pro 5G device with unlimited data to test out.
The basic line here is 5G is very fast but with the caveats that it probably isn’t that fast where you live, and it isn’t noticeably faster than 4G for most smartphone tasks. Sure, the speed tests slam dunk 4G, but for what people actually do on their phones, me included, I can’t yet recommend the significantly higher monthly cost of a 5G contract yet.
Still, it is bloody fast.
Price and availability
EE offers the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G from £59 a month with a £170 upfront handset cost.
This gets you 10GB which, frankly, is not enough.
For comparison, you can get the regular OnePlus 7 on a regular 4G contract from EE for £59 per month with a £10 upfront handset cost and 30GB data.
You’d be better off opting for more data though – 5G is a data hungry technology, as we’ll get into, and you can get 30GB data for £69 per month and the phone for £50. Sure, it is expensive, with a 120GB plan hitting £79 per month, but EE offers ‘swappable benefits’ to counteract chewing through data.
These include music or video data passes that allow you to stream from popular apps like Apple Music, Deezer, Netflix or BT Sport without the usage counting against your data plan. This is great as it’ll go some way to slowing your data usage but note that the deals don’t include Spotify or YouTube.
You can also buy an unlocked Samsung Galaxy S10 5G (a phone we have not yet tested) direct from Samsung locked to either EE or Vodafone for £1,099. Vodafone is set to launch its UK 5G network on 3 July, with Three to follow suit in August.
How fast is 5G?
First, a bit of context. Yes, 5G is fast. But it might not necessarily be as big an evolution as 4G was to the regular consumer. 4G represented a huge increase in mobile data speeds over 3G, meaning reliable web browsing and streaming was finally a viable consumer service.
5G isn’t just another speed bump. The use of new mobile spectrum does make the network faster but the overall changes to core network structure will increase network capacity as well, and should allow for more devices such as laptops (using powerful mobile chips) to join the party. We have cellular tablets, but they have not become as popular as phones due to similarly priced contracts and device size.
There’s also the distinct possibility that home broadband could be replaced by a 5G set up in the not too distant future, such are the gains in bandwidth to outperform fibre optics.
But I digress. I was testing the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G for two weeks in London, where EE literally gave me a map with the six best spots for coverage in the capital. When I went to one of these places (Covent Garden, The Strand, Soho and St Pauls among them) the 5G symbol popped into the status bar and speeds would consistently hit between 150-400Mbps.
BT’s basic fibre home broadband speeds are currently advertised as 36Mbps.
This is pretty amazing for a wireless mobile device. As you can see, it also trounced the speeds of my personal 4G SIM on the giffgaff network.
During a briefing with EE representatives at St Pauls I got 400Mbps download speeds using the Netflix-owned Fast speed test app. Ookla’s popular Speedtest also heralded similar results, but Fast is easier to photograph given its clear user interface.
Some fellow tech reporters have managed to reach insane speeds that I have not found, including an astounding 980Mbps on a moving train in London.
Out and about, I reached 360Mbps standing on the Strand close to Waterloo Bridge, one of the recommended test spots. My giffgaff SIM could hit an actually quite respectable 43Mbps – in the middle of Covent Garden it could only hit 3.8, though the EE 5G SIM was at 190.
Still amazing, but it shows the current fluctuation that a short walk from Covent Garden to the Strand (all of four minutes) can nearly double the download speed. It’s also worth noting that when I tested it again in exactly the same spot, it only hit a paltry 12Mbps. Another go and it was back to the high hundreds.
Where is EE 5G available?
5G launched on 30 May 2019 in London, Cardiff, Belfast, Edinburgh, Birmingham and Manchester. It will then roll out to more cities in 2019 and 2020 in a gradual launch.
You can check if 5G is coming to your postcode here.
Do you notice the difference in real world use?
While speeds are astounding within the speedtest apps (and crunch through at least 0.2GB of data per test at the highest speeds – I used over 10GB of data in four days just doing them), most everyday consumer apps don’t need to use that much data at once.
I didn’t notice the extra bump in speed when streaming video on YouTube in most situations. I found that it is most noticeably faster than 4G when downloading files for offline use, like albums on Spotify which now take under ten seconds to fully download.
Downloading films on Netflix is about twice as fast as on 4G in most scenarios, with a 500MB film taking all of a minute most times I tested it. That’s great for last minute film downloads at the departure gate, but when it comes to scrolling through social media, watching the occasional video and WhatApping, 5G doesn’t raise the experience.
Streaming video itself doesn’t use more data than on 4G as it is streaming at the same rate. I found that I used 0.2GB data for 30 minutes on Netflix – very usual for 4G, too.
The reason the data plans have so much included is because you’re likely to never want to use Wi-Fi as your new data plan will be so fast. At times, literally 200 times faster, as was the case compared to my truly terrible TalkTalk broadband plan.
There’s a more immediate bandwidth advantage to early 5G adopters though. As fewer people are connected to 5G-specific sites, you actually end up getting faster 4G speeds because of it. A combination of fewer people connected to those sites with the increased backhaul capacity of 5G sites results in a faster 4G speed – as demonstrated here. I took the below image in my office in Kings Cross which is currently not a 5G site:
Should you get 5G now?
The combination of 5G in London and the already whip-fast OnePlus 7 Pro is a very speedy combination. While 5G isn’t always noticeably faster, the experience of using this phone is the fastest I’ve ever encountered. Tap a download icon and things happen straight away – no network congestion, no rotating loading circles.
It’s these small things that make the difference in everyday phone use, rather than seeing any real-life advantage to having a 400Mbps download speed.
Unless you live in one of the 2019 launch cities, you’ll probably want to wait. That said, if you’re coming to the end of your contract and are going to sign up for another two years, you might be tempted to take the plunge. You’ll likely get faster 4G speeds, but check your area first.
On EE you also only have the choice of four handsets, all of which are large and expensive. You might want to wait a year or two for a better selection if they aren’t your thing – or if you want an iPhone with 5G, which isn’t likely until at least 2020.
5G is here, and in the UK EE got there first. Download speeds are insanely quick and everything you do online feels a touch quicker.
With an expensive contract and a choice of only four Android phones, you probably should wait a year or so until contracts are cheaper and you actually have 5G coverage where you live. It’s not likely to be countrywide until at least 2021 or 2022.
But if you are looking for a new phone contract now and live in one of the launch cities then you might want to consider it for the blazingly fast 5G download speeds, boosted 4G speeds and early adopter bragging rights.