5G can wait but you'll still want an iPhone 12
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
“Dad, I need 5G.”
That’s my 13-year-old son Samuel’s roundabout way to get me to trade in his iPhone 8 for either the $799 iPhone 12 or $999 12 Pro I’ve been testing. I explained to Sam what I’ll tell all of you: 5G is not the reason to buy either of Apple’s latest flagships, not yet anyway.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m really high on these new handsets, especially for their outstanding camera features. Truth is, I’d be the first person to kill Apple had they not brought 5G to the iPhone. Apple is the last of the major phone manufacturers to embrace this next generation of wireless, and you could make the case that 5G wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans without that embrace. But for all the noise surrounding the networks, 5G is by no means ubiquitous, at least not the blistering fast 5G that you read and hear about in advertisements—you know where you might download a full-length Hollywood feature in a blink.
Hunting for the fastest 5G. I’ve mainly been using an iPhone 12 Pro loaner with a Verizon 5G SIM card in around Northern Jersey and Rockland County, New York. In lots of places where I took the phone, the “5G” indicator signifying coverage appeared in the upper right corner of the display in lieu of the “LTE” I typically see on my AT&T iPhone 11 Pro Max. (I also often see "5GE" on that AT&T phone which isn't really 5G at all--but don't get me started.)
What was almost always lacking, however, were the vertical letters “UW” next to 5G, indicating that I'd entered an “Ultra Wideband” coverage area, Verizon’s very fastest mobile 5G network. In techie terms 5G UW leverages speedy “millimeter wave” (mmWave) radio frequency spectrum.
As is the case elsewhere, Verizon Ultra Wideband is only available in scant few locales around these parts. I searched Verizon’s coverage map to find such an area relatively close by. I drove down to Hoboken to hunt for an Ultra Wideband signal, settling into a parking space when I finally landed in a suitable spot. And spot seems like the right way to put it because coverage was limited and block to block.
By now you know the takeaway: not all 5G is created equal. There’s the aforementioned mmWave spectrum which is very fast but has limited range. And there’s the so-called “sub-6” frequencies, with broader coverage and less zippy performance.
Fortunately, the new iPhones are compatible with all flavors of 5G, so you’ll be ready when the networks catch up in the areas where you live and work. For sure that will happen, if not quite as fast as some of the ads suggest.
In any case, the image below shows you how widespread speed results can vary—check out the blistering fast 987 and 443 Mbps download speeds I experienced in Hoboken, alas not matched elsewhere.
How do these speed disparities play out in terms of real world usage? For some perspective, I downloaded the 1 hour and 36 minute Apple TV+ movie On The Rocks in LTE, 5G, and 5G UW coverage areas. As you might have guessed, LTE was slowest, though not by much. It took 5 minutes and 35 seconds to download the flick onto my iPhone 11 Pro Max, again under AT&T's network. This was 46 seconds slower compared to the 4 minutes and 49 seconds it took with Verizon's regular 5G on the 12 Pro.
I felt the real difference when I graduated to the big leagues with Verizon's 5G Ultra Wideband: I downloaded the same movie in 1 minute and 48 seconds, a full three minutes faster than Verizon's 5G.
Over several days of testing, LTE speeds were often in the same relative ballpark as 5G, usually slower but not always by much, and on occasion even faster.
The reasons to buy. You then might ask, if 5G is not the immediate purchasing driver for the iPhone 12s, what is? I already mentioned one reason above, these handsets have really terrific cameras. I’ll give the pricier 12 Pro the nod because of the telephoto camera and LiDAR depth scanner on the rear that complement the wide and ultra-wide shooters on the Pro and the 12 models. LiDAR, shorthand for Light Detection and Ranging, measures depth and bolsters augmented reality apps. That said, the cameras in the 12 are excellent as well.
Of course, last year’s iPhones take splendid pictures too, which leads to the question all smartphone buyers should be asking themselves: `Where am I in the replacement cycle?' Folks have been holding onto phones longer for a reason: the phones in this class are really good and except for batteries that may give way before you like are often built to last.
If you have an aging phone--yes, like my son’s iPhone 8—the difference in camera quality is steep compared to a model that is a year or two old. That might justify taking the plunge on a newer device. That old phone won't be nearly as zippy either as one with Apple's latest and greatest processors.
On the other hand, if you have a recent iPhone like my 11 Pro Max, it's harder to make the case to upgrade, unless swapping the phone means you won’t be shelling out way more (if anything) out of pocket, given trade-in values.
There are other reasons to recommend Apple’s newest flagships. The screens are brilliant and protected by Corning Ceramic Shield technology, which Apple claims are four times less likely to shatter compared to prior models with glass displays. For what it’s worth, I inadvertently dropped the iPhone 12 Pro once and the screen came through unscathed. That's hardly a scientific test and even Apple would acknowledge that while the screens are less likely to break they are not invulnerable.
Speaking of build quality, I really like the solid stainless-steel feel of the 12 Pro. It's got a bit of a heft to it but not in an off-putting way. The aluminum iPhone 12 is also comfortable to grip.
Meanwhile, the new MagSafe magnetic accessories you snap on the back of the new phones are interesting too, especially since Apple no longer includes a charger in the box. At $39 though, a USB-C MagSafe charger from Apple isn't cheap, and if you've been a loyal Apple customer for awhile you probably have a spare Lightning adapter somewhere lying around. MagSafe is probably not enough of a reason to get you to buy the new iPhones right away either, but we're already seeing the makings of an expanding ecosystem from Apple and third party partners.
Once Sam reads this post he’ll tell me he still wants the new iPhone no matter what I say about 5G. He'll rattle off MagSafe, the excellent cameras, and well, blah, blah, blah.
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