5G finally launches in the UK – but is it really worth it?
The future of mobile phones is finally here. You can go out and buy a 5G phone, and if you happen to be in one of the six cities across the UK in which EE’s 5G network is up and running, you can get the blistering mobile broadband speeds we’ve been promised will revolutionise our mobile lives, again. But should you?
I’ve spent the past two weeks equipped with the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G on first-out-of-the-gate EE’s 5G network. I streamed 2K HDR movies, downloaded whole albums in seconds and generally used it like I would on my extremely fast 350Mbps home wifi – data caps be damned.
So what is 5G like, and is it worth buying into? The answer to both those questions is … complicated.
Bursts of speed
Is 5G faster than 4G? Absolutely. Day to day in the most congested parts of London, it was at least double the speed of EE’s 4G, sometimes up to 10 times faster.
That meant speeds varied wildly as I trundled through patches of 5G on the train. At Elephant and Castle in the morning rush hour I got full 5G signal, but only speeds of about 3Mbps – still double the 1.5Mbps 4G could produce at the same time.
A few hundred metres down the tracks stuck outside Blackfriars, speeds in excess of 120Mbps were routine, with 4G capping out at less than 30Mbps. A similar experience was had outside Victoria and several other central London stations.
On foot in 5G areas such as St Paul’s or Covent Garden, it was clear that speeds were much more transformative. On-the-street speeds of 200-300Mbps were the norm in the lunchtime rush, with peaks of 500Mbps or more at less congested times, which is genuinely faster than my home broadband.
The speed can be blistering, with full movies downloading from Netflix in seconds. But what is noticeable is how that speed is delivered. It’s rapid: click the button and something happens instantaneously.
It’s a bit like driving a high performance car. More or less any car can hit 60mph, but a Tesla Model S can do so in 2.4 seconds. You’re not driving any faster, but it is so much more instantaneous it feels faster. 5G inherently feels faster because everything happens so much quicker, even if the data actually downloads at the same speed.
The other advantage of 5G right now is that you remove the effects of congestion. We’ve all been there: sitting on that packed commuter train or bus with full 4G signal but nothing happening when you tap that link apart from your phone getting hot.
Even at this early stage 5G cures that problem, meaning you can do what you want, when you want, even if that means streaming the TV show What We Do In the Shadows on the morning commute.
Wider coverage than expected
It is very early days for 5G in the UK, but it still feels like we’re more prepared for 5G than we were for the similar transition to 4G and 3G before that.
For one, we have compelling handsets that behave exactly the same as their 4G counterparts. Not some bulky, crippled phone that suffers because of the addition of 5G.
The OnePlus 7 Pro 5G, for instance, has the same thickness, weight and even battery life as the excellent 4G version. The only difference, as far as the consumer is concerned, is that it can connect to a 5G network when there’s one active and it only supports a single sim.
EE too appears more prepared with wider 5G coverage than you might expect. I was surprised to find it in Denmark Hill in London’s zone two, for instance, and every day there appeared to be additional patches where the little 5G symbol began to appear in the suburbs of London. It’s not exactly blanket coverage in the six cities in which it is active and it’s mostly available outdoors, but it’s a good start.
Of course, you still have internet when you’re not on 5G, as you simply swap between 4G and 5G. And sometimes that means it can be hard to tell if you’re on the faster network as the 5G symbol disappears when you start to download a track or watch a video.
These are the pains of an early adopter. Which is exactly what you are if you buy into 5G right now. But apart from the added expense – which is about £5 a month on EE – you’re not getting a worse phone experience. The traditional first-generation pains of poor battery life and excessive heat have been at least partially mitigated.
Buy now or wait?
In the near future buying a 5G-capable phone will be recommended, simply because we’re keeping our handsets for longer. You may not see the immediate benefits of 5G today, but you will in your second, third or fourth year with your phone. Future-proofing is always a guessing game, but a 4G phone in 2022 might look like a new Nokia 3310 now. Delightfully retro. Decidedly quaint.
So should you get 5G now? If you’re in the process of upgrading, have the money to burn, live in an area with at least limited 5G coverage and were already looking at high-end phones such as the OnePlus 7 Pro, there’s no real downside.
There are a few things of which to be aware. First, if you want a small phone you’re out of luck, as all 5G phones have massive screens right now. Secondly, you will likely need more data allowance than you think you do. When it flows this quickly you end up using more of it. Thirdly, uploads of things such as photos and videos still use the 4G network, as do calls and other non-download related activities.
And lastly, by next year the second generation of 5G phones will launch, potentially offering better performance, longer battery life and smaller sizes.
EE is the only game in town right now, but Vodafone will launch its 5G offerings on 3 July with Three launching 5G mobile broadband in London in August and O2 by the end of 2019.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010