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Don’t buy a 5G smartphone—at least, not for a while Ars Technica2

Don’t buy a 5G smartphone—at least, not for a while | Ars Technica
Don’t buy a 5G smartphone—at least, not
for a while
We dive into the many ways first-gen 5G hardware will (temporarily?) ruin phone
RON AMADEO - 12/14/2018, 6:30 PM
Enlarge / 5G is here, but that doesn't mean you have to buy into it.
2019 is going to be the year of 5G—at least, that's what the cellular industry keeps saying. We're
going to see the launch of several 5G smartphones from OEMs like Samsung, Motorola, and OnePlus,
and carriers will be tripping over themselves to tell you how awesome their new 5G networks are
despite coming with a slew of asterisks. I would like to make something up about how ridiculous the
5G hype has gotten, but it's hard to top actual quotes from industry executives, like Verizon's claim
Don’t buy a 5G smartphone—at least, not for a while | Ars Technica
that 5G will "dramatically improve our global society." Faster mobile Internet is coming, but should
you care about it yet?
Qualcomm recently had its big 2019 chip announcement, and as the world's biggest provider of
smartphone chips, that gives us a good idea of what the upcoming 5G hardware will look like. The
industry is doing its best to hype 5G up as The Next Big Thing™, but 5G hardware in 2019 is going to
be a decidedly first-generation affair. Early adopters for 5G will have to accept all manner of
tradeoffs. And when there might not even be 5G reception in your area, it might be better to just wait
the whole thing out for a year or two.
A 5G mmWave primer: Making use of the spectrum that
nobody wanted
"5G" is a shorthand reference to the next generation of cellular network technology that is launching
in 2019. The whole "G" naming scheme started in the 1990s with the launch of GSM, which was called
the "second generation"—aka "2G"—of mobile networking technology. GSM upgraded early networks
from analog to digital, and those old analog networks were retroactively given the name "1G." Since
then, we've gotten new "G" numbers with major coordinated network upgrades about every 10 years.
These iterations brought important features like SMS and MMS messages, IP-based networking and
mobile Internet, and, of course, more speed.
Today, modern smartphones run on "4G" LTE, which operates somewhere in the 450MHz to 5.9GHz
range. The move to 5G will include improvements to the existing LTE infrastructure, but the defining
characteristic of 5G is the addition of a new chunk of spectrum in the 24GHz to 90GHz range. The
industry has settled on calling this new 5G spectrum "mmWave" (millimeter wave), and it's going to
require new hardware in your phone, new hardware on the towers, and big changes to current phone
and network designs.
Enlarge / MmWave offers lots of spectrum, but it's difficult to use.
We're used to these "G" network upgrades coming with a compelling sales pitch about how much
better everything is going to be, but the move to 5G mmWave is not a slam-dunk argument. Since
Don’t buy a 5G smartphone—at least, not for a while | Ars Technica
mmWave runs at a significantly higher frequency than LTE, that means it comes with no shortage of
tradeoffs. MmWave has worse range and worse penetration compared to LTE. A mmWave signal can
be blocked by buildings, trees, and even your hand. MmWave doesn't work well in the rain or fog, and
the ~60GHz chunk of this spectrum can actually be absorbed by oxygen. That's right—a slice of
mmWave spectrum can be blocked by the air.
With so many issues to overcome, mmWave sounds like a terrible chunk of spectrum to build a
mobile network in until you consider two key points: the higher-frequency means mmWave has
plenty of bandwidth and low latency if you can get it, and most of all, the spectrum is available.
MmWave isn't being used for much right now because it is such a pain in the butt to work with. So if
you can figure out all the implementation problems, you suddenly have a vast amount of airspace to
work with. That's actually the first thing these companies talk about when they bring up mmWave. It's
all going to be really, really hard and complicated, they say, but it's going to be worth it.
LTE debuted in 2011, and these past seven years have seen significant progress in making 4G
smartphone hardware smaller, faster, and more efficient. With 5G, we're going to lose plenty of this
technical maturity initially by packing in tons of new and expensive 5G hardware.
Discrete 5G modems—More components, more power
usage, smaller batteries
Smartphones today are almost entirely powered by a single chip, appropriately called an "SoC" or
"System on a Chip." As the name suggests, these are the most basic parts you need to make a
computer all on a single, tiny chip. There are usually lots of CPU cores, a GPU, an "ISP" for camera
functionality, Wi-Fi, and more. RAM isn't technically included on this chip, but to save space, the RAM
actually gets stacked on top of the SoC. The main off-SoC component is the storage, and across the
motherboard there will typically be a sprinkling of tiny chips for power management, audio,
Bluetooth, NFC, and other things. From there, it's the motherboard's job to connect everything to
everything else and then get the hell out of the way so that as much as the phone as possible can be
filled with battery.
The point is that space is at a premium inside a smartphone, and while you can't do much to control
the size of core components like the SoC, camera, SIM card, or USB port, the battery is the one part
that can be as large or as small as you want it to be. When you think "size" in a smartphone, you
should think "battery." Anything that gets bigger means less battery. Anything that adds an extra
component means less battery. The battery gets all the leftover space in a smartphone. (This is,
basically, the headphone jack argument.)
These past few years, smartphone manufacturers have
all been trying to convince us that we don't need a
If you kill the headphone jack, you
need to replace it with something
headphone jack, and the argument has been that
removing them means less complexity and more space
for battery. Razer CEO Min-Liang Tan even put a
number to this argument: he said that skipping a headphone jack in the Razer Phone meant the
company could increase the battery capacity by 500mAh.
Don’t buy a 5G smartphone—at least, not for a while | Ars Technica
Why does this matter in an article about 5G? The short answer is that 5G mmWave is going to require
a lot more hardware than 4G, which brings up all of these battery size and device-complexity
Enlarge / 5G requires a separate chip, even on Qualcomm's new SoC.
Qualcomm's biggest advantage in the 4G era has been its modems. Through a combination of
technology knowhow and intellectual property rights, Qualcomm is the only chip maker that can
combine an SoC and modem into a single chip and sell it around the world at a low price.
This single-chip solution is a huge advantage, resulting
in a smaller, less-complex, cheaper motherboard and
more room for battery. Merging everything into a single
chip also results in power savings while the phone is
running, since, generally, one chip takes less power
than two chips. For years, Qualcomm users have
enjoyed SoCs with onboard 4G LTE modems, and the
company rode this design advantage to market
domination. Today, as a high-end SoC vendor,
Qualcomm is basically a monopoly, with nearly every
Android flagship using a Qualcomm SoC.
Qualcomm recently showed off its flagship SoC for
2019, the Snapdragon 855. While the company spent
hours beyond measure hyping up the Snapdragon
855's 5G compatibility, it won't actually have a 5G
mmWave modem onboard. The 855 will have LTE
onboard, as usual, but 5G phones will need a separate
modem—Qualcomm is going to lose its single-chip
advantage for 5G. As explained above, this means less
battery and more power usage.
We've already lived through the whole "first-gen
network hardware" routine before. When the switch to
4G happened, the first batch of new 4G hardware
Qualcomm is the only company with a
single-chip SoC+modem solution that
sees significant distribution around
the world.
Samsung offers integrated modems in
its own Exynos SoC line, but in the US,
China, Latin America, and Japan,
Samsung devices still get Qualcomm
chips. Huawei and MediaTek are in a
similar situation: they can build
onboard LTE, but the chips don't get
world-wide distribution. Apple makes
iPhone SoCs, but it uses a separate
chip for the modem. Apple
transitioned away from Qualcomm
modems in the iPhone XS in favor of
Intel modems, but that set off a litany
of lawsuits between Apple and
Qualcomm owns a lot of essential
cellular patents in some territories,
and it aggressively uses its IP to
maintain modem dominance. The
company has faced many lawsuits
from many companies in many
countries for unfair patent licensing,
but that hasn't stopped the market
Don’t buy a 5G smartphone—at least, not for a while | Ars Technica
reality of everyone-but-Apple using
Qualcomm modems.
arrived with the same discrete modem compromise
that we'll see with 5G. The most famous example was
the HTC Thunderbolt, the first 4G device on Verizon's
network. This used Qualcomm’s Snapdragon MSM8655
SoC (before the simplified model numbers!) with a
separate Qualcomm MDM9600 LTE modem. The Thunderbolt was a disaster, since it included all this
new 4G hardware with only a 1400mAh battery. It was thick, hot, slow, buggy, and had terrible battery
life. The Thunderbolt regularly makes lists of "the worst phones of all time," and one HTC employee
even apologized for the phone's creation. New network hardware can be a disaster if you do it wrong.
Qualcomm's gigantic first-gen 5G chips
I'm not guaranteeing that the first 5G hardware will be as bad as the Thunderbolt—a lot about
smartphone design has changed since then—but the worry about early networking hardware
remains. New networking hardware is "new" precisely because this is the first time it's been made
small enough to fit inside a smartphone. Companies don't wait until they are well under the size
requirements for a smartphone to ship a product; they design a new phone the very second new
networking hardware will just barely fit. These 2019 devices will likely be bloated with 5G hardware—
the biggest 5G hardware that will ever exist.
Let's compare the internal components you'll need to make 4G and 5G work. In terms of major
Qualcomm chips, a 2019 4G phone will have the Snapdragon 855, and that's it. There's an onboard
LTE modem in the 855, so you don't need an extra chip for connectivity, and LTE antennas are tiny
wires that are usually integrated into the motherboard. 5G is a totally different story: you'll need the
Snapdragon 855, plus the Snapdragon X50 5G modem, plus a series of "QTM052" 5G antenna
modules, which are actual chips instead of wires or motherboard traces.
Don’t buy a 5G smartphone—at least, not for a while | Ars Technica
Qualcomm / Ron Amadeo
Enlarge / Qualcomm's parts next to their respective pennies. We now have to-scale chip pictures!
I haven't seen Qualcomm publish exact die sizes for its 5G chips or the Snapdragon 855, but the
company has a habit of photographing its chips next to pennies for scale. Here's the Snapdragon 855,
the 5G modem, and the 5G RF Module, all pictured next to a US cent. These coin pictures are meant
to say, "Look at how small our chip is!" but they also give us a perfect ruler to load everything up in
Photoshop and have to-scale Qualcomm chip pictures.
It turns out Qualcomm's first-gen 5G chips are going to be really big—at least, "really big" compared
all the other extremely-small smartphone components. The X50 5G modem and a single RF module
take up more space than the Snapdragon 855. Keep in mind the 855 is an entire SoC—nearly
everything you need to run a computer—plus a built-in 4G modem, so it's pretty incredible that a 5G
modem and a single RF module takes up just as much space as the entire rest of the core phone
components, minus the storage chip. For now, 4G has a clean, single chip design, while 5G is going to
have these massive extra chips to deal with.
"Exponentially" more complicated hardware, lots of
design challenges
Don’t buy a 5G smartphone—at least, not for a while | Ars Technica
At Qualcomm's Snapdragon Summit in Hawaii earlier this month, Qualcomm President Cristiano
Amon spoke a bit about just how complicated it is to build a 5G smartphone. One of his slides said
that 5G would increase smartphone design complexity "exponentially." While Amon said that hoping
to make Qualcomm's engineering sound impressive, to me it sounds like a battery-killing nightmare.
Complexity is bad. Complexity is expensive.
It's not just that 5G hardware is bigger than 4G hardware—you're also going to have to absolutely
pack a phone with 5G hardware to make it work. MmWave's penetration is so poor you can easily
block the signal with your hand, which is kind of a problem for a device that you constantly hold while
you're using it. To avoid situations where "you're holding it wrong," Qualcomm's solution is to pack
the phone with multiple 5G antennas.
The full 5G chip collection looks like this. 5G is going to need a lot more space in your smartphone.
Ron Amadeo
Don’t buy a 5G smartphone—at least, not for a while | Ars Technica
Your 5G phone won't just need a Snapdragon 855, an X50 modem, and a QTM052 antenna module—
it's actually going to need multiple QTM052 chips. Qualcomm's page on the QTM052 says you'll need
"four differently located mmWave modules" in order to work around all of mmWave's limitations,
although more advanced designs might get down to three. Qualcomm's 5G diagrams all show four
5G antenna modules in a phone—one on each side of the device. Qualcomm's "reference" 5G
prototype (which Anandtech recently had a look at) shows three 5G antennas: top, left, and right.
Motorola's 5G Moto Mod—the closest thing we have to a real, consumer design—has four antennas:
left, right, and two on top.
No matter what configuration OEMs go with, it looks like they will all have some kind of multi-antenna
design, which will let the phone pick whichever antenna your hands aren't blocking. For an example,
imagine holding a phone in portrait—your hand might block the left and right antennas, so the
phone could switch to the top and bottom antennas. If you're using landscape, your hands might
block the top and bottom antennas, so the phone would use the left and right ones. A 5G setup will
intelligently switch to whatever antennas can get a signal out.
More antennas mean even more complicated internals and even more space used up. If we go back
to our to-scale chip photos, Qualcomm's 2019 5G package is going to take up an absolutely massive
amount of space compared to 4G. I don't know how thick everything is, but in terms of pixels in
Photoshop, 5G uses 3.3 times more area than the "4G" configuration of a single SoC. For an industry
that can't give us headphone jacks anymore because they take up too much space, all this extra 5G
hardware seems kind of hard to justify.
Enlarge / Side-mounted antennas? Typical smartphone design would have a metal frame around the phone,
which clearly isn't going to work anymore.
The design gets more complicated that just laying everything out on a flat sheet, though. These
multiple 5G antennas are there to enable a technique called "3D beamforming." Rather than send a
Don’t buy a 5G smartphone—at least, not for a while | Ars Technica
signal out in a wave (think of the Wi-Fi symbol), a beamforming antenna can locate where the tower is
and will fire a concentrated signal directly at it. Similarly, the tower will track your location and fire a
beam directly at you. Qualcomm says 3D beamforming is a key design feature of 5G devices, since a
more concentrated beam will help overcome some of the range and penetration problems of
mmWave. So far, every piece of Qualcomm literature and all the hardware show these antennas
placed in a perpendicular plane to the motherboard on the side of the phone.
If consumer 5G really does need a large surface area of the antenna exposed on the sides—which
everything has so far indicated is true—that raises some interesting design considerations. Today,
wireless charging has seen phones switch from metal unibodies to glass backs, which allows the RF
signals to get in and out of the back of the device. Since glass isn't at all durable, these phones usually
use a metal mid-frame for support, which is usually exposed on the sides. It doesn't seem like a
metal-sided smartphone design would work with side-mounted 5G antennas, though—you won't be
able to have metal on the sides of the phone if an antenna needs to be there. Surely, we can't have
glass sides, too, so that leaves... plastic? 5G might usher in the era of plastic-sided phones. I don't see
any other way these side antennas can work.
Also, somebody's going to have to pay for all these extra 5G components, and it looks like it's going to
be the consumer. OnePlus CEO Pete Lau recently told The Verge that 5G would mean phones that are
$200 to $300 more expensive. That's a pile of money for a phone that won't have the runtime or
more compact size of a 4G phone.
The hard reality of the 5G rollout
Clearly, 5G is going to require a tradeoff in smartphone hardware, at least for the near future. Moving
to 5G means lots of hardware compromises over a 4G phone, so what do you get in return? The
answer in 2019 is only "possibly faster Internet" depending on a whole host of variables, mostly
having to do with your location. First, you need to be in a city that actually has 5G, then you need to
be in a specific spot where you can actually receive a 5G signal, and then you have to decide if you
even care about the speed increase.
Don’t buy a 5G smartphone—at least, not for a while | Ars Technica
Enlarge / Qualcomm's diagram imagines mmWave only being used in cities, thanks to range limitations.
Everywhere else will get various classes of LTE.
Receiving faster 5G speeds means actually being able to receive a 5G signal, and so far, the 5G rollout
sounds like a nightmare. Since 5G runs at a higher frequency and has much worse penetration
compared to 4G, it's not a matter of just upgrading existing towers. Outdoors, the industry's inelegant
solution to 5G's range and penetration problems is mostly just "build more towers," which means lots
of slow negotiations for land rights and placement.
Right now, it doesn't even sound like the goal is blanket 5G mmWave coverage everywhere thanks to
the limited range. Qualcomm's CEO outlined a "5G" network architecture for the United States that
only used mmWave in "dense urban areas"—everywhere else would only use LTE. Keeping mmWave
to urban areas makes sense when you consider the range problems. The need to build so many more
towers for 5G probably isn't worth the cost outside of a city, so LTE will have to do. Even if you're in a
5G city, getting 5G mmWave coverage indoors is going to be a problem thanks to the penetration
problems. Usually, you're going to need a tower inside the building to have a chance at reception (i.e.,
a femtocell) or you'll drop down to LTE. No one in the industry claims LTE is going away, and in fact,
the current plan includes LTE improvements in the "5G" bucket.
So while there's plenty of hype around how fast 5G might be eventually, in terms of actual, 2019
modems, it's not the "10x" improvement in networking speed that often gets cited—especially as LTE
keeps improving. The Snapdragon 855's onboard 4G LTE modem—the single-chip solution with none
of the 5G tradeoffs—has a new-and-improved theoretical top speed of 2Gbps down, according to
Qualcomm. The X50 5G modem and a pile of RF modules can more than double that, with a
theoretical download speed of 5Gbps.
Both of these cited speeds are theoretical velocities that you will never achieve in real life, but keep in
mind you only need about 0.006Gbps to perfectly stream high-quality 1080p, 60fps video. Even
something crazy like 4K streaming only takes around 0.025Gbps, so current 4G speeds are more than
enough for anyone. I am sure some day when we are all streaming virtual reality data to the headshttps://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2018/12/dont-buy-a-5g-smartphone-at-least-not-for-a-while/#
Don’t buy a 5G smartphone—at least, not for a while | Ars Technica
up display on our face computers, 5G's faster Internet
speed will be useful. But for my next smartphone, I
think LTE—which, again, still isn't done getting faster—
will be fine.
For 5G mmWave in 2019, we're going to get thicker,
hotter, more complicated phones that use more energy
and cost more money. With no commercial devices to
look at, the exact extent of all of these downgrades is
still up in the air, but it's undeniable that first-gen 5G
hardware is going to be inferior to more mature 4G
designs. With 5G networks only in their infancy and a
supposed $200-$300 premium for 5G-compatible
phones, this really doesn't seem worth it for
Check back in 2020
Enlarge / Another handy Qualcomm slide with
5G timelines from the big four US carriers.
Enlarge / Qualcomm has a point with this slide, but the tip of the iceberg isn't worth buying.
No technology springs forth fully-formed. This early work on 5G has to be done, as it lays the
foundation for improvements in the future. 5G will be important in the future at least for major cities,
and it's needed to help mobile networks better survive the never-ending bandwidth needs of the
future. That doesn't mean you are obligated to spend your money on 5G now, though.
In a year or two, mmWave hardware should be more mature and more integrated. A big sign to look
for is if Qualcomm's 2020 SoC has an integrated 5G modem, which would bring back many of the
single-chip advantages that 4G has today. The immaturity of 5G won't stop the coming advertising
blitz, though. Soon you'll start seeing the launch of the first 5G phone on network X, and every carrier
Don’t buy a 5G smartphone—at least, not for a while | Ars Technica
on Earth will be advertising 5G as the best thing since sliced bread. Don't believe the hype. For the
near future, if you can buy a 4G version of a phone, you probably should.
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Ron is the Reviews Editor at Ars Technica, where he specializes in Android OS and Google products. He is
always on the hunt for a new gadget and loves to rip things apart to see how they work.
EMAIL [email protected] // TWITTER @RonAmadeo
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