This comprehensive guide covers plans from leading smartphone vendors as the industry deploys 5G mobile networks and devices that use them.
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. It is also available as a download, 5G smartphones: A cheat sheet (free PDF).
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.
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.
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 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.
Advances in cellular technology, such as the Qualcomm Snapdragon x60 modem, have been designed to address issues caused by high-band 5G, and it’s likely that future smartphone innovation will also address these problems as 5G replaces LTE and more time has passed to assess its effects on hardware.
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.
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.
It is believed that the iPhone 12 series will have 5G capabilities, and it’s likely it will be revealed in September 2020.
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.
ASUS’ ROG Phone 3, scheduled for US release in September 2020, is its first 5G smartphone.
SEE: Mini-glossary: 5G terms you should know (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
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.
The Pixel 5 will feature 5G, as will the Pixel 4A 5G, both scheduled for release sometime in the fall of 2020.
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.
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).
HTC does have a 5G smartphone, the U20, scheduled for release in the latter part of 2020, but news about its release outside of Taiwan, where the device is manufactured, is hard to come by. It’s possible the device may not make it to the US.
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 1080×2244 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 available in several countries, including China, the UK, and the UAE. Since the release of the Mate 20 X 5G, Huawei has added several new 5G devices to its lineup: The Huawei Mate 30 5G and Mate 30 Pro 5G, as well as its entire Huawei Mate 40 generation of devices are 5G capable.
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. The Mate X, complete with 5G, released in early 2019. Since then, Huawei has released an updated version of the device, the Mate XS, and extended its release to countries outside of China.
Despite Huawei’s considerable lineup of 5G smartphones, you’ll be hard pressed to find them in the United States: Even Huawei’s US website has no mention of its smartphones. As Business Insider points out, Huawei smartphones have been negatively affected by US/China tensions, and the only way to buy them in the US is unlocked through third-party sites like Amazon.
Released in May 2019, the LG V50 ThinQ is a 5G-capable android smartphone. It has a 6.4″ P-OLED display, with a 1440×3120 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+.
Since the 2019 release of the V50, LG has released several 5G-capable smartphones, including the LG V60 ThinQ 5G Dual Screen smartphone.
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.”
Motorola’s G 5G Plus and the Motorola One 5G available in Europe and coming to the US this fall, respectively, are nearly identical 5G devices, and their biggest feature are their prices. The G 5G Plus is priced at a mere 349 euros, and the One 5G is expected to be less than $500 USD when it comes out in October 2020.
Nokia (technically, HMD Global) is another company that announced plans to release a Qualcomm-powered 5G phone in 2019, but it took until early 2020 for it to release the Nokia 8.3, which is the first 5G smartphone capable of roaming on 5G while traveling abroad.
Since the release of its first 5G phone, Samsung has released a number of high-end 5G devices. The second generation of both foldable Samsung phones, the Z Fold 2 and Z Flip 5G, support 5G, as do the Galaxy S20 series and Galaxy Note 20 series.
SEE: Samsung Galaxy Fold, S10, S10 Plus and S10e: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)
Sony is one of the companies that signed a pledge to release a Qualcomm-powered 5G phone in 2019, and it released its first 5G smartphone, the Sony Xperia 1 II in early 2020. Sony also offers the 5G-compatible Sony Xperia Pro as well.
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. t has since released the TCL 10 5G, its first 5G device. The 10 5G is available in the UK and Europe for 399 euros.
Xiaomi’s latest 5G device is the Mi 10 Pro 5G, which became available in May 2020.
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.
Its embargo troubles seem to have lifted, as ZTE announced the Axon 20 5G in September 2020, which ZTE claims is the world’s first phone to feature an under-display camera that eliminates the notches and pinholes that characterize most current smartphones.
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. In January 2019 Huawei announced the Balong 5000, a 5G smartphone chipset capable of 6.5 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.
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.” Since then, MediaTek has made its Dimensity SoC chip series its flagship 5G line, the latest of which is the Dimensity 1000 series.
Industry leader Qualcomm released its latest 5G modem, the Snapdragon X60, in early 2020, which it touts as being capable of up to 7.5 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 5123, which the company indicates is capable of 5.1 Gbps download speeds for sub-6 GHz networks, and 7.35 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.
How do I get a 5G smartphone?
It’s only a matter of time before 5G smartphones are the de facto standard in mobile devices. In fact, if you plan to buy a flagship device in the next year you’re likely to have only 5G devices to choose from. 5G networks, at least in the case of AT&T and T-Mobile/Sprint, have mostly spread nationwide (at least in more populated areas), so it’s a good possibility that if you live in an urban or suburban environment that you have the ability to benefit from 5G service.
If you’re looking for a budget device you’ll need to look at your carrier’s website to see what they offer and whether the device in question is 5G-capable.
Editor’s note: This has been updated to include the latest information on 5G smartphones.