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If you’re in the market for a new phone, this might be a good time to consider 5G. The new wireless technology has many people excited. And after years of buzz, we're getting our first real glimpse at what it can do.
It may not be widely available where you live, but the major carriers have been steadily expanding their 5G networks over the past year, slowly turning what once was spotty connectivity into something resembling national coverage.
The choice of 5G-compatible phones is wider now, too. Bare-bones models start as low as $500, with high-end models stretching beyond $1,000 because of cutting-edge cameras and OLED displays.
According to telecommunications experts, 5G speeds—five times faster than 4G connections at peak performance—will eventually allow users to download a movie in just 5 seconds.
The technology will also pave the way for the instantaneous response times required to safely perform robotic surgery and operate self-driving cars that communicate with other vehicles and road infrastructure.
Before you crack open your wallet for a new 5G phone, though, make sure it includes the hardware required to operate on your carrier's 5G network, because not all 5G signals are the same.
As we witnessed firsthand in this early look at 5G technology, the high-frequency millimeter wave (mmWave) signals employed by T-Mobile are much faster than those on 4G networks, but they don't travel as far as signals sent over the lower bands of 5G. They don't have much success penetrating walls, buses, and throngs of pedestrians, either.
That’s one big reason T-Mobile was eager to merge with Sprint, which owns midband 5G frequencies that are slightly slower but more reliable.
In the end, you want a phone equipped to capture the full range of 5G signals in your carrier's network. Most of the models listed below are set up for lowband and midband signals. Others—specifically those set up for Verizon’s “Ultra-Wideband” network—are compatible with millimeter wave signals.
We've tried to include all the information you need to make an informed decision about each model. But it's not a bad idea to double-check with your carrier or retailer before you buy the phone.
Here’s a quick look at the 5G smartphones currently on the market.
Galaxy S20, S20+, and S20 Ultra 5G
Pricing: Samsung’s new flagship devices start at $1,000 for a S20 with 128GB of storage. A S20+ with 128GB of space will run you $1,200, and the lowest-priced version of the S20 Ultra costs $1,400.
Carriers: All of the major carriers sell models specifically designed for their 5G networks. The three phones are available in unlocked versions as well.
Test results: The phones score high enough to make the top 10 in our smartphone ratings list. The S20, which has the least in the way of bells and whistles, rates the highest of the three, mainly because it survived our tough durability testing.
While the smaller S20 made it through the equivalent of 100 drops in our specialized tumbler, the glass on both the S20+ and S20 Ultra cracked after just 50.
But as you'd expect, the S20+ and Ultra get higher marks for battery life and cameras. While the S20 powered along for a very respectable 37 hours in our testing, the S20+ and S20 Ultra lasted 40 hours and 40.5 hours, respectively.
In addition, the S20+ offers a rear-camera setup with a 3x lens, while the Ultra has one with a 10x lens.
Galaxy Note10+ 5G
Pricing: While Samsung continues to sell this phone for $1,300, it's nearly a year old. So if you shop around you might find a deal.
Carriers: AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon offer versions of the phone.
Test results: This remains one of the higher-rated models in our rankings. It comes with a 6.8-inch OLED display and the Note line’s trademark stylus.
The rear cameras received Very Good ratings for both still and video image quality. And the battery lasted a respectable 29 hours in our testing.
Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5G
Carriers: AT&T and T-Mobile. There's also an unlocked version of the phone.
Test results: Preorders just started for this phone, set to go on sale Aug. 7. We won’t have test results until we can purchase a model and put it through the paces in our labs. But outside of the 5G capabilities and chipset, the phone appears to be nearly identical to the Galaxy Z Flip that launched in February.
Where did the model fall short? In our battery life testing, it logged just 17.5 hours, which is paltry by today's standards, though not entirely surprising given the phone's small form factor. It also failed our tumble test. The backside glass shattered within the equivalent of 100 drops.
Galaxy A71 5G
Pricing: This budget-friendly model will run you $600.
Carriers: AT&T and the combined T-Mobile and Sprint. Unlocked models aren't available right now.
Test results: We’re still in the process of testing this model. But on paper it appears to pack in quite a bit for the price. It comes with a 6.7-inch OLED display and a multicamera system that features a 64-megapixel main camera.
Looking to save even more money? The Galaxy A51 5G is set to come out later this year priced at $100 less. It comes with a 6.5-inch display and a new 48-megapixel main camera.
OnePlus 8 and OnePlus 8 Pro
Pricing: The OnePlus 8 starts at $800; the 8 Pro costs $900.
Carriers: You can buy the phones unlocked. There are also versions of the 8 specifically designed for the 5G networks of T-Mobile and Verizon.
Test results: The OnePlus 8 Pro is one of the highest-scoring phones in our ratings. It received Excellent ratings for both display and performance. But the camera test scores fell short of those for other top models. In particular, the rear camera received just a Good rating for video quality.
The lower-priced OnePlus 8 also performed well in our testing. In the battery life trials, it scored better than the 8 Pro despite its slightly smaller size, lasting 38 hours compared with the 8 Pro’s 34 hours.
You can also buy last year’s OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren in an unlocked or T-Mobile version. But CR hasn’t tested that model.
V60 ThinQ 5G
Pricing: About $950
Carriers: You can buy this phone unlocked or in versions made for all major carriers.
Test results: LG’s latest smartphone comes with a 6.8-inch display, the ability to shoot video in 8K, and an optional attachable dual screen. In our ratings, the model ranks about the same as last year's LG V50 ThinQ 5G.
The rear cameras received Very Good ratings, and the battery lasted an industry-leading 45 hours in our testing.
Carriers: AT&T sells the phone now; T-Mobile and Verizon will have it later this summer.
Test Results: The model just launched, so we haven’t had a chance to test it. But it appears to offer a lot for the money.
You get a 6.8-inch OLED display and a triple rear-camera setup that includes an ultrawide lens. The phone is both wireless and quick-charge-compatible and includes a large 4,300 mAh battery.
Price: Introduced about a year ago, this phone retails for $500 but appears to be on its way out. To get 5G service you have to add a $350 Mod attachment sold separately.
Carriers: The model is limited to Verizon's network.
Test results: The Z4 boasts a 6.4-inch OLED display rated Very Good by our testers and an ample 3600-mAh battery that lasted 28.5 hours in our labs. But the cameras rank near the bottom of our ratings, reflecting a midpriced phone with midpriced hardware.
Verizon also sells the Motorola Edge+ launched this spring. The phone, which we haven’t tested, costs about $1,000 and boasts a 6.7-inch OLED display. Like the Z4, it works with Verizon’s Ultra-Wideband network.
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