Believe it or not, I’ve spent the last several years preparing for Apple’s “Hi, Speed” media event, which will largely focus on officially introducing the first 5G iPhones. When I began studying 5G, there were no business or consumer 5G devices and zero 5G cellular towers, but plenty of excitement across multiple industries. 5G has been hyped as the basis of a fourth industrial revolution, the world’s most transformative wireless technology, and the engine behind unthinkably fast smartphones that will download anything in seconds.
But unless something changes between now and October 13, many people — perhaps even most — won’t enjoy truly transformative cellular experiences with the first 5G iPhones, at least for the immediate future. Whether you blame this on perplexing wireless carrier decisions or regulatory challenges, the reality is that after two years of network buildouts, early 5G iPhone customers may well see only modest benefits over the 4G they’ve used for nearly a decade. I hesitate to suggest that the 5G experience might actually be worse than 4G in some situations, but in hands-on 5G testing, I’ve seen intermittent evidence of that, too.
Consequently, I’m guessing Apple isn’t basing the iPhone event’s “Hi, Speed” name on 5G alone. The company will most likely tout the Snapdragon-crushing speeds of its A14 Bionic processor, and possibly mention other wireless improvements such as ultra wideband location technology, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. Here’s what to expect, and, for other journalists reading this, some important considerations to take into account before uncritically repeating Apple’s 5G marketing claims.
5G: Unfulfilled potential
A colleague asked me yesterday what buying a 5G phone would actually get him right now, and whether any trustworthy third parties have claimed that individual U.S. carriers or regions had great 5G. I would love nothing more than to tell you 5G is widely delivering on its potential, such that buying a 5G phone would mean crazy fast video download speeds at a minimum, with enough throughput for next-generation mixed reality experiences at a maximum. But that’s not true, unless you’re in a geographically small country or a major city in China. So my broad answer — and I’m truly disappointed to be saying this in October 2020 — is that you’re best off setting your expectations low.
The TL;DR explanation: Even if you buy a 5G phone, you won’t see next-generation download speeds unless it connects to nearby 5G cell towers, and right now, those are fewer, further between, and/or slower than they should be. Although Verizon and AT&T commenced 5G service using supercharged millimeter wave “small cells,” they paused nationwide rollouts because too many cell sites were required. So they pivoted, deciding — for now — to split their existing 4G towers between 4G and 5G. Their executives have candidly admitted that their 5G performance consequently won’t be much faster than 4G outside of very small “5G+” zones in specific locations.
T-Mobile took a different approach that seems to be smarter. It has already covered the U.S. with a wide blanket layer of “low band” 5G that ranges from 4G-equivalent to several times faster, varying hugely from location to location. Many parts of U.S. cities and towns are also benefitting from a faster “mid band” layer, repurposing resources from Sprint’s network, while a handful of locations also have the fastest “high band” layer based on millimeter wave technology. Apple’s “Hi, Speed” invitation graphic might be referencing this strategy, which T-Mobile has called a “layer cake” approach to 5G.
The problem with the layer cake is that most people in the U.S. have been getting either no cake or the mediocre bottom layer, not the better middle and faster layers. In my personal tests, I’ve seen 5G hit nearly 2Gbps peaks on specific street corners, deliver worse speeds than 4G on others, and occasionally completely stall out for uploads across multiple locations. The only word I would use to describe U.S. 5G today is “inconsistent” — I wouldn’t even call it “inconsistently good” or “inconsistently great” — and if recent anecdotal reports from users in some locations are representative, it’s possible that a phone will work more reliably in some places with 5G turned off.
That’s horrifying, but user experiences may well be better outside the United States. Earlier this year, an Opensignal survey of 5G performance showed U.S. 5G lagging well behind other nations and even below average Wi-Fi speeds, such that U.S. users could expect average 5G download speeds of 52.3Mbps — slower than the average 4G speed in South Korea, and roughly 20-25% of the average 5G speeds reported for South Korea and Saudi Arabia.
A subsequent Opensignal study showed that while U.S. 5G downloads averaged only 1.4 times 4G speeds, they were as high as 14.3 times faster elsewhere — generally closer to 7 times, give or take a little. I won’t go so far as to say 5G is at its worst in the U.S., as there are still many countries with no 5G infrastructure, but 5G is certainly much closer to delivering “transformative” experiences in some places than others.
Why is this? Instead of worrying about three layers, carriers in most countries outside the U.S. have focused largely on getting the middle layer of the cake right in as many places as possible. Phones with “sub-6GHz” 5G support can connect to middle and low layer 5G towers; phones with “sub-6GHz and millimeter wave” 5G can also connect to high layer towers. As of today, very few people will benefit from millimeter wave hardware, which Apple is apparently only going to include in Pro versions of the iPhone 12. That limitation might not matter for years.
Historically, Apple hasn’t spent a huge amount of iPhone event time discussing the real-world cellular performance of its devices; instead, it tends to toss out a phrase like “support for Gigabit LTE” and wave generally in the direction of faster performance wherever it might be available. But regardless of how Apple markets the technology this month, 5G support was a huge deal for the new iPhones — enough to make Apple walk away from Intel modems and abruptly end legal maneuvers against leading 5G chipmaker Qualcomm.
By naming this event “Hi, Speed,” the company has raised the topic of iPhone 5G performance for discussion and closer examination. My advice is to pay close attention to what Apple does and doesn’t promise regarding the new iPhones’ cellular performance, including any model-, carrier-, or country-specific differences that people should be aware of. Some have predicted for months that the popularity of iPhones will make the “Hi, Speed” event the true beginning of the 5G era, but depending on how Apple plays it, we could just see the company join a 5G hype parade that hasn’t yet delivered on the standard’s massive promise.
Though Apple’s latest mobile chip had an unusual debut at last month’s Time Flies event, appearing for the first time in the midrange iPad Air rather than a flagship iPhone, I expect it to get a second spotlight at the “Hi, Speed” event. Unlike 5G, which may be spotty where you live, the A14 Bionic will deliver impressive processing performance across the world, zipping past the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8-series processors that power today’s Android flagships.
Based on early Geekbench 5 results, here’s how the new A14 compares with the iPhone 11’s A13 Bionic and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 and 865+ chips in CPU performance:
Single Core: A14 1,593; A13 1,327; SD865+ 973; SD865 898
Multi-Core: A14 4,198; A13 3,287; SD865+ 3,346; SD865 3,280
These numbers may seem abstract, but they tell a clear story: Common apps will benefit from a nearly 64% faster single-core experience on A14 compared with the Snapdragon 865+, while the most demanding apps will have over 25% more multi-core processing capability than the fastest mobile Snapdragon chip. Assuming the A14 in iPhones is the same as the iPad Air’s A14, Apple will have effectively brought the performance of an iPad Pro tablet to a pocket-sized device.
Geekbench also measures graphics performance for A-series chips, and reports that the A14 scores 12,571 compared with the A13’s 7,311. That’s a 72% year over year GPU jump, slightly higher than the iPad Pro’s A12Z, which scores around 12,000 on average.
In other words, the A14 Bionic will make the iPhone 12 family the fastest phones in the world in raw processing power, and just like the iPad Pro, roughly equivalent in graphics capabilities to Microsoft’s Xbox One consoles. Given that we’re talking about a device that can sit in your pocket without setting your pants on fire, that’s almost impressive enough to make one forget about the 5G situation.
UWB, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth
5G and the A14 Bionic won’t be the only iPhone 12 upgrades worth spotlighting, but they’re probably going to make more of an impact than several other topics that might or might not come up during the event.
Ultra Wideband: In September 2019, Apple added a mysterious new U1 chip to the iPhone 11, explaining at the time that the wireless technology would initially enable precision location services, as well as “amazing new capabilities” in the future. U1 has seemingly been pointless since then, appearing in no other Apple devices until last month’s release of the Apple Watch Series 6, and doing little more than letting two iPhone 11s quickly link up for wireless AirDrop transfers. Notably, U1 was left out of the 2020 iPhone SE, iPad Pro, iPad Air, iPad, and Apple Watch SE, which is to say that it doesn’t seem like a big Apple priority this year.
That said, U1 is widely expected to be one of the technologies underpinning upcoming Apple location trackers named either Apple Tags or AirTags, which will supposedly enable lost items to be found quickly and accurately. There’s been some speculation that the Apple “Hi, Speed” graphic is based on the puck-shaped Tag design, which is believed to be similar to the imagery.
Wi-Fi 6E: Apple introduced Wi-Fi 6 support in the iPhone 11, and the latest iPads also support that standard, adding simultaneous dual band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) connectivity. There’s now a newer version of the standard called Wi-Fi 6E with the ability to deliver even faster speeds in some locations, but whether the latest iPhones will support it is still a question mark. One of Apple’s current wireless partners, Qualcomm, has already introduced Wi-Fi 6E chips, so it’s possible.
Bluetooth 5.2: The same Qualcomm Wi-Fi 6E chips also include the latest and greatest version of the Bluetooth standard, 5.2, which notably adds a feature called LE Audio — a low-energy streaming mode that promises to deliver great-sounding audio to wireless headsets at roughly half the prior bitrate. Like Wi-Fi 6E, there’s no evidence of Bluetooth 5.2 in the just-announced iPads, but given the popularity of music streaming through iPhones, anything could happen with the iPhone 12 family.
Although I’m following my own advice and keeping my personal expectations low for iPhone 12 family 5G cellular speeds, I’m excited to see the pitch Apple makes for the devices. They’re likely to be great performers across the board, regardless of whatever 5G can and can’t deliver in various locations, and at least they won’t unnecessarily be two years behind the curve in supporting the latest wireless technologies.
That having been said, I’m not thrilled that the accurate answer to my colleague’s question — what is buying a 5G phone actually going to get you right now? — will for so many people be “a phone with a lot more potential than last year’s models.” Potential isn’t a great selling point for new devices, particularly ones that are as expensive as iPhones.
Taking into account Apple’s recent proclivity for adding hardware features that either go nowhere (3D Touch) or are apparently waiting on some future next big thing (Lidar, U1), I hope the company simultaneously unveils tangibly better software or service experiences that will demonstrate what 5G is capable of — and drive worldwide demand for the new technology. Between “holographic” volumetric FaceTime calls, augmented reality support, and other applications combining CPUs, GPUs, wireless chips, and cameras, there’s no question that 5G still has transformative potential. At this point, the only questions are who will start delivering these experiences at scale, and how much longer we’ll have to wait for them. Accepting 5G that’s only barely different from 4G as our new normal shouldn’t be an option.