Does your next phone really need 5G? How to decide

5G used to be synonymous with high prices, but it has become the norm in most new Phone(s) — even ones that cost less than $300 in some cases.

But you might wonder if 5G is needed in a new phone. Maybe you get a lot on one refurbished device from a few years ago that doesn’t support 5G. Maybe you’re looking at the iPhone 11, one of the cheapest phones Apple currently sells at $500, but it can’t connect to 5G.

For US buyers, the answer largely depends on your carrier, how much you’re willing to spend, and how long you plan to keep your next phone. Since 5G is available in nearly every new phone at no extra cost, there’s little reason not to buy a 5G-enabled phone.

Combine that with the fact that carriers are building their midband networks – which offer faster speeds than lower-band 5G offerings as well as wider coverage than the fastest millimeter-wave networks – and the case for buying a 5G phone is even stronger .

Read more: Not all 5G is the same: We explain the different names and flavors

At the same time, it’s important to remember that 5G speeds and coverage will vary depending on your carrier. And 4G phones will continue to work for years.

“They’re not shutting down those 4G networks anytime soon,” said Avi Greengart, president and principal analyst at research and advisory firm Techsponential. “Your phone will be dead before you have to worry about it.”

Understanding 5G

Determining if you need 5G in your next phone starts with understanding the current state of 5G. All three major network providers in the US offer 5G, and there are three main flavors to be aware of.

There’s low-band 5G, which is widely available but offers similar speeds to 4G LTE, and 5G millimeter wave, the ultra-fast version that only works at close range. You probably won’t notice the difference between 4G and 5G when you’re on a low-band network. But millimeter wave networks are so rare that you probably won’t find yourself near them on a regular basis unless you frequent busy places like stadiums, arenas or airports. Even then, coverage is often only in certain places.

The middle ground between these two networks is midband 5G, which offers faster speeds than 4G but can also cover much greater distances than millimeter wave. AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile are all in different phases of their midband rollout, with T-Mobile currently taking the lead. The carrier said in February that its Ultra Capacity network, which is comprised mostly of midband spectrum acquired from Sprint, reached 210 million people by the end of 2021. T-Mobile plans to reach 300 million people with its midband network, Ultra Capacity 5G, by the end of 2023.

Verizon, on the other hand, is aiming to cover 175 million people with its Ultra Wideband network, which uses millimeter waves and its midrange spectrum, in 2022. AT&T plans to cover 200 million people with its own midband network by the end of the year.

Read more: Apple needs another affordable 5G iPhone

T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T 5G

Faster 5G network range

Time range

T-Mobile

210 million people

2021

Verizon

175 million people

2022

AT&T

200 million people

2022

All of these technologies can work together to deliver greater coverage, speed and performance than 4G LTE.

“So we’re not just talking about cities, but a lot of the country where people live is covered by T-Mobile 5G,” Greengart said. “And so you’re going to want to buy a 5G phone for both coverage and speed reasons.”

How much are you willing to spend?

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The 2019 iPhone 11 is one of Apple’s cheapest iPhones, but it doesn’t support 5G.

Angela Lang/CBS

The most important factor in determining whether you should buy a 5G phone is how much you’re willing to spend. If you have less than $200 to spend on a new device, finding a worthy 5G phone can be tricky.

If your budget allows you to spend more than $400, there are several compelling 5G options like the $429 iPhone SE and $450 Galaxy A53 5G. The $450Google Pixel 6A, which recently launched on July 28, also supports 5G. This is a significant departure from when Samsung Galaxy S10 5G launched about three years ago for a whopping $1,300.

Cheaper phones may not support all flavors of 5G, namely the fastest millimeter-wave networks, but that shouldn’t be a deal breaker for most people buying today. With its advantages in speed and range, the three major networks have prioritized mid-band 5G rollouts over the past year. As long as your new phone supports midband 5G, you should be able to connect at faster speeds in more places.

It’s important to consider what matters most to you in a phone and how long you plan to keep a device. If you prefer a larger screen, more contemporary design, dual cameras, and plan to upgrade your phone in two years, the 4G-capable The $500 iPhone 11 might be a better choice than the 5G-enabled iPhone SE at $429.

But if you’re looking for a phone that can get you through the next three years or so, it’s probably best to look for a 5G device. Most Android phones in the $400 to $500 range have 5G and modern features like multi-lens cameras and large displays.

The situation is different for Apple fans. The only 5G-capable option under $600 is the 2022 iPhone SE, which has Apple’s latest smartphone chip but lacks other basics like a large screen and multiple cameras. That could change this fall when the rumored iPhone 14 launches and Apple drops the iPhone 12 and 12 mins price accordingly.

Bob O’Donnell, president and chief analyst at Technalysis Research, says 5G will likely feel more essential in early 2024. By then, carriers will have had more time to build out their midband networks.

“You’ll get faster speeds,” O’Donnell said. “Hopefully by then we’ll see additional services and apps that take advantage of 5G.”

The bottom line

Stack of telephones

Sarah Tew/CNET

To decide if you need 5G in your next phone, consider how much you’re willing to spend, how long you plan to keep your phone before upgrading, and what kind of coverage your carrier offers.

Investing in a new 5G phone is usually the best decision if you can afford it, as it ensures that your device will feel fast and relevant for years to come. But if your budget is limited or if the 5G phones you currently have don’t meet your needs, you won’t miss much by opting for 4G instead.

“As a purely functional phone, you can’t go wrong with a good LTE phone,” O’Donnell said.

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