There’s more to 5G than overblown marketing hype and some really weird (and in some cases, dangerous) conspiracy theories. Here’s what you actually need to know: 5G offers faster download and upload speeds, more bandwidth, lower latency, and enough throughput to support a household of people trying to connect to the internet (though 5G home broadband is… limited, to say the least).
And 5G connectivity isn’t as scarce as it was in the beginning times. Carriers are rolling out more towers and installing more nodes on existing towers across Australia. If your carrier has already flipped the switch on 5G where you live, or if you’re thinking of upgrading your phone this year, buying a 5G phone is a good idea.
Apple, Google, Samsung, OnePlus, and even some budget smartphone players have all fully committed to the new wireless specification, though it’s not equal across the major carriers. There’s a bit of nuance to 5G and its different frequencies, which can make choosing a compatible device kind of annoying!
Figuring out 5G is complicated because of the way it’s been rolled out in Australia. When buying a phone, you need to know that there are three frequencies that make up 5G: low-band, mid-band, and high-band. The low-band frequencies are often considered “blanket” 5G because of their far range, but their 600 to 700Mhz spectrum is quite slow. Mid-band frequencies are faster at 1.7GHz to 2.5GHz, and they’re like the just right tier of 5G you could hope for at this stage. High-band frequencies are called millimetre-wave 5G at 24GHz spectrum and higher, but the higher frequency means shorter range. Signal can’t travel very far and can’t penetrate, say, walls or windows. That means you can get lightning-fast speeds if you’re standing directly under a 5G node, but not in your home. The carriers have deployed 5G in varying bands, but the ideal 5G network is made up of all three. That’s a work in progress.
Not only do you need to pay attention to what kind of 5G service your carrier is offering in your area, but some 5G phones only support specific types of 5G. That’s becoming less of an issue now, but if you’re buying a 5G phone, make sure it can support both mmWave and sub-6Ghz 5G.
5G phones are no longer as expensive as they once were. It’s possible to spend as little as $400 on a 5G-compatible phone, though devices are limited in band support at that price point. Here are our recommendations for 5G phones to buy this year.
Apple iPhone 12
Apple leaned into 5G by making its entire iPhone 12 lineup compatible with next-gen networks. All you have to do is pick a flavour: iPhone 12 Mini for $1,199, iPhone 12 for $1,349, iPhone 12 Pro for $1,699, or iPhone 12 Pro Max for $1,849. The latter is the Apple handset with the best battery life — which is definitely useful for the ultra-fast, battery-sucking mmWave flavour of 5G — though you’ll have to adopt a giant 6.7-inch display.
The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro are probably the best phones for most Apple fans. The 12 Pro gives you a camera boost with a telephoto lens and a more premium design, but the iPhone 12 shoots perfectly good photos and is also cheaper.
For those with smaller hands, how about the delightfully compact iPhone 12 Mini? It only has a 5.4-inch display, which may sound measly but is still a more comfortable size for many folks. The iPhone 12 Mini has an ultra-wide and wide camera and up to 2x optical zoom range. The battery life is a little stinky, though, and tends to burn out with lots of 5G use. But at $1,199, it’s more affordable than Apple’s other 5G offerings. And it’s little, which is the main selling point here.
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
This is the creme de la creme, as they say of both the Cadbury cream-filled Easter egg and the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. Samsung’s top-tier flagship smartphone will set you back a cool $1,849. You get a Samsung signature 6.8-inch AMOLED display and a ridiculous 40-MP selfie cam and 100X optical zoom, as well as support for Samsung’s S Pen stylus (though S Pen not included), wireless and reverse charging, and a whopping 5000 mAh battery.
If you don’t want to shell out for the Ultra, the Galaxy S21 and S21+ (which start at $1,249 and $1,549, respectively), are also very good phones. The Ultra is the only S model this year that supports a stylus, but the main difference between the models is screen size and battery life. All three work on high to low 5G spectrum.
Google Pixel 4a 5G
The Google Pixel 4a 5G is only $799, making it one of the cheapest sort-of flagship 5G smartphones. It has a 6.2-inch OLED screen, base storage of 128GB, and two rear cameras capable of some of the best low light shots in the industry. There are no fancy features like wireless charging and water resistance, but the latter is in exchange for the now-rare headphone jack.
The $999 Pixel 5 is also a 5G-compatible option if you’re particularly committed to Google, though it costs $200 more for the bump in the processor, battery, and water resistance. The camera hardware remains the same between models, so save your money if you think it’s worth the compromises.
We really like the $800 OnePlus 8, which not only has 5G support — it offers a 90 Hz display and the same processor as the $900 OnePlus 8 Pro for nearly $100 less. The only glaring concession is that the OnePlus 8’s 5G support varies depending on where you buy it. It’s also hard to purchase in Australia.
If you’re willing to splurge on the Pro, you get more camera lenses, a screen with a higher refresh rate, and goodies like wireless charging and reverse charging.
But one caveat: OnePlus is rumoured to have a new flagship phone on the horizon, so you may want to wait to see what’s in store.
Samsung Galaxy S20 FE
The Galaxy S20 FE was the cheapest option in Samsung’s lineup in 2020, and it remains a relatively thrifty way to get 5G access and hardware that won’t bog you down. It’s the same size and has most of the same hardware as the Galaxy S20+, and it comes in a spectrum of cool colours. You can often find it under $849 on some sites, and you can buy it unlocked or through your carrier.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra
Before the latest Galaxy S21 lineup, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra was Samsung’s marquee 5G device. It’s a whopper of a smartphone (and $1,999) with a 6.9-inch display, but it works with every available 5G network. Rumour has it that Samsung may discontinue the Note line this year now that it’s brought S Pen support to the Galaxy S line, so this may be a chance to snag a classic while you can.
Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2
Last but not least: The Galaxy Z Fold 2 is an indulgent $2,999, but that has to do squarely with its cyberpunk design and not the 5G support. It has other premium features that contribute to that price tag, too, like a 120Hz refresh rate, 12GB of RAM, 256GB of base storage, and reverse wireless charging. You might not find it gets the battery you want with both 5G antennas and the rapid-fire refresh rate. But again, you do get bragging rights. At this price point, that’s what it’s really about.
If it seems like Samsung dominates this list, well, that’s true. But that’s because Samsung was out the door early with some of the best 5G phones Gizmodo has reviewed. Hopefully the competition heats up so people have plenty of options across all price points.