You may have already heard the buzz around the new iPhone 12, which Apple lifted the curtain on this week. Featuring an A14 Bionic processor and a Qualcomm 5G modem, the iPhone 12 represents Apple’s first attempt at a 5G phone—big news, even though Apple’s competitors are already on their 2nd or 3rd generation of 5G phones. While its 5G capabilities have captured most of the attention, the new iPhone 12 also comes with a new and improved camera array, faster processor, and an updated design. Still, many people don’t believe that 5G is mature enough to justify buying a 5G iPhone. I think they are well-intentioned but wrong, and today I’d like to make a case for why.
Future-proofing for mature 5G networks
The new iPhone 12 comes with support for a multitude of flavors of 5G. This includes low bands (like T-Mobile’s 600 MHz), mid-bands (like 3.5 and 2.6 GHz), and mmWave bands (28 and 24 GHz). The fact that 5G incorporates newer bands (like mmWave and mid-bands) and old ones means there is a lot of complexity for smartphone OEMs to navigate. The iPhone 12’s 5G modem, with its support for all of these bands, should future-proof the device somewhat.
I will be the first person to acknowledge that 5G networks are not yet mature. Right now, most 5G networks are in their toddler phase. T-Mobile is still the only operator with a nationwide Standalone 5G network—a necessary component for delivering the full benefits of 5G to consumers. The other part of delivering a quality 5G experience is delivering both the coverage and speeds that people are expecting. Right now, nobody has both the range and the speeds nationwide to do that. While I would say that T-Mobile is the closest to delivering on 5G’s promise, it is still a year or two away from rolling out the 2.5 GHz and mmWave networks necessary for high-speed coverage in city-wide areas nationwide.
Another thing worth considering is that iPhone users tend to use their phones longer than most other smartphone buyers. This trend was growing over the last few years as the marginal differences separating successive generations of 4G iPhones didn’t particularly draw people in to buy the latest model. According to some figures, the average device age of many US and European buyers is now more than two years old. That could indicate that new phones are too expensive, given the small generational improvements, or that users are totally happy with the experience on their older devices. This is due in some part to the fact that the processors in Apple’s iPhones are capable of far more performance than most applications fully utilize. Apple has done a great job of optimizing application performance and the APIs that run on the phone.
Still, the longer average refresh cycle means consumers who buy a non-5G iPhone may be locked into a network that operators are no longer making investments in. All of the attention and investment is moving into 5G. Technologies such as DSS (dynamic spectrum sharing—where 4G shares spectrum resources with 5G) can serve as a band-aid during the transition, but they still will not have full 5G capabilities.
While 5G networks have not yet matured, they are rapidly improving and will likely leave stragglers behind before too long. If you buy a 5G iPhone this year or next, you may not get the full 5G experience immediately. On the flip side, you won’t be left behind as the 5G networks mature, and 4G connections start slowing down.
Ultimately, going out and buying a non-5G iPhone at this point doesn’t make much sense. You may save some money but will also potentially be stuck with that decision for at least the next 2-3 years, as you jealously watch 5G iPhone users enjoy the continually improving capabilities of 5G. If you buy a 5G iPhone now, you will be future-proofed for all 5G spectrums (though its worth mentioning the current iPhone models outside of the US do not support mmWave yet—they will eventually). That means you will be able to take advantage of 5G in real-time as the networks mature. If you’re in the market for a new iPhone now and can afford the latest, I think the choice is pretty straightforward.
The iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro are available for pre-order today, and will hit the shelves next week. The iPhone 12 Pro Max and Mini pre-orders start November 6th, with general availability coming the week after.