What a difference a few weeks can make. Last month, I came to Chicago for the launch of Verizon’s 5G network, which is now live both here and in Minneapolis. The inaugural 5G device was the Moto Z3 equipped with Motorola’s 5G MotoMod, and my experience — and that of many other tech journalists — was less than positive: 5G coverage was exceedingly difficult to find. Speeds were noticeably faster than LTE, but not wickedly so.
But today marks the release of Samsung’s $1,400 Galaxy S10 5G, which will briefly be a Verizon exclusive before moving to other carriers. And now that there’s a real, proper 5G phone on its network, Verizon has ramped things up. Coverage remains extremely limited: it varies widely and block by block.
But when you find a good spot, it’s amazing. I just ran a speed test that crossed 1Gbps, and my mind is frankly a little blown. This is in the real world, where my iPhone XS Max is barely hitting 20Mbps in the same spot.
A Verizon billboard advertising Samsung’s new Galaxy S10 5G. Note the 5G node on the pole right next to it.
Download speeds on Verizon’s 5G network now feel like a proper next-gen leap over current LTE performance. Going over 700Mbps is very typical, and crossing that gigabit marker can happen regularly if you’re standing near one of the carrier’s 5G nodes, which utilize millimeter wave technology to achieve the faster download rates.
I’m still walking around Chicago and testing things out, but here are a few quick tests I ran:
The pilot episode of The Office downloaded from Netflix at “high” quality in eight seconds. That’s not a typo.
I pulled down Marvel’s Iron Man 2 from the Amazon Prime Video app at “best” quality in 90 seconds.
Downloaded Iron Man 2 from Prime Video at “best” quality in 90 seconds. You can see here that Verizon’s network occasionally fell back to 4G LTE. I’m right across the street from the 5G node. pic.twitter.com/TAh2YgmzwD— Chris Welch (@chriswelch) May 16, 2019
When looking at download speeds, you’ve also got to factor in what’s on the other side. Are the servers and CDNs of your favorite streaming services optimized for this level of mobile network performance? For home broadband, maybe. But we’re entering a new era of potential for the devices in our pocket.
Let me balance that excitement a bit: 5G deployment is going to take years before we hit the same saturation and blanket coverage that currently exists with LTE. Millimeter wave technology alone isn’t going to be enough: indoor coverage on Verizon’s 5G network is basically nonexistent, and that’s a major issue. And for now, uploads are still limited to LTE on Verizon’s 5G network. Tethering with the Galaxy S10 5G isn’t yet supported (at 5G speeds), which is annoying.
Speeds drop quickly as you walk down the block from any 5G node, and the 5G signal is basically gone once you lose line of sight. Bafflingly, the 5G icon only appears when your phone is actively using data. At all other times, it displays 4G. This makes it difficult to tell exactly when you’re leaving a 5G coverage area. How convenient for a very young network! And as impressive as these speeds are, remember that there’s barely anyone on Verizon’s 5G network right now. What’s going to happen to those 1Gbps speed tests once people actually start buying 5G devices in significant numbers? All of this is to say that buying a $1,400 phone like the Galaxy S10 5G when coverage remains this spotty still seems pretty silly to me.
But damn is it fast. And these speeds Verizon is hitting in Chicago and Minneapolis are only going to push the company’s rivals to get on the same playing field. Unfortunately, my time with the S10 5G is going to be rather limited; even though the device can be purchased in stores today, Verizon and Samsung are limiting press to just a few hours with it. I wish both companies would reconsider, as this is starting to feel like a different network. A proper 5G one. Even if it’s there on one street and gone the next, I’ve never seen anything this fast.