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Upgrading to a 5G phone: When’s the right time?

Update 11/22/19: This article has been updated to reflect new coverage from Verizon and AT&T.

If you’ve even glanced at a tech blog this year, you’ve surely seen the term 5G. Hailed as the next big advancement in mobility, 5G will be an enormous breakthrough for smartphones and other connected devices, letting us download movies in a blink of an eye, while eliminating frustrating slowdowns once and for all.

But just because you can buy a 5G phone right now doesn’t mean you should. Like all new tech, the earliest 5G phones are expensive and underwhelming, with soon-to-be-outdated parts and a vague promise of future-proofing.

But all that’s going to change very soon. 

In 2020, the 5G vision will begin to take shape in a real way, and if you’re interested in getting on board, you’ll want to make sure you upgrade to the right handset at the right time. Here’s what to look for, so don’t pull the trigger too early…

The right modem

X55 5G modem

Most people don’t give much thought to modems when they buy a phone, but you’ll want to check the spec sheet before buying your first 5G phone. Since Intel dropped out of the race and U.S. companies are forbidden from doing business with Huawei, Qualcomm is the only game in town when it comes to modems, and the first-generation X50 modem that’s in the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G and other phones is truly a freshman effort.

But fret not! The first phones equipped with Qualcomm’s second-generation X55 5G modem will start hitting shelves in 2020, and it’s a massive improvement over the X50 modem that powers first-generation 5G phones.

galaxy s10 5g compare Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

The Galaxy S10 5G (left) uses the X50 modem.

Here’s how Qualcomm explains it: “Snapdragon X55 is a 7-nanometer single-chip integrated 5G to 2G multimode modem that supports 5G NR mmWave and sub-6 GHz spectrum bands with up to 7 gigabits per second (Gbps) download speeds and 3 Gbps upload speeds over 5G, and Category 22 LTE with up to 2.5 Gbps LTE download speeds.”

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