The iPhone 13 reviews fried my brain, so this week’s newsletter is coming from a somewhat more rambling place than usual. I’ve reviewed more than 1,000 cell phones, and I’ve been reviewing iPhones since the very first one, but they always stress me out. Apple’s iPhones are the most popular and the most scrutinized phones in the US, and there are dozens of bloggers, vloggers, and reviewers who have a more passionate connection to the line than I do.
It was especially tough for me to review the iPhones this year because I couldn’t find differences in network performance. That led, though, to my realizing there’s a gap right now between the what 5G phones can do, and what US 5G networks can do. 5G has been around for more than two years now, and we’re going to see the first fourth-generation Qualcomm X65-based 5G phones in about four months. But it’s hard to find anywhere in the US where having better than an X55 matters for performance. (Although the iPhone 13’s Qualcomm X60 does seem to be much more power efficient, and that matters a lot.)
In my reviews, I always try to spin this as “new 5G phones look to the future,” and that’s not wrong, but it also means the present is letting us down.
Throughout 2G, 3G, and 4G, new handset capabilities and new networks went hand in hand. With previous 4G iPhones, each year they’d ratchet up their carrier aggregation or MIMO level, and each year we’d see a jump in performance on Verizon or AT&T. But both Verizon and AT&T absolutely flatlined on performance between 2020 and 2021, whether on iPhones or anything else, and you can get T-Mobile’s great new mid-band just as well on an iPhone 12 as on an iPhone 13.
What am I waiting for? Bullet points are a good way to organize my thoughts:
- Reliable, low-latency, standalone 5G networks for remote control, cloud-centric, and AR applications.
- Network slicing that can offer guaranteed quality to home internet and enterprise wireless applications.
- 5G that offers a difference from 4G for the two thirds of US subscribers who aren’t on T-Mobile.
Like what you’re reading? You’ll love it delivered to your inbox weekly. Sign up for the Race to 5G newsletterSign up for the Race to 5G newsletter.
I asked around a bit, and there are four predictable answers:
- We’re still reeling from former FCC head Ajit Pai’s mistakes. Unlike in nearly every other country, he didn’t prioritize making mid-band spectrum available for 5G, and that set us back by at least a year. Still though, Verizon and AT&T’s 2022 C-band networks can (and will) be handled by devices with 2020’s X55 modems.
- The chipset shortage is having an even deeper effect than is obvious, with carriers unable to get the components they need to set up new capabilities such as standalone 5G cores.
- That whole standalone 5G core thing, which is needed to evolve to the next phase of 5G, turned out to be much more complicated than everyone thought it would be in 2020.
- Network slicing and some other features rely on 5G Release 16, and that network hardware just became available this year (and it isn’t very available; see point 2).
I don’t think this means “5G is doomed,” but it certainly makes reviewing new 5G phones less thrilling for the moment.
On a positive note, I just booked my ticket to Qualcomm’s upcoming Snapdragon Summit in December, which will be my first conference since February of 2020. I’m really hoping to get some good network news there.
What Else Happened This Week?
So much. It’s hard to narrow it down to the most important stories, but I’ll try:
- The chipset shortage is forcing Samsung to make hard decisions. It looks like it’s axing the Galaxy S21 FE in part to save chips for the unexpectedly popular Z Flip3. PCMag’s old editor-in-chief Michael Miller used a Z Flip3 for a few weeks and loved it.
- The first Boost/Dish (Bish?) 5G phone is coming out soon and it includes a year of free service. Boost’s head Stephen Stokols (formerly of FreedomPop) gave me some details about how he plans to juggle three networks (T-Mobile, AT&T, and Dish).
- The first 5G Fairphone, and the first Fairphone properly compatible with a US network (T-Mobile) launched this week, although it doesn’t ship to the US. The Fairphone is an interesting perpetual experiment in making an easily repairable phone. That’s the opposite of Apple’s approach, where if you try to replace the screen you lose Face ID.
- The iPhone 13 might not have satellite connectivity, but several companies are trying to solve the problem of connecting standard-sized, standard-powered mobile phones to satellites. They just aren’t quite there yet in 2021. The most recent news comes from a startup called Lynk, which says it’s connected standard smartphones to a small satellite.