5G, 5G, 5G! Mobile companies and smartphone makers can’t stop talking about how fast the 5G mobile network is. Is the much-touted technology worth upgrading the device? 5G is fast — when you find it — but as the week of battery tests showed, it’s power-hungry, and there are no killer apps that require high data speeds just yet.
Over the past year, carriers have offered aggressive business deals — up to $1,000 off — to get people to upgrade to the latest 5G models, after spending billions of dollars building the new mobile network. It works: According to Counterpoint Research, global sales of 5G smartphones surpassed 4G phones for the first time in January.
Earlier this month, Apple AAPL 2.09%
It added 5G to two more of its products, the entry-level iPhone SE and the new iPad Air. The entire iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 lineup is ready for the fifth generation, as are select models of the latest iPad Mini and iPad Pro. (Android phones have also had 5G capabilities for a long time, although this review focuses on Apple.)
Your next phone or tablet will likely have 5G, if your current one isn’t already. All unlimited data packages through AT&TAnd the
T-Mobile TMUS -1.37%
and Verizon VZ -2.98%
Include network access.
As you can expect, there is a trade-off between sheer speeds and energy conservation. When to use 5G will likely depend on what you intend to do. Whether you’re new to 5G or just wondering what it’s doing with your phone, here’s what you need to know about how mobile network will—and won’t—your experience on your iPhone or iPad.
5G vs 4G LTE
The carriers weren’t kidding about speed: I recently downloaded a 10-hour Spotify playlist in less than a minute over 5G. In one extreme example, my colleague Joanna Stern experienced a download speed of 1,300 Mbps on a Verizon 5G network in Jersey City, NJ (compare that to your cellular and home Wi-Fi speeds using fast.com).
To achieve this speed, Joanna is parked below a cell tower that emits the fastest type of 5G, called a millimeter wave, favored by Verizon. This ultra-fast flavor requires you to be within a few hundred feet of the hive site to get top speeds, and trees, buildings, and other obstacles can slow it down. Additionally, Jersey City has the fastest average download and upload speeds of any city in the United States, according to broadband company Ookla.
My city, San Francisco, isn’t even in the top 30. Walking around different neighborhoods and using the Speedtest app from Ookla to test Verizon, I saw 5G speeds ranging from 160 to 361 Mbps for downloads. By comparison, download speeds on the 4G network – generally referred to as LTE – ranged from 55 to 140 Mbps. (For comparison, the average national internet speed in 2021 was 99.3 megabits per second, according to HighSpeedInternet.com.)
Scrolling through Instagram and Twitter, I didn’t notice a difference between 5G and 4G. I saw the most difference when downloading and uploading media. Over T-Mobile’s LTE network, a 30-second video in cinematic mode took 3.4 seconds to download from iCloud Drive. Over 5G the download was so instant I didn’t have time to hit the start/stop button on my stopwatch.
(I haven’t had a chance to test the AT&T network, but the results are likely to be consistent, as Apple uses 5G modems regardless of network.)
While Apple does offer a cellular battery life rating for iPads, the company doesn’t share the same on its iPhones. An Apple spokesperson said there are different tests across products because each device has a different function.
So, I wanted to compare 5G and 4G battery performance for myself. I streamed a long YouTube video of relaxing ocean shots, with the video quality set to “auto,” on various Apple devices until the battery ran out, first on 5G, then on LTE. It’s not a perfect test, but it has proven to be a consistent way to watch the extra 5G battery drain.
That is why the most important thing that was extracted from this experience is the difference in battery performance on the two types of networks: T-Mobile 4G and 5G for the iPhone SE and 13 Pro; Verizon 4G and 5G for the new iPhone 13 Mini and iPad Air. Just note that the time the device lasts doesn’t say much on its own, since that’s not realistic behavior (unless watching 10 hours of ocean views while in town is your thing).
As expected, 5G was draining more battery than LTE in each case. (During testing, I did not experience the extreme speeds associated with 5G millimeter wave, which will likely drain the battery more.)
The new SE lasted about an hour on 4G compared to 5G, while the new iPad Air and iPhone 13 Mini lasted an additional 1.5 hours. And while the iPhone 13 Pro ran an impressive 12 hours and 50 minutes on 5G, it lasted about 2.5 hours longer on LTE.
Share your thoughts
Is 5G draining your phone’s battery? What tricks do you use to conserve energy? Join the conversation below.
A YouTube spokeswoman said the quality setting “auto” looks at many factors, including connection type and screen size, adding that the app may play higher resolutions on 5G than on 4G, but there are several things that can affect power consumption. She said the company is “always looking for ways to improve battery consumption,” and has made some improvements to 5G streaming.
Durga Mladi, Head of 5G at QualcommAnd the
Which makes modems for Apple and other phone makers, explained that when you use an app on 5G, data can flow at a faster rate than you see with a 4G connection. This is a good thing, but it can drain your phone battery more quickly. This is also why millimeter wave is more likely to be a battery hog than other frequencies. (Among Apple’s 5G phones in the US, only the new SE doesn’t have millimeter wave support.)
It’s hard to tell the exact flavor of 5G you’re connecting to. The phone’s status bar can indicate 5G, which only means that the carrier’s network is available. If you see 5G+, 5G UW, or 5G UC, this can refer to both regular mid-band networks and ultra-fast millimeter wave networks. It’s like going to a liquor store where every bottle is unlabeled, and you have no idea what kind of drink you’re getting – or how effective it is.
If you use your phone or tablet a lot away from home, the fast 5G signal means you don’t have to worry about connecting to potentially dangerous public Wi-Fi. It also enables you to do more data-intensive activities, such as playing an online multiplayer game like Minecraft, or live streaming from different angles of the game from a football field filled with millimeter waves. cons? Faster battery drain, possibly incomplete coverage.
Manage your battery
If you want your iPhone battery to last longer, you can reduce its use of the 5G network. Go to Settings > Cellular > Voice & Data and set the connection to 5G Auto. (It may also be under cellular data options, depending on your carrier.) This activates Smart Data Mode, a setting that will dynamically switch your connection between 5G and LTE to conserve power.
The feature will rely on 5G, for example, to download a large movie, but when doing background tasks, like checking email, the phone will switch back to LTE to save battery.
Your iPhone can also automatically switch to LTE once it reaches a certain battery level. Open the Shortcuts app, and go to the Automation tab to create a personal automation. Select the battery level and set the desired percentage. On the next page, click on Add Action and search for Set Voice and Data. Set the voice and data mode to LTE.
The simplest option is to turn off 5G until you need it. I’ve set cellular to LTE because I want to squeeze every extra minute out of my iPhone 13 Mini’s relatively small battery. But it’s there when, say, I panic while downloading a 10-hour ocean scene at the airport so I can relax on a long flight.
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