For Apple fans and gadget lovers in general, there’s nothing quite like the rush of an Apple product launch event. The company continues to set standards to generate a level of excitement and interest in its products that I have never before seen comparable to any company in any industry.
Such was the case with the livestream issue yesterday as the tech industry giant revealed the next generation iPhone SE, the updated iPad Air powered by their M1 chip, the powerful but expensive desktop Mac Studio and Studio Display, a version of which comes with the latest offerings. The silicone from Apple, the M1 Ultra.
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Most people will likely fall in love with the mainstream iPhone SE (starting at $429, up $30 from its predecessor) and iPad Air (starting at $599). What’s particularly notable about these two is that they now support 5G (although it’s optional on the iPad Air and raises the starting price to $749).
This is an important step in the evolution of the next generation of cellular standards because in particular with the iPhone SE, Apple is lowering 5G technology to lower price points and expanding its appeal. Part of the reason 5G continues to be adopted by the minority is that phones that incorporate the technology tend to be at the lower end of the price range.
In order to get to those lower prices, Apple had to make some adjustments to how it implemented 5G in the iPhone SE. Based on the technical specifications, it appears that he used the same technique for the 5G version of the new iPad Air. Specifically, both devices only support the so-called mid- and low-band frequencies used by 5G. They do not support millimeter wave (mmWave) frequencies.
The reason this is important is because some of the fastest possible download speeds offered over 5G use mmWave, and you can’t achieve them unless your phone supports them. In terms of what it might look like in theory, in a real world experience, the effect might not be as bad as some fear.
First, Verizon is the only major US carrier to massively support mmWave signals in its 5G networks, so if you’re using T-Mobile, AT&T, or other smaller carriers, this is generally not an issue. Even if you’re on Verizon, the practical fact is that mmWave coverage is mainly in a limited set of urban areas right now, and unless you’re inside or visiting, you can’t access these signals anyway. (To be fair, the company recently announced plans to expand the mmWave network over the next year or so, but it still isn’t as widespread as the coverage other frequencies provide.)
In addition, the physical properties of mmWave signals mean that they do not travel far, cannot penetrate walls or windows, and are easily subject to interference. In other words, even if you can find it, you need to sit idly outside away from a lot of people to really enjoy the benefits of speed.
More importantly, in the past two months, AT&T and Verizon have both launched massive support for mid-band-based 5G signals, using frequencies called the C-Band, which the new iPhone SE and 5G-equipped iPad Air support. While these cannot match mmWave’s potential speed, the signals travel farther, pass through walls and are less susceptible to interference. In other words, in practice, they’ll give you about 10 times faster performance than 4G LTE on a more regular basis, but not the potential 100x boost from mmWave.
T-Mobile has been on top of the game as most of its 5G networks use a different type of mid-band frequency (also supported in new Apple products) with overall performance characteristics similar to the C-Band for nearly two years now.
Bottom line, while you won’t get what some call the “full” 5G experience on the updated iPhone SE and iPad Air, you’ll get the benefits that most people using 5G phones currently experience.
There’s also more to 5G than just faster download speeds, and these capabilities are built into Apple’s latest hardware. In particular, 5G should give us significant reductions in so-called latency, or the delay that can occur between you do something on your screen — like hitting a bad guy inside a game — and when a cloud-based server turns on and the game responds.
The truth is, we haven’t yet seen many notable real-world examples of this phenomenon yet – in part due to the constant upgrades to 5G networks that are still happening, and cloud-based apps and services that need to be updated to take advantage of these latency improvements. 5G smartphone owners of all types will eventually benefit from these improvements.
Sure, the march toward the reach and impact of 5G has been slower than many expected, but steps such as the availability of low-cost phones and tablets in conjunction with better 5G coverage are certainly key to making the technology impact possible.
Bob O’Donnell, a columnist for USA TODAY, is the president and principal analyst for TECHnalysis Research, a market research and advisory firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and the professional financial community. Its clients are from major tech companies including Amazon, Microsoft, HP, Dell, Samsung and Intel. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.
The opinions and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of USA TODAY.