We literally cobbled together the world's first 5G phone when we slapped the newly launched 5G Moto Mod onto the back of an existing 4G phone.
And it is indeed faster, according to our on-the-ground 5G tests using the Moto Z3, last year's 4G LTE phone that can be upgraded to 5G care of the new 5G add-on. Yes, 5G service is here, and it's coming together in bits and pieces.
We could buy it at exactly one Chicago store on launch day, and it came out faster than anyone expected. Verizon and Motorola jumped ahead of their original April 11 launch to become first to 5G phone manufacturer and carrier, beating Samsung's scheduled April 5 launch in Korea. Crafty.
Although this makes Verizon and Motorola first to 5G in the world, there's still the question of what that really means for all of us, the people using the the first 5G phone on the first 5G network.
What it took to get 5G service
Verizon's launch of the 5G network is far from a wide launch. Officially, the launch is only happening in Chicago, Illinois, and in Minneapolis, Wisconsin. While Chicago is a sizable city, and Minneapolis isn't small, the actual availability of 5G in each city is still limited.
Only several wards of Chicago are covered in the 5G network, and Verizon hasn't released any coverage map for customers to see. These were dense areas of Chicago, including Magnificent Mile (specifically the Verizon store), Gold Coast, Old Town, River North, and portions of South Loop and West Loop. Milwaukee's 5G coverage is in Downtown West, Downtown East, Elliot Park, and the Mall of America's Verizon Store.
Aside from the hands-on in the Magnificent Mile Verizon Store where the launch event took place, we knew getting to experience 5G in the wild might take a bit of work.
We needed both the Moto Z3, the 5G Moto Mod, an unlimited data plan from Verizon, and to pay a special $10 5G service fee on top of the data plan to access the 5G network. In the end, the hardware cost us $749 at the store (without opting for a contract where there are some discounts), and service will cost about $100 a month.
5G vs 4G LTE speeds
In the Verizon Store where the launch event took place, there was a 5G node set up at the front. And, with a short distance between the Moto Z3 and the node, with line of sight, the device managed to hit 651Mbps downstream. This compares to a later test on the 4G network that hit 213Mbps downstream. Meanwhile, upstream data actually only uses 4G, so there's no speed boost for that.
How does that speed translate into real-world performance?
Flicking through 1080p videos on YouTube, they all started playing promptly. Scrubbing through the timelines, we'd see a momentary pause and then playback would resume. However, switching over to 4G, the results were not discernibly different.
Since most of us don't use our mobile network just to run speed tests, we jumped right onto the Play Store to download the heft 1.81GB PUBG Mobile game. On the 5G network, the download took just shy of 4 minutes and 30 seconds. Repeating the download on the 4G network, the download took 6 minutes and 8 seconds.
So, while the 5G network clearly shows the it's in the lead, it may not be an order of magnitude faster.
Our hands-on called into question network reliability. The Verizon Store where the event took place was likely no bigger than 30 feet across and 100 feet back, with a 5G node in the front of the building.
Reception was spotty toward the back, and could even peter out near the front. We noticed the Moto Z3 switch from 5G to 4G LTE on multiple occasions, and had to take care to ensure our speed tests were 5G all the way through.
While we'll be testing the 5G connectivity over the next week, the ability of the millimeter wave technology to penetrate obstacles is a concern. The lack of a defined 5G map is also an issue, as any time we don't get 5G, we'll be left wondering whether it's because there's no signal in the area or the phone is just failing to pick it up.
We're going to continue to test the advent of 5G in Chicago this week, so stay tuned for updates on how the service functions for us and the top speeds we hit. When it works, it's faster than 4G LTE, meaning the future of smartphones is here, but not quite everywhere.