A 5G iPhone is surely on the way, but it didn’t arrive with 2019’s iPhone 11 range, and Apple has been slow to adopt new network standards with its iPhone range in the past, so when can we expect the company to join the 5G revolution?
Do any of the current iPhone models support 5G?
No, none of Apple's current or previous iPhone models, including the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro, support 5G, and they never will because they require a hardware upgrade to connect to 5G networks.
The iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max do support Gigabit LTE though, which is a very fast form of 4G, which in this case uses 4x4 MIMO (meaning a greater number of antennas than standard 4G) and is capable of attaining peak download speeds of at least 1Gbps, or 1,000Mbps.
Technically the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max are also capable of this, but Apple has made additional speed improvements for the 11 Pro models, having moved on from Cat 16 to Cat 19 (which allows peak download speeds of up to 1.6Gbps).
This makes them theoretically significantly faster than the iPhone XS range and several times faster than the iPhone X and iPhone XR, both of which pack lesser Cat 12 LTE modems.
This elevated performance is starting to enter the orbit of 5G. However, real world speeds are still typically far lower than early 5G speeds, and current expectations are that true stand-alone 5G will ultimately offer speeds of up to 10 to 20 times as fast, and will incorporate a range of new technologies and spectrum frequencies that will dramatically improve response times and capacity.
The iPhone 11 Pro is fast, then. But it’s not at 5G speeds. And that’s a situation Apple should want to remedy soon, as a survey reported by Barron’s shows “strong interest” in a 5G iPhone, with 18% of participants saying they’d pay $1,200 for such a phone. In contrast, 2019’s 4G models seemed far less appealing to participants. So 5G could be a huge deal for Apple.
Indeed, research from Strategy Analytics shows that Apple is likely to overtake Samsung as the 5G market leader once it launches a 5G iPhone.
When will Apple launch an iPhone 5G?
At the time of writing (March 10th) Apple is expected to launch 5G iPhones this year – but not until at least September, when the full iPhone 12 range is likely to land.
Having said that, thanks to the coronavirus the wait might actually be slightly longer, with multiple sources claiming a delay of around a month to sometime in October is likely, due to travel restrictions placed on engineers, along with other issues in the supply chain.
In any case, whether or not the coronavirus affects things, multiple analysts - including Ming-Chi Kuo, who has a great track record - have predicted that some of this year’s iPhone 12 range will support 5G, but even in late 2020 a 5G iPhone might not be widely available – Forbes predicts that “it could be that significant volumes may not be available until 2021”.
However, Kuo has more recently said that he expects there will be four iPhone 12 models, and that all of them will support 5G (or at least optionally do so), suggesting there will be no shortage of them.
This would also presumably mean there would be a relatively affordable 5G iPhone available then, alongside the pricier models. Kuo adds that he believes all four of the models will support both mmWave and sub-6GHz spectrum, essentially meaning they’d support all possible 5G frequency bands, for the fastest speeds and greatest reliability.
This notably though is at odds with a report from JP Morgan, which stated that only the two most premium models would support all 5G frequency bands, with the cheaper two limited to sub-6GHz spectrum.
Those who don’t want 5G – or don’t want to wait until September or later for a new iPhone, should also have an option before then, as we’re expecting to see the iPhone 9 very shortly, a 4G phone which is essentially the iPhone SE 2 in all but name, meaning it will be more affordable than the iPhone 12 range. This was tipped to land in March, but as with the iPhone 12 it may now have been delayed thanks to the coronavirus.
All that said, while 2020 is looking very likely for 5G iPhones, it is still not guaranteed. Cowen (an investment firm) has claimed that it might be too late for Qualcomm – which is making the modems - to get them ready in time for a 2020 launch, while UBS analyst Timothy Arcuri had previously said for example that "there is an increasing likelihood that Apple will not be able to launch a 5G iPhone next year " - though this was before Apple’s legal troubles with Qualcomm – which threatened to hold things up further - were fully resolved.
And while 2020’s 5G iPhones are set to use Qualcomm modems, further down the line Apple looks set to make its own, as it has acquired most of Intel’s smartphone modem business in a $1 billion deal.
That may mean that Apple never uses Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon X60 modem, which is smaller than the one the company currently uses and should allow for superior performance. This isn’t expected to land in phones until 2021 though, so the first 5G iPhones won’t have it, and whether next year’s do or not will depend on how much progress Apple has made on building its own.
Apple is also supposedly going to make its own 5G antenna, and this is likely to feature in the very first 5G iPhones.
According to a source, the company was planning to use Qualcomm for this too, but wants the antenna to be thinner than Qualcomm is supposedly capable of, so that it can make a super sleek phone.
Making its own antenna might also reduce costs, but Apple doesn’t have the best track record with antennas, so it remains to be seen how this will play out, if it even happens.
An expected wait
The fact that we probably won’t get a 5G iPhone until late 2020 isn’t that surprising. While Apple often leads the way with its design innovations, it’s famously slow to adopt new third-party connection standards. Historically, the company tends to wait until new standards are relatively mature and well on their way to mass-market adoption before it considers implementing them.
Apple’s handling of the switch to 3G and 4G provides ample evidence of this. The company didn’t equip the first iPhone with 3G connectivity when it launched in 2007, despite the fact that the first commercially available 3G networks had gone live globally in 2002 and 2003. It wasn’t until the launch of the appropriately named iPhone 3G in 2008 that Apple adopted the by then well-established mobile network standard.
Apple was similarly late to the party when it came to 4G. By the time the 4G-ready iPhone 5 hit the market in 2012, consumers had already experienced around two years of 4G Android phone releases.
Even the aforementioned iPhone XS with its Cat 16 Gigabit LTE support arrived a good year and a half after the Samsung Galaxy S8 did likewise, and the iPhone 11 Pro hasn’t pushed things that much further.
In an earnings call from early 2020, Tim Cook (Apple’s CEO) even said that with 5G we’re in the “early innings of its deployment”, while skirting the question of a 5G iPhone, so it sounds like the company is still in no great hurry.
What else can we expect from the first 5G iPhones?
We’re fairly confident that some iPhone 12 models will support 5G, and plenty of other details have also been rumoured.
For example, we’re expecting 5.4-inch, 6.1-inch and 6.7-inch screen sizes, with the top model likely to be called the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
This model might also ditch the notch that the range has become known for while retaining the Face ID camera system, and all iPhone 12 models are rumoured to have a less curvy frame than the iPhone 11 range. Having said that, another source has since claimed that other than the camera layout the designs will be very similar to the iPhone 11 range, so we’re not sure what will happen there.
Other possible features include a 120Hz refresh rate, which is double the 60Hz rate of current models and should make interactions feel smoother. We’d also expect a new, top-tier chipset (likely called the A14 Bionic) and camera improvements, with some reports pointing to a laser-powered 3D sensor among three other lenses, for a quad-lens camera overall (at least on the top models).
RAM could also be boosted, with the top models having 6GB of it, according to reports, and battery life could be improved, thanks to the use of a smaller, more efficient chipset. Of course, the phones are also sure to run a new version of iOS, dubbed iOS 14, though we don’t know much about that yet.
There’s also talk of an in-screen camera and/or fingerprint scanner (though we’d take both of those rumours with a pinch of salt).
What other phones are 5G Ready?
A number of Android phones with 5G support are now available, including the Samsung Galaxy S20 5G, Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus 5G, Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G, Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G, OnePlus 7 Pro 5G, LG V50 ThinQ, Samsung Galaxy A90 5G, and more. Many others are also sure to arrive before the iPhone 5G.