5G technology is coming and it is set to offer greater speed, capacity and coverage, as well as brand new applications and services. To take advantage of these benefits, we’ll need new 5G-enabled phones.
Early 5G phone prototypes aren’t much to look at and some of them are anything but mobile, but as 5G’s consumer launch edges closer, we’re going to see 5G technology as part of compact handsets that are far more powerful than the ones we have today.
Here’s a look at what 5G phones could be like and when you can potentially get your hands on one.
When can I get a 5G phone?
Strategy Analytics predicts that 5G commercial handsets will go on sale from early 2019, although sales won’t begin to scale up until 2021. Once they take off, Strategy Analytics expects new 5G models to be the fastest-growing sector in the global smartphone market for the next decade.
Commercial 5G networks are likely to start launching in late 2019 or 2020 so even though some phones will be available ahead of this, users will still need a 5G-ready mobile network to make full use of them, and they’re likely to have issues, including short battery life, unstable connectivity and lack of handover to 4G networks.
Early models will also probably be very expensive, so waiting for the next crop and wider availability around 2020 could be a better idea.
- 5G phone technology
The technology for 5G phones is moving fast. Chipmaker Qualcomm has created a 5G modem for phones to be used in handsets from 2019. As Qualcomm’s modems are used in many handsets, that could mean a large number of high-end phones will support 5G next year.
Qualcomm has also announced that its upcoming 5G platform will feature a system-on-a-chip built on the 7-nanometre process node. When paired with the company's Snapdragon X50 5G modem, it'll enable what Qualcomm calls the first 5G-capable mobile platform for mobile devices. Qualcomm said it's already begun sharing the upcoming platform with several handset makers for inclusion in their next-generation devices.
Qualcomm and Vivo have also jointly developed 5G smartphone antenna technology, which will be needed alongside a 5G modem in 5G phones, so claims that the first 5G phones could arrive in 2019 doesn’t seem unrealistic.
- 5G handsets
Recently some big-name companies have made announcements about 5G handsets.
Many expect Sony’s Xperia XZ3 to be the first 5G smartphone, with the company recently taking to its official blog to highlight all the times when it has been first to market. Samsung has also said it wants to be the first to launch a 5G phone and is working with South Korean carriers to do so. However, it won’t be the Galaxy S10, as many had expected.
US carrier, Sprint announced it is working with LG to release its first 5G smartphone in the US in the first half of 2019.
Earlier this year, Chinese manufacturer OnePlus said it was working with US manufacturers to bring a 5G phone to market in 2019 – likely the One Plus 7.
Huawei revealed that its first 5G phone will land in the second half of 2019, making the Huawei Mate 30 or Huawei Mate 30 Pro a likely option.
Apple could also launch a 5G iPhone in 2019. Not only are there rumours of one, but Apple is also known to be testing 5G technology.
The first 5G phone certification is expected in late 2018 – and this is required before any 5G phones can launch.
5G phones: features
Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality
Current 4G limits what can be done with applications such as Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) due to restrictions in bandwidth, latency and uniformity (the consistency of mobile connection).
ABI Research anticipates that 5G will bring about “a 10X improvement in throughput, a 10X decrease in latency, a 100X improvement in traffic capacity, and a 100X improvement in network efficiency” over 4G, and could therefore unlock the full potential of VR and AR technology.
- Augmented reality
Augmented reality adds a virtual layer over the real world.
Already we are seeing the emergence of AR apps and games for smartphones – for example, being able to see how clothes or a new haircut will likely look like on you before you take the plunge, or using Google’s Translate app to translate content such as signs or menus. This is likely to be just the beginning.
According to AR/VR consultancy Digi-Capital, mobile AR could hit an installed base of 900 million by the end of 2018, and 3.5 billion by 2022. ARtillry, an AR research and analysis firm, expects to see 4.25 billion AR devices available by 2022.
Soon, we could be using AR on our smartphones to check the stock of an item in a shop as we pass, evaluating the wait time and availability in a restaurant, or even finding friends in a crowd. In the future, car windscreens could display an AR overlay showing navigation directions.
- Virtual reality
Virtual Reality sis about creating immersive computer-simulated worlds. Future 5G phones will likely be built with VR in mind.
Already a number of companies have built VR headsets which you can attach your phone to, and this is set to become far more mainstream.
With the power of 5G you’d be able to stream VR content and play online VR games wherever you are.
One example use case for VR with 5G is live-streaming a sporting event over social media, using VR to make the feed truly immersive – 5G promises the speeds necessary to make this a seamless experience and should be able to handle thousands of people streaming at the same time in close proximity.
3D video calls
5G also promises to enable 3D video calls, where the caller’s perspective can change based on their position and angle. It could make the experience much closer to feeling like you’re in the same room as the person you’re talking to.
Oppo tested 3D video calling with 5G earlier this year.
Holographic content is also a promising area, with phones projecting images out of the screen. There are already a few phones with built-in projectors, so this could almost be seen as the next step after that.
Holographic files are likely to be enormous in size, so to do them justice a 5G connection will be required.
5G might offer the speed to drive all these applications, but smartphones will still need huge amounts of power on the hardware side.
Handsets are getting more powerful all the time, but by 2020 don’t be surprised if your phone is as powerful as your current desktop computer.
Already phones with 8GB of RAM are available, so we could easily be at 16GB by then, coupled with enormously powerful processors.
While smartphones are likely to start feeling more like super computers the cloud is also likely to become a much bigger part of our lives.
Given the size of holographic, VR and 8K content, much of it will likely be streamed over 5G rather than downloaded. However, with the speed of 5G, cloud use on our phones could go beyond just content storage and also be used to power apps and games, with the data essentially being run and processed on remote servers, then simply streamed to our phones over 5G.
In theory, that could further level out performance between low and high-end handsets, since even cheap phones could offload computing tasks to remote devices, just as long as they can get a 5G connection.
New form factors
With all these changes to the functionality of phones, their forms are likely to change too.
To make the most of AR and VR, phones might have extra cameras and sensors built in. Sony has suggested its next Xperia phones will include a “next generation camera experience” and that selfie-enabled AI may be on its way.
Projectors could be a common feature too. Features such as VR need a high-resolution screen to work well – soon, phones could support 4K (3840 x 2160) or even 8K (7680 x 4320) screens.
If cloud computing becomes key to 5G phones then the internal components could become minimal, aiding in the creation of super slim and even flexible and foldable devices. In fact, Samsung is already known to be preparing a foldable phone, possibly for launch as soon as 2019, but 5G could make such devices more mainstream.
If, on the other hand, future phones are packed full of power with super high-resolution screens they could become ever larger. It’s anyone’s guess right now, but smartphones are sure to change in a big way with the arrival of 5G.
Useful read: How fast is 5G?