5G mobile phones
In this guide
- What is 5G?
- Which mobile phones support 5G?
- What to look for in a 5G mobile phone
- What is 5G network coverage like in the UK?
- Which providers offer 5G mobile phone deals?
- Frequently asked questions
5G has been talked about for a long time and while coverage isn't exactly widespread at the moment, there is now an exciting range of 5G mobile phones available. The likes of Samsung, OnePlus and Huawei have been producing 5G-ready phones for a while, but now Apple has joined the party it feels like the 5G market has really opened up.
There's actually so much choice that you may need a bit of help to work out what's going to be the best deal for you. Don't worry, we're here to help. We'll take you through the best 5G mobile phone options, look at the providers offering 5G deals and we'll start by setting out exactly what 5G is.
What is 5G?
5G is the fifth generation of mobile network technology. Like previous generations, it features advances in technology that open up new possibilities. 3G ushered in the era of smartphones and mobile internet while 4G gave us faster speeds and the ability to stream videos on the move. 5G promises to deliver not only much faster speeds, but also vastly increased capacity – allowing more devices to get online at the same time – and reduced latency, making browsing, gaming and everything else you do online far more responsive.
As well as bringing noticeable benefits to smartphone users, 5G's greater capacity will accelerate the growth of smart devices while its low latency will allow for better communication between vehicles as the development of driverless cars continues.
How does 5G work?
Like other generations of mobile network (3G, 4G etc), 5G is broadcast on specific frequencies of a radio spectrum. But while 4G is broadcast on frequencies below 6GHz, allowing it to travel over long distances, 5G uses much higher frequencies – between 30 and 300GHz – meaning it is capable of supporting terrific speeds but can only travel over relatively short distances.
This means that, rather than the big mast towers that broadcast 4G over a fairly large area, 5G signals come from smaller cells that are attached to buildings, street lights etc.
How fast is 5G?
5G is really fast. Vodafone – one of four mobile network operators rolling out 5G coverage in the UK – says users can expect it to be about 10 times faster than 4G. Voda says its 5G network is designed to work at average speeds of 150-200Mbps with peak speeds hitting 1,000Mbps, or 1Gbps. Compare this to average 4G speeds of between 23 and 35Mbps. To put 5G speeds into perspective, Vodafone uses the old favourite of telling us how long it would take to download a HD movie (about three minutes on 5G, about 15 minutes on 4G).
Rootmetrics has tested 5G networks in the UK and found median download speeds to be well in excess of 100Mbps. It has also recorded some impressive top speeds on 5G, including a speed of 450.9Mbps on EE in Birmingham. Network testing by Umlaut in London found average download speeds of 215.2Mbps for Vodafone, 182.8Mbps for EE, 147.1Mbps for O2 and 109.2Mbps for Three.
Which mobile phones support 5G?
There is now a pretty wide range of mobile phones available that support 5G. You'll often see these phones described as being '5G-ready' – this is because 5G coverage isn't yet available in all areas and when the phone isn't connected to 5G, it'll use 4G. In the past 12 months or so there's been a shift in the industry from 5G phones being something of a novelty to practically all of the new models supporting the network.
Let's take a (by no means exhaustive) look at some of the 5G mobile phones available right now.
- Apple iPhone 12 – Apple has been later to the 5G party than some of its rivals, but with 5G networks still in their infancy, it matters little. The latest flagship iPhone has an edge-to-edge OLED display, Ceramic Shield, awesome night mode camera and industry-leading A14 bionic chip
- Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max – The 12 Pro Max is the biggest and best of the iPhone 12 family, with a big ol' 6.7-inch screen and a fancier camera including a 2.5x optical zoom on a 65mm telephoto lens
- Samsung Galaxy S20 – The S20 features not just 5G connectivity but also some really cool features such as 8K Video Snap, Samsung Knox and a 64MP camera
- Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra – The S20's big brother doesn't come in the same range of lovely colours but does have a whopping 6.9-inch screen, a dynamic AMOLED 2X display and an insane 108MP camera
- Samsung Galaxy A90 – It's not only the top-end Samsung phones that support 5G now. The A90 will be less of a punch in the bank balance but still comes with features like a 6.7-inch Super AMOLED screen and a 48MP camera as well as supporting 5G
- Huawei P40 lite 5G – This offering from Chinese manufacturer Huawei comes with a 64MP quad-camera system, a 6.5-inch LCD display and a powerful Kirin processor. It'll come in a fair bit cheaper than most of the Apple and Samsung handsets on this list
- Samsung Galaxy Note 20 – Like its predecessors, the Note20 comes with an S-Pen stylus and premium features. These include a 64MP camera, a 10MP selfie camera and a 6.7-inch Super AMOLED Plus display
- Huawei Mate 20X 5G – Released back in 2019, the Mate 20X 5G has a massive 7.2-inch screen, a 40MP wide angle camera and a 24MP selfie camera on the front. It is compatible with the Huawei M-Pen stylus but that is sold separately
- Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2 – And now for something completely different. The innovative Z Fold2 has a 6.2-inch screen when folded and operates as a fully functioning smartphone. Open it up and you've effectively got a 7.6-inch square tablet on your hands
- OnePlus 8 Pro – The latest from OnePlus has a 6.78-inch QHD+ display and 120Hz refresh rate, as well as a 48MP quad camera. Ideal if you're looking for a premium phone but aren't a fan of the major brands
- Moto G 5G Plus –A budget-friendly way to get on board the 5G train from Motorola, the G 5G Plus has a 48MP quad camera system, a 6.7-inch CinemaVision screen and claims to have two days of battery life
- Google Pixel 5 – Another phone that comes in a fair bit cheaper than Apple and Samsung's premium offerings, the Pixel 5 has a 6-inch OLED screen, a 12.2MP camera and 8MP front camera
What to look for in a 5G phone
It can be hard, when there are so many choices, to narrow down your options when looking for a new phone. With some of the flashy features available on 5G handsets, it becomes even harder. But we're here to help. Here are some of things we think it's important to look for when choosing a 5G phone.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that bigger is necessarily better when it comes to screen size, but this is something that comes very much down to personal choice. There are some really massive phones on the market at the moment and only you can decide whether you'd rather have a big screen for streaming and gaming, or a smaller handset that fits more easily into your pocket and is generally easier to handle.
Cameras are getting ridiculously good on phones now. The way to differentiate between different phone cameras is to look at the amount of megapixels (often written as MP). This tells you the resolution of the camera, which doesn't necessarily translate into better photo quality but means the camera is capable of capturing more detail. The other thing to look it is the number of lenses – as well as a front-facing 'selfie camera' there is a trend for phones to have three or even four lenses on the back, each giving the camera different capabilities.
An obvious one, but for most of us the price of certain handsets will rule them out of our considerations. Top-of-the-range Apple and Samsung phones will set you back a pretty penny but both offer more budget-friendly options and there are a number of manufacturers competing in the mid-range price bracket. It's also worth considering a refurbished phone as they come with a new battery and cost a fraction of the price of a new handset.
This is the platform on which everything you do on your phone is built. Apple phones use an operating system called iOS, while pretty much every other manufacturer uses Android, although there are subtle differences between Android on, say, a Samsung phone compared to Android on a Sony or Huawei handset. Most apps are available on both platforms, so it really comes down to personal choice.
You're going to want your 5G phone to last all day without recharging it, so look for a phone with a good battery life. Apple phones have a reputation for keeping their charge not only when they are brand new, but even when they are two or three-years old. Having said that, battery life is improving across all phone brands.
This is important because it dictates how many apps, photos and videos you can store on your phone. Some phones allow you to add more storage by way of an SD card and it's always worth backing up important media and files to the cloud, but look for a phone with at least 32GB of internal storage as anything less is unlikely to be enough.
What is 5G network coverage like in the UK?
All four of the UK's mobile network operators – EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three – are currently rolling out 5G coverage across the UK. But it's not a quick, easy or cheap process so it's going to take a while. All four are focussing on major cities to start off with because the increased capacity of 5G is going to be most useful in the areas that have a lot of people trying to get online at the same time.
EE had rolled out 5G to 112 cities and large towns in the UK at the time of writing. The cities are Aberdeen, Birmingham, Belfast, Bath, Bristol, Cardiff, Chelmsford, Coventry, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hull, Leicester, Liverpool, London, Leeds, Lichfield, Lisburn, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Oxford, Plymouth, Salford, Sheffield, Stirling, Sunderland, Wakefield and Wolverhampton. We won't list all of the towns, but it's safe to say most aren't too far away from one of the cities we've just mentioned.
A city or town being on EE's list doesn't necessarily mean coverage is widespread in that area. Rootmetrics tested the 5G coverage of the four big mobile operators in 16 British cities in the first half of 2020 and found EE's coverage varied between cities. Testers got a 5G connection 58.6% of the time in Birmingham but only 9.8% of the time in Glasgow. EE did, however, have the most 5G coverage in all 16 cities and its rollouts are ongoing.
Vodafone says it has rolled out 5G to 57 locations in the UK as well as 193 places across Germany, Spain, Italy and Ireland. In the UK, there is Vodafone UK coverage in Ambleside, Bebington, Belfast, Birkenhead, Birmingham, Bishopbriggs, Bolton, Bootle, Bournemouth, Bristol, Cardiff, Cheadle and Gatley, Cheltenham, Crosby, Droylsden, Dunbarton, Eccles, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Guildford, Horwich, Huyton-with-Roby, Inner London, Isles of Scilly, Kingswood (Bristol), Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Mangotsfield, Newbury, Oldbury/Smethwick, Paisley, Penarth, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Prestwich, Reading, Rochdale, Salford, Solihull, Southampton, Stockport, Stoke-on-Trent, Stretford, Sutton Coldfield, Swansea, Swinton and Pendlebury, Urmston, Wallasey, Warrington, Wolverhampton, Clitheroe, Great Shelford and Stranraer. There is also Vodafone 5G coverage in Bristol Airport.
In the first half of 2020, Rootmetrics found Vodafone's 5G network to cover between 1% and 22.5% of the areas it tested in which Vodafone has a 5G presence.
O2 claims to be in "most major UK towns and cities" as well as a number of smaller towns and villages. It's still early days for O2's 5G rollout so there's no Rootmetrics testing data to look at. The provider says it is targeting transport hubs, key business areas, and entertainment and sports venues (and name-checks The O2 and Twickenham Stadium, where it has sponsorship deals). It also says it is working with Network Rail and Northumbrian Water, among others, to build the 5G economy.
Three says its 5G mobile network is available in "selected postcodes". Rootmetrics has found 5G coverage on Three in Birmingham, Coventry, Edinburgh, Hull, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield, although Birmingham was the only city in which testers got a 5G signal more than 10% of the time.
Which providers offer 5G mobile phone deals?
The limited amount of 5G coverage has not put mobile phone provider off from offering great deals on those shiny new 5G-ready handsets we mentioned earlier. Prices vary, with the iPhone 12 and Samsung Galaxy S20 generally sitting among the more expensive 5G phones. Look for Motorola, Huawei or even the Google Pixel 5 for a cheaper option.
- EE – EE offers a good range of 5G handsets with loads of inclusive data and the option to choose a free 'smart benefit' – choose from Apple Music, BT Sport, BritBox, Amazon Prime Video, a video data pass or free roaming in the USA, Australia and beyond
- Vodafone – Vodafone has a pretty good range of phones including quite a few budget 5G options. Pay monthly plans come with a three-month trial of Secure Net and some come with the choice of YouTube Premium, Amazon Prime Video or Spotify
- O2 – O2's 5G-ready handsets come with a list of streaming extras to choose from including Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, Amazon Music Unlimited and Audible. Choose an eligible Apple phone and you'll also get a year of Apple TV+ for free
- Three – 5G phones from Three come with an assortment of extras including headphones and phone cases, depending on the handset you choose
- Sky Mobile – Sky, which uses the O2 network, has mostly Apple and Samsung 5G phones on offer. Some come with double data. Sky is also offering free 5G connectivity for Sky VIP members, but obviously you will still need a 5G-ready handset
- Tesco Mobile – Tesco also runs its services on the O2 network. It is offering 5G pay monthly deals on a number of Apple, Samsung and Motorola handsets. Tesco Mobile customers get Clubcard points for purchases and pay monthly customers can use Clubcard vouchers to save on their package
- BT Mobile – BT Mobile, which uses the EE network, isn't selling pay monthly 5G handset plans at the moment but is doing 5G-ready SIM-only deals, so if you are thinking of buying a handset outright, this is an option
You can also get a range of 5G-ready phones from giffgaff, Virgin Mobile and iD Mobile, but at the time of writing, none of these three MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) is offering 5G connectivity. giffgaff runs on the O2 network and as fellow MVNOs Tesco and Sky have already got their 5G offering up and running, we'd expect giffgaff to join them soon.
Frequently asked questions
Can I use 5G when roaming abroad?
Yes, as long as you're using a 5G-ready phone and you're in an area with 5G coverage. Most providers offer free roaming in a number of countries so before you go, check that your destination is covered.
Should I buy a 5G phone in 2020?
5G coverage isn't great at the moment so unless you happen to live in a 5G area, this isn't going to sway you. That said, many of the top new phones are 5G-ready so if you were going to upgrade anyway, there's no harm in having a phone that's ready to go when 5G coverage does reach your area.
Will 5G work on a 4G phone?
No, you need to have a 5G-ready phone and a 5G SIM in order to connect to a 5G network.
What is the cheapest 5G phone?
Prices are always changing and there are always new deals being offered by providers, but some of the cheaper options are likely to be an 'A' range Samsung Galaxy, a Motorola or a Huawei handset.