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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Do You Need a 5G iPhone? No, but You’re Getting One Anyway

Less than a month after its last hardware event, Apple held another one this week where it announced a slate of new iPhones. The standout feature of all four (4) phones is 5G capability. Apple, along with other phone manufacturers and network providers, are all touting 5G as the next big thing in wireless connection. But the rollout of 5G networks has also been hampered by a number of controversies, from technical problems to international diplomatic battles between the US and China. Despite the marketing hype, 5G might still be a long way from becoming useful.

This week on Gadget Lab, WIRED senior associate editor Julian Chokkattu and WIRED senior writer Will Knight join us to talk about these roadblocks and whether anyone will actually be able to use the 5G features on Apple's new phones.

Show Notes

Read Will’s story about 5G in the iPhone 12 here. Check out everything Apple announced this week here. Read about all the new iPhones 12 here. Read Brian Barrett’s story about the return of the no-compromise small phone here.


Will recommends this AI-inspired artwork by artist Tom White. Julian recommends getting an espresso machine. WIRED’s guide best coffee machines is here, with best portable espresso machines here. Mike recommends Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. (You can watch them on HBO or via the Criterion Collection.) Lauren recommends the Gimlet Media podcast How To Save A Planet.

Will Knight can be found on Twitter @willknight. Julian Chokkattu is @JulianChokkattu. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our executive producer is Alex Kapelman (@alexkapelman). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.

If you have feedback about the show, or just want to enter to win a $50 gift card, take our brief listener survey here.

How to Listen

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Lauren Goode: Mike?

Michael Calore: Yes, Lauren.

LG: Mike, are you going to upgrade your iPhone?

MC: Well, I don't have an iPhone, so no.

LG: But it has 5G!

MC: Yeah. Who cares?

LG: Let's see if we can answer that on this week's show.

[Gadget Lab intro theme music]

LG: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab. I'm Lauren Goode. I'm a senior writer at WIRED and I'm joined remotely by my cohost, WIRED senior editor, Michael Calore, he who does not have an iPhone.

MC: Hello, from Pixel land.

LG: We're also joined by WIRED senior associate editor, Julian Chokkattu who has 17 different phones on him right now. Hey, Julian?

Julian Chokkattu: Hello. Yeah, my desk has six phones on it right now.

LG: So today we are talking about yet another Apple event. This week, Apple announced a new iPhone 12, actually, four of them, and a tiny smart speaker. And these are the first iPhones with 5G, which matters? Doesn't matter? It doesn't matter yet? We're going to talk about 5G later on in the show. What you need to know about it, the challenges in rolling it out across the US and whether you'll even be able to connect to 5G with the new iPhone.

Our colleague Will Knight is going to join us later on for that. But first let's talk about the phones themselves. Julian, the new iPhone has chamfered edges. Let's just get that out of the way. That's probably the most important thing here, right? OK. But obviously there's more than that. What stood out to you most about the new iPhones 12.

JC: As someone who takes a lot of photos and tests the cameras on phone, a lot, a lot of the camera upgrades were the most exciting thing for me. And I really like how a lot of those camera upgrades are kind of, for the most part, all across the entire lineup from the 699 iPhone 12 mini you're getting the same main camera that they improve the aperture on as the iPhone 12 Pro.

But for the most part that iPhone 12 Pro, you get these new features like ProRAW which gives you the ability to edit raw photos and also get the benefits of Apple's computational photography. And that is just something that is really exciting for someone who takes a lot of raw photos with my mirrorless camera. It just gives you more granular control over photo editing. And also the other thing is they're bringing night mode to every single lens that's on this phone.

So finally, you can take a selfie at night and not have to worry about it being too terrible looking or grainy. So overall, I think the entire suite of camera features on the entire range is pretty exciting and pretty dramatically better than what you had last year on the iPhone 11.

LG: Tell us about some of the video improvements too.

JC: Yeah. For the video improvements, they added the ability to shoot HDR with Dolby Vision which apparently the only phone that can do this, and it basically lets you get this pro-grade cinematic looking effect or look, you could say with all of your videos at 10-bit. So it's super high quality. It just looks really good with the option to edit the colors and have really good cinematic looking video as well with the iPhone 12 Pro, you have this improved stabilization system that moves the sensor itself.

So basically in effect, you're getting something that feels and looks much more high quality than ever before. And again, this is somewhere where Apple leads compared to every other phone manufacturer. Maybe Samsung is pretty close. No one else does the ability to shoot video quality this well, and every year, it just seems to be getting further and further away from other companies, even like Google and its pixel phones that take really great photos.

LG: Mike, what did you make of the event?

MC: My favorite thing that I saw this week was the mini, the small phone. Small phones in general are exciting to me. Our colleague, Brian Barrett wrote this week that the arrival of the iPhone 12 mini is a harbinger of good for the small phone community. I think phablets when they came out, what was it like eight years ago or so we started seeing these gigantic phones and then people really liked them and they started buying them in huge numbers.

So phones just kept getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger. We've all been waiting for phones to get small again. Phones have gotten smaller, but they haven't really gotten small enough. And now this year, I think phones are starting to get just about small enough to satisfy the people who are looking for a small phone.

I was out last week, two weeks ago at a socially distanced event, and I saw a guy with a Sony Xperia X2 compact, which is like a really tiny… It's even smaller than the iPhone mini, Android phone. And I asked him about it. I went over to him, six feet away and I said, "Hey, what is that?" And he started going on and on about it. The way that he was talking about it, it was so passionate. And I realized that like, "OK, you know what? There is a huge market. People are really, really passionate about small phones and people are going to flip when they see the mini, I think." It's not coming until November. So I think for people who really want it, they're going to have to resist clicking that buy button for a couple of weeks.

LG: And what Apple has done is satisfied both ends of the market, you're describing because the iPhone 12 Pro Max, boy, that's a mouthful, that has the largest display ever on an iPhone. So if you are a big phone fan, you're going to have a 6.7 inch diagonal display with that one, I believe. And then there is this mini phone, which I think a lot of people are comparing to the iPhone SE that was launched this spring, but this is actually smaller and you're not really sacrificing much. You're not getting a lesser camera or a lesser chip. You're getting the latest chip. And as Julian pointed out, almost the same feature set. Not entirely, but close to the same feature set across all four iPhone 12s.

One of the things though that I felt as I was watching this event, and we'll have to see if both Julian and I feel this way after actually using the phones for a while is that I feel like increasingly the phones themselves don't matter as much anymore.

We are going to talk about 5G and how much that matters, right? But let's just like put that aside for a second. I think that there's a lot of movement happening right now in the smartphone market in lower priced or mid-range phones. And Apple is going to continue to put out very high-end phones because they use it as a vehicle for new tech, right? They're trying out like new chips and stuff like LIDAR and these high powered cameras.

But I think ultimately people like right now are looking for deals. And I think many people are going to gravitate towards the more basic models, just like the iPhone 11 and the iPhone 10R have done pretty well over the past few years. I think in general, the smartphone market is pretty mature right now. The goal is just to have people using your services, like having a phone that people will use, because they're going to subscribe to things. They're going to stream things. They're going to use your creative software. They're going to use up more cloud storage, which could possibly happen with raw photos. Right?

That's what's going to drive, I think Apple's business increasingly in the future versus like let's have the small percentage of customers who buy the $1,400 phone.

JC: With this lineup this year, I do want to point out that it looks like they're finally bringing all of their computational photography expertise into every single device, which previously it felt like they were gatekeeping it for the higher-end models. But because it's software, basically like pixel phones, you can get really good images by just putting that software out on all your different models.

So even the iPhone 12 mini, even though it costs so little, it can get the same smart HDR improvements as the iPhone 12 Pro Max for example. So I think that's something that would be really interesting to see as well if they ever have an iPhone SE in the future, having something at that price point with the ability to have the same computational photography expertise as the higher-end models that cost a thousand dollars. That would be something that's really exciting and really, really cool to see Apple breeding down to across all different phones that they have in different price points.

MC: Before we break, we should talk about the HomePod mini, the little round speaker. What did you think of that, Lauren?

LG: I thought that it was pretty smart on Apple's part. I was just saying this the other day. I think that it shows that they are aware that completely missed the market the first time around with the original HomePod because that was $300, which was pretty expensive for the smart speaker market, especially when you compare it to the competition from Amazon and Google. And it's a pretty closed ecosystem. Siri had somewhat limited capabilities. It just didn't work.

And I think that trying to improve what Siri could do on this speaker, shrinking it and making it at $99 was really smart on the part of Apple. However, I still feel like … I don't know. I mean, Amazon and Google speakers are so cheap now and their assistants work so well and they tend to be just a little bit more open in terms of what they'll support like Spotify, right?

MC: For example, yes.

LG: For example. And you can use airplay to stream Spotify to these HomePods. But there's no direct integration, and I think that's because of Spotify's somewhat contentious relationship with Apple. But I mean, I think ultimately if you're really an iPhone person, you care very deeply about privacy or you're looking to buy a gift for somebody and you're like, "Well, they really like their iPhone and they like Siri, so I'll just get them the $99 speaker." Then maybe you look to the HomePod mini. But I still think otherwise Google and Amazon are going to offer some pretty stiff competition in this area.

MC: Yeah. I thought it was absolutely hilarious that the new Echo, which is $99 looks exactly like the HomePod mini, which is also $99.

LG: They're orbs.

MC: Yeah. We know that there was probably some back-channeling going on over in China with regards to the design of these things. But I think what you're saying is that it's a really good airplay speaker for 99 bucks because since you can't really control everything with Siri and there's a lot of stuff that works with HomeKit, if you're invested in HomeKit. Most people aren't. They may have an Apple Music subscription, but the rest of the stuff that you can do with Siri through the HomePod doesn't necessarily appeal to them, and they're just using it to listen to music or maybe ask very simple questions.

I think you just have to look at it as a nice airplay speaker, a nice cheap airplay speaker. I don't know. They're probably going to sell a whole lot more of them than they did of the HomePod, which started it 400 and then dropped to 300 because I assume nobody was buying it. But we'll never know.

LG: Yeah. I mean, another thing to consider is that one of the features they announced Intercom is, it's a software feature. They could conceivably have done that with the original HomePod as well. But I'm guessing that perhaps people didn't have multiple HomePod originals in their home because they were so expensive. So once you lower the price point, you're going for more of a volume play, hoping that people put more than one throughout the home, and then you can introduce software features like Intercom.

JC: And good pun, volume play. Very, very nicely done.

LG: Put a bump. All right. We're going to take a break, and when we come back, we're going to talk about 5G.


LG: Welcome back. We're now also joined by WIRED senior writer Will Knight who's coming to us from Boston. Hi, Will.

Will Knight: Hello.

LG: So I was just going to make a really terrible joke like how Will from Boston has been hunting down the truth about 5G. Will, you must get Good Will Hunting jokes? No, that's terrible. Right?

WK: I've never had one before actually. It's good for me.

MC: [laughs] Don't hurt yourself with that stretch, Lauren.

LG: That's so bad. OK. We can just forget that. OK. Will, you've written a lot about 5G for WIRED and Apple hyped up 5G this week. It called the whole event high speed. We got invitations that said high comma speed. Executives talked about blazing fast download and connection speeds. Verizon CEO, Hans Vestberg appeared on stage to talk about the wireless carriers expansion plans for 5G. But the reality is, is that we're just not there yet. The rollout of 5G in the US has been slowed by disagreements about technical standards, security concerns, international disputes. So, Will, first tell us what are some of the promises of 5G and then tell us what's taking us so long to get there.

WK: Yeah. Well, so obviously the big promise is faster speed. So basically a hundred times faster than 4G, and also low latency, meaning phone will respond in a millisecond and room for way more devices on a network. So what does that actually mean? People talk a lot about all these futuristic applications like augmented virtual reality. I've visited Huawei in Shenzhen and they have this big census set up where they're demonstrating telemedicine and all these fantastic applications.

But the truth is, I think we really don't know what people are going to build on top of it, and it will be things that nobody's expecting just as it was with 4G which enabled everything from Uber to Tik-Tok. And that's one of the reasons why this is a big geopolitical football is because we've seen how 4G was the foundation for a ton of growth in economic and tech technology. So governments are expecting 5G to do the same thing.

So the reason it's been disappointing is that it's really a bunch of technologies and they're being rolled out in different ways by different networks at different speeds. So for the moment, it means that you've only got these this patchwork of different forms of 5G and it's much faster in some places than others. So that's really why.

LG: So Will, one of the things that Verizon CEO talked about onstage at the Apple event this week was the expansion of ultra wide band or millimeter wave 5G across the US. And there are a few different flavors of 5G out there right now, right? There's low band and then there's mid band spectrum, which is sub six. And then there's this millimeter wave. So talk quickly about the differences between these and what we have available to us right now here in the US.

WK: Yeah. So 5G is really made up of a bunch of different frequencies, those three segments you talked about the low and mid which are longer range but lower speed. So that's what people are going to be using mostly at the moment. And then there's this millimeter wave stuff, which is very, very high frequency, but only goes over short distances. Different carriers are doing different things in different countries doing different things. The US has focused on the low band which offers very little improvements, but also the millimeter wave, partly because the mid chunk has not been available and that's just being opened up. So the picture may change a little bit in the US in terms of what 5G can do over the next year or so. So it's a messy, mixed up picture, really.

MC: So Julian, you have reviewed most of the 5G phones that have come across the WIRED desks on the reviews team. Tell us a little bit about your experiences with 5G where you are in Brooklyn.

JC: Absolutely, useless. Verizon has a couple of millimeter wave spots and every time I get a 5G device, what I do to go test is I literally go across the grocery store that I shop at, stand outside it, because if I go inside, I lose 5G. I guess I try to download games and apps and movies right there on the street and see how that goes. Usually, it's great, it's fast. But I can't ever imagine a scenario where I'm walking down the street coming home and I'm like, "Oh, I got to download those six Netflix movies in 4K and I have to do it right here on the street level."

Because obviously they have it in these random spots and it only really works for a block and a half. You go further than that and you're back on 4G. If you go inside a coffee shop or something like that, you're back on 4G. So I really haven't found any meaningful purpose outside of benchmark testing that 5G would give me and the other types of 5G that AT&T and T-Mobile, and now Verizon are offering has just mostly been barely faster than existing 4G speeds like 10, 20, 30 megabits faster.

But that really also hasn't done anything for me. It might be a little more negligible when you're streaming something outside or when you're just watching videos at home as well on your 5G connection instead of your wifi. I don't know. I just basically haven't had really much use of 5G just yet. But I do think in two to three years, when it's rolled out a good deal more, that's when people should really start thinking about buying and making sure that the phone that they buy has 5G.

Right now if you're feeling pressured to buy a 5G phone, I think just put that to the side. If the phone that you want has 5G, that's great. Go ahead and buy it. But I wouldn't say buy a 5G phone just because you feel like you're missing out, because you're not.

LG: Julian, I have this vision of you standing under the awning of a specific coffee shop in New York City, where there happens to be 5G service like holding up two phones. One's a 4G, one is a 5G. You're downloading some app like Fortnight and just to see like what the differences in download speeds and having just a minimal difference.

JC: I felt like a hacker because I was testing a 5G laptop and I was on my bike and I pulled up my backpack around, used it as a resting pad and I pulled out a laptop and here I am on a street corner in New York typing with my laptop on my bike as if I am controlling the traffic lights in the Italian Job or something like that.

LG: It's very Mr. Robot. What about battery life? This is a question for both Will and Julian. What do we know at this point about how 5G is going to affect our phone's battery lives?

WK: I think actually there's a lot of outstanding questions according to the experts I've spoken to. They really think that there are big questions over how much 5G is going to suck down the battery life. So it was kind of interesting that Apple had come up with these software solutions to mitigate that one thing. That's probably a very good idea. But I think it's still quite an open question.

JC: For the most part, a lot of the phone makers are just stuffing huge batteries in the phones. So I also haven't spent all day on millimeter wave 5G. So I can't really say. But for the most part, battery life at the moment, isn't any traumatically different from what you can currently get on a 4G phone.

LG: Will, what's your best guesstimate for when 5G might actually matter or have an impact for consumers here in the US?

WK: Well, that's put me on the spot. I mean, I think it's going to be a matter of years really before it's really making a big difference. And it's probably going to sort of creep up a little bit as folks are saying. But I think a lot of people are not going to buy these phones for the 5G, but they might then start using it and so hopefully that will kind of encourage more network rollout. But it seems it's going to take a while. There's so much hype around it and so much talk of it being like this great big thing. I think is going to be sort of disappointing for a while.

JC: That sounds about right, disappointing.

MC: I see it as akin to the 4K jump in TVs like television manufacturers they're building TVs that lasts a really long time and that worked perfectly fine that are HDTVs. And they needed to give us a reason to go out and buy a new TV and to buy their TV, so they put 4K in it. All of a sudden, every television has a 4K TV, even if only 10 percent of what you want to watch is actually available in 4K or you may not even have a broadband connection that supports 4K. You still have a 4K TV. I think it's the same thing with phones.

Julian, you were just saying when the phone that you want has 5G in it, that's probably going to happen next year where all of the flagship phones are just going to be 5K or 5G, 5K. More K's and G's than you need, right? It's just going to be the thing. It's going to be the new standard. So when you go out and you buy a phone, it's future-proof, which is fine I guess.

LG: Right. It's like the transition to 4K minus all of the geopolitical issues. What would it be like if all of the people who were making 4K content had a ban on their cameras and couldn't actually buy 4K cameras to make the 4K stuff that we would then consume or something. It's not directly analogous.

MC: I'm holding out for 7G.

LG: 7G?

MC: Yeah.

LG: All right. So it seems like the bottom line here is if you're intrigued by these new phones or you're really, really due for an upgrade, then maybe look to one of the new iPhones and we'll have more on that in WIRED at some point soon. But don't buy it just for the 5G. All right. Let's take a break and then we'll come back with our recommendations.


LG: All right. It's time for recommendations. Will, let's start with you. What is your recommendation this week?

WK: All right. Well, I recently bought a piece of AI inspired art. I cover AI, so it's very interesting to me and this is this guy in New Zealand, Tom White, who makes art. It's not generated with AI. I think it's sometimes a bit silly, but it's inspired. So he does these pieces of art that will trick a machine learning algorithm into thinking it's something else, but they look kind of likely to a person. So I highly recommend checking out his artwork. It's not too expensive.

LG: What's his name again?

WK: Tom White.

LG: Tom White. And what's his website?

WK: It's Dribnet.

LG: So is he collecting a bunch of data and then using TensorFlow and just spitting out the art?

WK: So he would draw something and see if it's recognized by the TensorFlow say or take an image and mess with it until it still looks like the right thing to us, but it falls the TensorFlow algorithm. So he's playing with the whole idea of what… I guess, playing with the idea of these algorithms actually being intelligent and how they see the world, and how they see it really weirdly indifferently. So you'll have these kind of abstract things that AI will think is a chicken or a, I don't know, a lobster in it and it looks like something very abstract to us or vice versa. So that's what he's doing.

LG: All right. That sounds really cool. Everybody go check out Dribnet. Julian, what is your recommendation this week?

JC: It's probably because I am running on a few hours of sleep, but I recommend a espresso machine because I bought one for my girlfriend because she was a barista when she was working at Starbucks for a long time ago. And I didn't know how to make a latte or I didn't really know how to do anything with coffee. And now I make lattes like three times a day. It is great especially during the pandemic where I can't really go to a lot of coffee shops and get a drink. But now I can make espresso coffee, lattes, cappuccinos, whatever I want at any time of day. A. And I specifically use a Breville model, but we have a guide on WIRED.com that you can check out where our reviews editor, Jeff has tested way too many espresso machines and coffee machines. Definitely check that out.

LG: I don't know, Julian. We may be due for an upgrade to that guide. So maybe you should call in like half a dozen espresso machines and just try them all out.

WK: I would, if I had the room in New York.

Mike, what's your recommendation?

MC: I am going to recommend a trio of movies. It is Richard Linklater's Before trilogy. You've probably heard of this. All three movies star Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who also are co-writers of the screenplay. And they star as a couple in love. And each movie is shot with a nine year gap in between them. So you see their relationship progress. It's one of my favorite movies. I consider it just like one big body of work and I'd like to recommend it as one big body of work, because I think it's important to watch them grow as people. The reason I'm recommending it right now is because the first two movies just showed up on HBO Max this week. So if you're an HBO subscriber or if you have the HBO Max app, you can watch both of the movies on demand.

The third movie. Sorry, I should tell you the names. The first one is called Before Sunrise. The second one is called Before Sunset. And the third movie is called Before Midnight. And Before Midnight, I think you have to have Starz to watch that. But you can at least watch the first two if you're an HBO person. So that's my recommendation. It's a little weird. You may be watching a lot of horror movies this month, or you may be bingeing something serious, like Dark. Here's a good opportunity to step back and have some good romantic comedy talky stuff. So that's my recommendation.

LG: Mike, have you ever seen movie called… I think it's called Before We Go.

MC: I think so. It sounds familiar.

LG: Yeah. Maybe we've talked about this before. I think it's a Chris Evans directed movie, and it's very much bites off of the Before Trilogy is my non-professional movie reviewers take on it.

MC: Yes.

LG: So it's similar. It's romance. It's talkie. It's based in a train station, but it's Grand Central Terminal. It has that element of it where they take a little bit of creative license and make it so that the train from Grand Central somehow go to Boston, which always drives me crazy because they don't. She's trying to get to Boston. I'm like, "Honey, you're in the wrong train station. You have to go to Penn Station." But nobody wants to shoot films in Penn Station because Grand Central is beautiful. Anyway, I swear I'm probably one of three people who've seen this film, but Mike, you might like it. So maybe you should check it out.

MC: Is that your official recommendation or is there something else?

LG: No, I have something else. It's just, when you said the Before Trilogy, it made me think of that. OK. My recommendation is a podcast called How to Save a Planet. It's relatively new. It's a Spotify-Gimlet original hosted by Alex Blumberg and Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. And it's all about the climate. There's one really good episode called Witch of the Wind, which is about wind farms and wind farms for generating electricity, of course. And how there's this one particular story, a town in Somerset, Massachusetts, where wind farms were supposed to replace some of the electricity that was being provided previously from a coal plant.

It's a great story, totally worth listening to. There are some other episodes that are great too. One about why the fight for racial justice is critical for saving the planet. There's another one about the extreme weather that's been happening this summer and fall and offers tips for how to prepare. And another episode, that I have not listened to yet, but I want to called Making Republicans Environmentalists Again. So I recommend checking out this podcast, How to Save a Planet from Spotify and Gimlet.

MC: That's awesome. I think we need a how-to manual for that.

LG: Yes.

MC: As a society.

LG: Yes. All right. That's it for our show this week. Thank you to Will and Julian for joining us. It was a packed house and it was really fun.

JC: Thank you for having me.

WK: Yeah, thanks for having me.

LG: And thanks to all of you for listening. If you have feedback, you can find all of us on Twitter. Just check the show notes. This show is produced by the excellent Boone Ashworth. Our executive producer is Alex Kapelman. We'll be back next week.

[Gadget Lab outro theme music]

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