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5G on the Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ delivers dizzying highs and frustrating lows

I can sum up my first experience in 5G like this: 1.21 gigabits. That’s the first speed I hit when I started walking around Providence, Rhode Island, on Wednesday with the Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ 5G.

That wasn’t the top speed I hit either. Later in the day, I touched 1.48Gbps and 1.63Gbps. Nor did it represent an average speed, which was closer to 450Mbps. But my first impression of real-world 5G Ultra Wideband—made possible during a Verizon press event, but using already-deployed 5G infrastructure nodes—kind of blew me away.

Here are some real-world stats to help you wrap your brain around the promise of gig-plus download speeds:

I downloaded The Hateful Eight (2 hours, 47 minutes) from Netflix in 10 seconds. The first episode of Stranger Things Season 3 in 4K downloaded in 6.28 seconds. The movie Next Gen (1 hour, 47 minutes) downloaded in 11 seconds. PUBG Mobile (2GB) downloaded through the Galaxy Store in 47 seconds. With every test I ran, the same download over LTE had barely begun by the time the 5G download was finished. Upload speeds were also impressive, topping off at around 50Mbps, faster than the speeds I get with my Comcast Gigabit service.

So it’s safe to say that the promise of 5G is real. I was actually walking the streets using actual Verizon nodes sending actual 5G signals.

I also experienced the actual frustrations that these early 5G buildouts will bring for anyone who drops an extra $200 on the Galaxy Note 10+ 5G.

Small network, big potential

Verizon is the first to admit that it’s doing 5G the hard way. Instead of focusing on sub-6GHz spectrum, Verizon is starting with millimeter wave spectrum (mmWave), a slower process that requires the installation of carefully positioned mini towers—basically building a brand-new network. That presents all sorts of problems to solve—the least of which involves regulatory approval from each city—but it has the biggest payoff, as evidenced by the speeds I was able to get.

note 10 5g node Christopher Hebert/IDG

Those three towers on the top of the this telephone pole deliver the 5G signal for a few blocks.

In Providence, the three-tower nodes are centralized on telephone poles along College Hill, a bustling area with low-lying buildings and a straight thoroughfare through the middle. That type of geography is important for mmWave, because the initial deployment sends a direct signal that is easily interrupted. Verizon says that beamforming will help mmWave signals turn corners and eventually reach inside building, but that’s still in development (read more in our beamforming explainer by Eric Geier).

So for now, getting 5G on your phone requires an awareness of where you are in relation to the nodes. Turn a corner—or even turn around—and you might drop the signal. When I questioned the fluctuating speeds, in fact, the Verizon representative told me that the 5G network is so finicky that if I turned to face the node rather use the Note with my back to it, I’d see better results because the signal wouldn’t have to go through my body to get to the phone. He was right.

verizon providence 5g map IDG

The node at the corner of Thayer Street and Bowen Street provides 5G to the surrounding streets.

At times the 5G connection would revert to 4G without moving. Other times it switched while walking toward one of the nodes. Sometimes the Note 10+ registered the 5G UWB network but delivered less-than-LTE speeds. Trying to connect to 5G inside a building was nearly impossible. But all in all, I came away impressed with what I was able to do with a 5G phone, though the network would need to get a whole lot stronger before I'd recommend buying into it.

The future isn’t now

The $1,300 Galaxy Note 10+ 5G is identical in every way to the Note 10+, save for its deep-purple color and 5G modem. That’s a feat in itself. Previous 5G phones, such as the Galaxy S10+ 5G and LG V50 ThinQ 5G, were thicker, larger versions of their LTE counterparts to compensate for the heat, battery, and modem. So Samsung is either confident in the Note 10+’s battery and cooling system, or it didn’t want to make it even more expensive.

Even with the same body, the Note 10+ was warm to the touch during use. The battery definitely took a hit when compared to the regular Note 10+, going from 95 percent to 52 percent after a solid 2.5 hours of testing and downloads. Granted, that’s more than most people will do with it during such a short time period, but even when keeping it in my pocket, it drained noticeably faster than the non-5G Note 10+.

note 10 5g test Christopher Hebert/IDG

I regularly topped a gig-per-second in my testing.

That’s due to the constant switching between 4G and 5G, which happened far too many times to count. It’s quite noticeable when the giant “5G UWB” designation pushes the other logos aside to declare its superiority. I hope Verizon tones it down by the time the 5G logo is on everyone’s phone.

Verizon will be building out its 5G mmWave network over the next several years, so it’s going to take a while before we get there. And even when we do, you probably shouldn’t count on gig-plus speeds on a regular basis. Even though Verizon has already topped 2Gbps in some tests and hasn’t placed a technical limit on how fast 5G can get, it’s hard to imagine 5G delivering steady gigabit-per-second speeds based on the issues I experienced when basically using the network all to myself.

Like home gigabit service from your cable companies that only promise gigabit with a wired connection on a single device, 5G’s real-world top speeds probably won’t get anywhere near the top scores I recorded with the Note 10+. But even if 5G is only half of what Providence delivered, it’s going to be worth the wait.

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