Those Galaxy S10 prices: Why expensive smartphone upgrades without 5G are just plain dumb

So, you want to spend over $1,000 on a new Android or an iPhone with no next-generation wireless network? You're nuts.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

It's only a week before Mobile World Congress 2019, and only hours before Samsung's Unpacked event, and the Galaxy S10 has leaked in a Norwegian TV commercial. Now everyone knows what the thing looks like, and presumably, what it features in terms of specs. 

As if you needed to make us agree to secret embargoes for this, Samsung? C'mon.

CNET: Galaxy S10 launches today: Final rumors on release date, specs, features and price  

The smartphone industry is flat

Accidental leaks of the Galaxy S10 specs is hardly Samsung's problem. The real issue is the company keeps showing off gee-whiz folding screen prototypes of stuff it has no intention to release in the near future, creating its own Osborne Effect.

That's not the worst part either. Overall, the smartphone industry has been flat. Samsung has no real revenue growth in this area, and neither does Apple. But they want you to buy a new phone to replace the perfectly good one you already own. This new phone will run the same applications you have been running for the last four years or so, which for the most part, haven't had significant features added to them that would in any way stress your current hardware.

Do new features really bring tangible benefits?

So, why should you spend $1,000 or more on a new flagship when the apps are going to run the exact same way?

The answer is -- unless you are addicted to the type of mobile games that really stress the hardware -- you shouldn't. And that's certainly a contributing factor as to why the entire smartphone industry isn't progressing. Yes, there have been a few key hardware enhancements, such as bigger and better screens and faster processors. For a lot of people, however, those enhancements don't bring tangible benefits. 

Also: People don't want to pay big bucks for a new smartphone  

Then, you have the multi-camera setups, which are so sophisticated and optimized for manual use ("Pro" modes, "Night" mode, "Bokeh," etc) that people are just going to point and shoot them and use them for casual photography anyway, so the quality of their photos won't be significantly better than what they have now.

And that facial recognition stuff all the new flagship devices have? Does anyone really think this is an improvement over the thumbprint sensors, which work so much faster and more reliably? I don't.

Look, the only reason I spend this kind of money on phones is because I write about them and I have to stay abreast of industry trends. I'm spending a fortune on the Upgrade Program on my current iPhone XS Max, which I began doing with its predecessor, the iPhone X. That lease is going to cost me over $1,600 over its two-year payment period. And I'm going to stay on that train with, presumably, a replacement device in October or November of this year. 

However, I realize that it is a luxury item, I am not a typical user, and to a large extent, I have to use an iPhone because of the Apple Watch integration, a product I am fully sold on for very personal reasons.

Why spend a premium on Android phones?

But Android? The great smartphone vendor homogenizer ecosystem? Why spend a premium for these things? There are perfectly good Android phones you can buy in the $500-or-less range that are significant upgrades over what most Android users with two- or three-year-old phones are using now, if they really feel the need to replace them.

Also: The 10 best not-so-new phones: Why last year's models make great deals

Most of those affordable phones are made by Chinese companies like Huawei, which the current administration wants to ban from the US and is now engaging in legal action with due to accusations of corporate espionage and export control concerns. 

But there's other good Chinese contenders, like Lenovo/Motorola and Oppo/OnePlus, as well as other brands of Chinese phones, such as Xiaomi, which we will never see exported to this country. Who knows if all the above are going to be banned from the US?

Also: Paranoia will destroy us: Why Huawei and other Chinese tech is not spying on Americans

The big issue: No 5G network available

But beyond the artificially inflated prices of these things due to a desire to keep Chinese devices out of this country, there is another big issue, and that is: Without an advanced next-generation wireless network to actually run on, most of the real developments coming for these phones and other mobile devices are on hold. 

Sure, the second-generation 5G chipsets such as Qualcomm's (and presumably Huawei's) now exist, but it's kind of like owning a V12 Ferrari when you're limited to 40mph county roads.

Without 5G, many of the exploitative applications we are truly waiting for -- such as mobile artificial reality and virtual reality -- are not possible. The bandwidth required for these things is significant; you effectively need mobile network speeds that are faster than the typical broadband you see deployed in most residences and businesses, in the hundreds of megabits or even in gigabits per second. 

That's at least 10-times faster than the kind of speeds you will encounter on a congested mobile network or on a telco-provided mobile Wi-Fi access point. It doesn't matter if you are using a $300 or a $1,600 phone, you aren't going any faster.

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What's holding up 5G?

The 5G infrastructure buildout is going slowly because there are really only two companies that have the technology chops, particularly in North America, to pull it off. The first is Qualcomm, and the other is Huawei -- which is the global leader in the space, and which the current administration wants to ban all of its equipment from the US, not just its smartphones. 

And if that ban happens, it presents a number of issues. AT&T has been partnering with Huawei to do its 5G infrastructure buildout, and it would have to reverse course and choose a different vendor, such as Qualcomm or Ericsson or even Nokia. So would a number of other providers. And that switch would not be simple or an ideal choice given Huawei's industry leadership, agility, and competitiveness on the provider side when you compare them to the others.

If the US and other parts of the west become an island and get caught up in this punitive quagmire against Huawei and, ultimately, China itself, then the rest of the world that wants to make progress, such as Latin America and other parts of Asia, will have a major advantage, because they will be able to roll out their 5G networks much faster and much cheaper. And they will do it without any agreements on standardization and interoperability with the rest of the world. 

The loser in this battle will be the West, because the supply chain for so many electronic components for these devices come from China. Switching to another supplier partner such as Korea or Taiwan is going to be problematic at best, and it's definitely going to be more expensive, especially since manufacturers with plants in China will have to shift production elsewhere to places like India. We know they can't do it in the US for many reasons, primarily the highly integrated supply chain that Chinese manufacturing firms enjoy.

Spending big money on an expensive smartphone upgrade now is stupid. Without 5G, this is all just underutilized techno-bling.

Are you holding off on your next big smartphone upgrade until a real 5G network becomes available? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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