Consumer Reports testers check the signal speeds right near a 5G tower.
Consumer Reports phone tester Henry Parra and reporter Bree Fowler searching for 5G signals in New York.

Wireless carriers have been heralding the arrival of 5G—the ultra fast network of the future—for many months now. But don’t get too excited, at least, not yet.

On Friday, T-Mobile officially flipped the switch on its fledgling network in parts of New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Dallas, Cleveland, and Atlanta. So, Henry Parra, who spent decades working in the telecom industry and now heads Consumer Reports phone testing, and I trekked into Manhattan on a blisteringly hot day to try it out.

More on Smartphones and 5G

We wanted to see exactly how widespread the carrier's 5G coverage was and what you could actually do with it. What we learned is that while we could get a signal at times, along with download speeds significantly faster than those of 4G, finding and keeping that signal wasn’t easy.

It could disappear within a few steps, throwing you back to 4G, and the high-frequency millimeter wave (mmWave) T-Mobile employs, which can provide the fastest signal, doesn't travel far and can't penetrate obstacles such as walls, buses, and pedestrians, further limiting our 5G access in perhaps the most busy and crowded city in America.

Clearly, 5G still has a long way to go to fulfill its promise—especially when you consider the premium price of a 5G phone.

Looking for Antennas

A wireless service antenna near the Hudson River in New York.
A T-Mobile wireless signal antenna near the Hudson River in New York City.

Armed with a map provided by T-Mobile, we set off on what felt like a scavenger hunt, or an especially nerdy version of Pokemon Go.

We started off in Times Square, at the T-Mobile store, where we bought the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, which is currently the only 5G phone compatible with T-Mobile’s network. And we were lucky to get one. According to our secret shopper, workers at the carrier’s flagship NYC store received just five of the $1,300 phones to sell on the first day.

The store, not surprisingly, also was a great place to grab a 5G signal. After activating the phone, the 5G icon popped up right away. We logged some of our fastest speeds there, too.

To test the phone's speed, we used a free browser-based test, as well as a popular free app available in the Google Play Store.

Standing right under what store employees called a 5G “booster,” we captured speeds as high as 548 megabits per second (Mbps) on downloads. (At the moment, uploads still use 4G speeds.)

That’s pretty impressive, given that a strong 4G signal can register at 60 Mbps, according to our New York City testing. A 5G speed in that range could allow you to download a movie to your phone in under a minute. It could also compete with wired internet connections. The average download speed to U.S. homes is now slightly above 95 Mbps. Once carriers' 5G networks blanket the country, thanks to the technology's shorter lag time, it could even help driverless cars communicate with each other and with smart highway infrastructure.

But, as Parra noted, we logged those 500 Mbps speeds under what may well be atypical conditions. So, we headed out into the street to try our luck there.

Times Square proved a brutal landscape for 5G. If you’ve never been, think about the annual New Year’s Eve ball drop. It’s packed with tall buildings, massive electric signs, city buses stuck in traffic and even the occasional tree.

And, from the performers dressed as Minnie Mouse and Iron Man, angling for tips, to street vendors and hoards of tourists from every place in the world, there is no shortage of people. There are plenty of obstructions more than capable of stopping a 5G signal.

We walked around hoping to capture a 5G signal. And when we caught one, we ran our speed tests again.

Our results were mixed. One moment we had a strong 5G signal, but just a few steps and it would vanish. At times, it disappeared on its own, as we stood in the same place, probably because a bus or a person moved in the way and blocked the signal, Parra says.

Our speed tests also were mixed. We logged 289 Mbps and a still-respectable 152 Mbps, but just a minute or two later, our speeds dropped into the single digits, possibly because we lost our 5G connection during part of the test and the phone fell back to 4G.

Hoping to judge performance in a less-congested environment, we left Times Square and headed west toward the Hudson River, just north of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, which Parra had pinpointed on the map as likely to have a strong 5G signal.

Parra, an electrical engineer who studied telecom networks up close for decades in his work for Sprint, Verizon, and other carriers, is an expert at finding antennas. After some searching and using our 5G phone as a sort of beacon, we found what appeared to be a T-Mobile transmission site not far from the water, near a shop where tourists rent bikes.

Near the site, we logged speeds of about 377 Mbps, but as we moved farther away, the speeds slowed. At about 200 feet away, they had dropped to 145 Mbps. A little farther down the street, they fell to 103 Mpbs, before going away entirely.

Like the problems with obstructions, this is another characteristic of T-Mobile’s millimeter wave signal, Parra says. They just don’t travel very far. So, instead of building a few big towers, the carrier—and its rivals—will need to install scores of small ones.

“You almost have to be able to see the antenna to get a signal,” Parra says.

That's one big reason why T-Mobile wants to merge with Sprint, which owns mid-band 5G frequencies that are less limited.

Sprint and Verizon launched their own 5G networks in a handful of cities this spring. Sprint flipped the switch in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and Kansas City, Kan.; the network can be used with the LG V50 ThinQ. Verizon offers 5G service in parts of Chicago and Minneapolis; it works with Samsung's Galaxy S10 5G, the LG V50 ThinQ, and Motorola's Moto Z3 and Z4, which can be made 5G-compatible with an attachment.

In the end, Samsung's 5G phone still performed far better in New York City than a 4G model. At one point during the day, we ran speed tests at the exact same time and place on both the Galaxy S10 5G and a regular Galaxy S10 with 4G T-Mobile service. The 5G phone notched 191 Mbps, which was nearly 10 times the speed of the regular S10’s 20 Mbps. 

The Good and the Bad

A wireless signal speed test.
The Consumer Reports team uses the browser-based tool to test the speed of T-Mobile's 5G service.

So, all things considered, is 5G something worth signing up for? As with most new technologies, that largely depends on you. Here’s a look at some of the pros and cons.

Cost. T-Mobile isn’t charging more for 5G service and says it doesn’t plan to, assuming its merger with Sprint eventually closes. That’s not necessarily the case with other carriers. Verizon, for example, says it will eventually start charging $10 per device on top of the fee for an unlimited plan for access to its 5G network, though it hasn't said exactly when it plans to start doing that.

On the flip side, the only phone right now that’s compatible with the T-Mobile network is the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, which will cost you $1,300. And, while T-Mobile will finance your purchase interest free, it’s not offering any discounts.

Limited service. Even under the best of conditions in areas with strong 5G signals, we found coverage in the places we tested to be spotty. The current 5G coverage of the other carriers remains spotty, too. Results are likely to vary city to city, and even neighborhood to neighborhood. But even in the best-covered areas, you’re not going to be able to get a quality 5G signal all the time, regardless of which company is supplying your 5G.

As mentioned before, obstacles as seemingly benign as a small tree can stop a 5G signal. And the range of T-Mobile’s millimeter wave signal is very limited, making finding and keeping a signal tough.

“It’s a shot in the dark,” Parra says.

Our results may be exceptional. Even in an area so densely populated as Times Square, given the fact that T-Mobile’s phone just went on sale today and stores had such limited quantities, it’s doubtful we had to fight with more than a handful of other 5G users for network resources, Parra says.

Once 5G phone sales start to take off, that’s not going to be the case anymore. The more users on the network, the slower speeds will be, he says.

So Is It Worth It?

A log of speed tests taken with Samsung's Galaxy S10 5G phone.
A log of 5G and 4G speed tests taken with Samsung's Galaxy S10 5G phone.

While 5G is undoubtedly much faster than 4G, it’s not going to change your life dramatically. Big files, such as 4K movies, will download faster, but many people won’t notice much of a difference.

While carriers like T-Mobile might not be charging extra for 5G right now, the Galaxy S10 5G is expensive. Future versions from Samsung and other smartphone makers could get cheaper as more models hit the market, though. And if you’re the type of person who has to have an iPhone, you’re going to have to wait until at least next year for Apple's first 5G models to come out.

More to the point, next generation phones will likely have the radio hardware required to access 5G signals beyond T-Mobile’s millimeter wave. And the signals in those new bands will travel further and have an easier time passing through obstacles.

While 5G might be fun to play with—especially on an afternoon scavenger hunt in midtown Manhattan—that may not be nearly enough upside to shell out for a 5G phone right now.