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USAToday Column

March 9, 2022
New iPhone SE and iPad Air have different 5G support, but will owners even notice?

By Bob O'Donnell

For Apple fans and gadget aficionados in general, there’s nothing quite like the rush of an Apple product launch event. The company continues to set the standard for generating a level of excitement and interest around its products that I’ve never seen matched by any company in any industry.

Such was the case with yesterday’s live-streamed affair where the tech industry giant unveiled a next-generation iPhone SE, an updated iPad Air powered by their M1 chip, and the powerful but pricey Mac Studio and Studio Display desktop system, a version of which is equipped with Apple’s latest silicon offering, the M1 Ultra.

Most people’s interest will likely fall to the mainstream priced iPhone SE (starting at $429, a $30 bump over its predecessor) and the iPad Air (starting at $599). What’s particularly notable about these two is that they now both support 5G (though it’s optional on the iPad Air and raises the starting price to $749).

This is an important step in the evolution of the next-generation cellular standard because particularly with the iPhone SE, Apple is bringing 5G technology down to lower price points and broadening its appeal. Part of the reason why 5G adoption is still in the minority is because phones that incorporate the technology tend to be at the high end of the price range.

In order to get to those lower prices Apple had to make some adjustments to how it implemented 5G in the iPhone SE. Based on the tech specs, it appears to have used the same approach for the 5G version of the new iPad Air. Specifically, both devices only support what are called the mid-band and low-band frequencies used by 5G. They don’t support millimeter wave (mmWave) frequencies.

The reason this matters is that some of the fastest potential download speeds offered via 5G use mmWave, and you can’t achieve them unless your phone supports them. As concerning as that might sound in theory, in real-world experience, the impact may not be as bad as some fear.

First, Verizon is the only major U.S. carrier that’s significantly supporting mmWave signals in its 5G networks, so if you use T-Mobile, AT&T or other smaller carriers, it is generally not much of an issue. Even if you are on Verizon, the practical truth is that mmWave coverage is primarily in a limited set of urban areas right now, and unless you’re in them or are visiting them, you don’t have access to those signals anyway. (To be fair, the company recently announced plans to expand its mmWave network over the course of the next year or so, but it’s still not as widespread as the coverage provided by other frequencies.)

Plus, the physical characteristics of mmWave signals mean they don’t travel very far, can’t penetrate walls or windows and are easily subject to interference. In other words, even if you can find them, you need to essentially stand still outside away from a lot of people to really enjoy the speed benefits.

More importantly, in the last two months, both AT&T and Verizon have launched significant support for midband-based 5G signals, using frequencies called C-Band, that the new iPhone SE and 5G-equipped iPad Air do support. While these can’t match the potential speed of mmWave, the signals travel much farther, pass through walls and are much less subject to interference. In other words, practically speaking, they’re going to give you performance that’s about 10x faster than 4G LTE on a more regular basis, but not the 100x potential boost from mmWave.

T-Mobile has been ahead of the game as most of its 5G network has been using a different type of midband frequency (also supported on the new Apple products) with similar overall performance characteristics to C-Band for nearly two years now.

The bottom line is, though you won’t get what some would call the “full” 5G experience on the updated iPhone SE and iPad Air, you will get the benefits that most people with 5G phones currently experience.

Also there is more to 5G than just faster download speeds, and those capabilities are incorporated into Apple’s latest devices. Most notably, 5G networks are supposed to give us important reductions in what’s called latency, or the delay that can occur between when you do something on your screen – like pummel a bad guy inside a game –and when the cloud-based server running the game responds.

The truth is, we’ve yet to see many noticeable real-world examples of this phenomena just yet – in part because of ongoing upgrades to 5G networks that are still occurring, and applications and cloud-based services that need to be updated to take advantage of these latency improvements. Owners of 5G-capable smartphones of all types will eventually benefit from these enhancements.

The march to 5G proliferation and impact has certainly been slower than many predicted, but steps like the availability of lower-cost phones and tablets in conjunction with better 5G network coverage are certainly key to making the technology as impactful as it can be.

Here’s a link to the original article:

USA TODAY columnist Bob O'Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. His clients are major technology firms including Microsoft, HP, Dell, and Intel. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.