Sprint's Galaxy S20 Ultra Prepares Subscribers for 'New T-Mobile'
The big news about the Samsung S20 Ultra for Sprint is that it's thoroughly merger-proof. We have test results on Sprint's 5G network.
The Samsung Galaxy S20+ and S20 Ultra are the most flexible, powerful 5G phones in the US. On Sprint's network at the moment, their 5G performance is on par with Sprint's other 5G phones. But the S20+ and Ultra offer additional potential for the future once Sprint's merger with T-Mobile closes … whenever that is.
I tested Sprint's 5G with the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra in Manhattan on March 6. In my tests, 5G pretty much doubled 4G performance on Sprint. That's good. It's better than AT&T and T-Mobile's currently near-meaningless low-band 5G, and it has more coverage than the other carriers' extremely fast high-band 5G.
This isn't the gigabit speeds we've been promised from millimeter-wave 5G, but Sprint's average speeds compare favorably to the 5G speeds we're seeing on UK networks, which use similar frequencies, according to Ookla Speedtest Intelligence.
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Sprint's 5G doubles speed over its 4G performance.
The mid-band approach is more honest, too. When Sprint says "5G," it means 5G. Because its Band 41 5G is on the same spectrum as its Band 41 LTE, and because Sprint doesn't have any combinations where LTE would be faster than 5G, I didn't find situations (unlike with AT&T and T-Mobile) where the phone said it was on 5G but transferred data entirely on 4G.
Filling Out the Layer Cake
Sprint's mid-band approach is the simplest, cleanest, and most globally compatible form of 5G so far. So there are plenty of Sprint 5G phones, and they all have pretty much the same performance.
Low, middle and high – the Galaxy S20+ and Ultra have 'em all.
That won't be the case once Sprint and T-Mobile become New T-Mobile. New T-Mobile will have a three-level "layer cake" of 5G, with high-band delivering high speeds in central cities, mid-band broadly across metro areas, and low-band across the whole country. The S20 and S20 Ultra, although they don't have differentiated performance on the current Sprint network, future-proof you there.
Of the 5G phones Sprint sells, here's how they all work with different levels of the "layer cake."
- Everything: Galaxy S20 Ultra and S20+
- Mid- and low-band only: Samsung Galaxy S20
T-Mobile currently only has high-band coverage in seven cities, but the company just made a $2 billion bet on expanding it, Light Reading says. Spending that much on 37-47GHz spectrum is a good sign they're committed to the technology.
Just looking at Sprint's and T-Mobile's Galaxy S20 Ultra performance won't help to predict what the two networks can do together, because they'll combine in ways that are impossible now.
For example, here in New York, Sprint currently uses 60MHz of spectrum for Band 41 LTE and 40MHz for 5G. In T-Mobile's plan, that whole 100MHz becomes 5G, which New T-Mobile could treat as a single large carrier and then combine with two 20MHz carriers of LTE, which Sprint wouldn't otherwise have available. In some of the rest of the country, Sprint has even more 5G spectrum, up to a total of 190MHz in some places.
I walked around New York's East Village with the S20 Ultra, and found the same kind of coverage I've found previously with Sprint's 5G. Sprint has pretty-good in-city 5G coverage that just about doubles speeds, increases upload speeds, and raises the floor for downloads, as well. It isn't radically transformative, but it's real and you can get it. You can only get it in 10 cities, though, and that's likely not going to change until the merger.
Orange dots are 5G, blue dots are 4G.
Should You Buy the Galaxy S20 Ultra on Sprint?
When is this merger happening? It's pretty much a done deal, but it's stuck in some final administrative vortexes, which may push it past T-Mobile's stated date of April 1.
If you want to place a bet on T-Mobile high-band 5G coming to your city in the next few years, the Galaxy S20+ and Ultra will keep you connected on any network T-Mobile has to offer coming up. Otherwise, I still really like the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G; it costs a lot less, and it can handle Sprint's mid-band (but not T-Mobile's low or high bands.) There should also be a OnePlus 8 coming up, and it will probably support low and mid-band.
I'm more enthusiastic about using millimeter-wave phones on AT&T and Verizon, even though T-Mobile has put big money down on high-band spectrum. While AT&T and Verizon have been consistent about high-band being part of their strategy, T-Mobile hasn't shown a commitment to continuing to build out mmWave coverage even though it's said mmWave is part of its "layer cake" strategy. If and when T-Mobile starts talking more about building out fast mmWave, then the Galaxy S20+ and Ultra become better buys in the cities where T-Mobile plans to roll it out.
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