Motorola launches the first 5G phone – or has it?

5G motorola
The new Moto Z3 5G smartphone, in two parts (literally). Image credit: Motorola

ITEM: The world’s first 5G smartphone has been launched. Actually it was launched last week. By Motorola, of all companies. Only it’s not quite a 5G smartphone. But it is 5G-upgradeable.

See what they did there?

To explain:

The new smartphone in question is the Moto Z3, which runs on Android Oreo and features a 6″ HD+ OLED display with an 18:9 aspect ratio, a 3000 mAh battery, and a dual depth-sensing smart camera system with Google Lens. The Z3 will be available for sale in the US exclusively via Verizon starting August 16 at a retail price of $480 (although that price is via a 24-month contract with Verizon – they’ll knock up to $300 off the price for anyone switching to Verizon and trading in their old phone).

However, that’s not the 5G bit. The 5G bit is the “Moto Mod” – a magnetic clip-on device that you stick on the back of the Z3.

Motorola already offers “mods” for its Moto Z-series phones that enable users to add things like stereo speakers, projectors, cameras, and battery packs. Now there is a 5G mod that includes a Qualcomm Snapdragon X50 modem and 28-GHz components. Clap it on the back of your Z3 and hey presto – it’s a 5G phone! That works only on Verizon’s 5G network!

For now, Motorola isn’t saying how much the 5G mod is. As a guideline, existing mods can cost as much as $200, although it’s possible either Motorola or Verizon will come up with some special offer.

However, while US consumers can buy the Z3 next week, the 5G clip-on won’t be available until “early 2019”.

Which is as well since there’s literally no 5G network to connect it to right now. Verizon is planning to launch its 5G network in four US cities (Sacramento, Los Angeles, Houston and The City That Has Yet To Be Named) somewhere between Q4 2018 and Q1 2019 – but that will be for fixed-wireless services. Verizon does plan to offer a mobile version of 5G next year, but hasn’t specified when yet.

Meanwhile, the obvious question is: if Motorola can make a 5G clip-on module, why not an actual 5G phone?

Cnet put that very question to Doug Michau, Motorola Mobility’s director of technical sales and operations, who gave two reasons. The first – unsurprisingly – was simply so that Motorola could have bragging rights to launch the first 5G phone.

The second reason is that in order to be first, Motorola had to go the clip-on route because designing a phone for the 28-GHz band is complicated:

The 5G Mod prototype is a thick attachment that’s stuffed with four antenna modules which, together, make those speed gains work using a variation of 5G technology called millimeter-wave.

“If we did put [5G] in the cell phone, it wouldn’t be early 2019, it would be much later,” Michau said. “The four antenna modules use up a lot of space…and if you put them all in the phone, you’d wind up with a thicker phone with a much smaller screen.”

Michau told Cnet that Motorola is also working on a sub-6 GHz 5G phone that can be done without resulting in extra parts or a bulkier phone. But Michau wouldn’t commit to a time frame, saying only that you’ll see them on the market in “definitely less than three years”.

Michau makes an important point here, and one we can assume applies to all OEMs. The thing about smartphones is that with each “G” that comes along, OEMs have to figure out how to stuff in the new “G” technology without sacrificing all the legacy radio components – 2G, 3G, 4G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC, all the associated frequency bands that they need to use, etc and so on – whilst making sure no new interference or performance issues arise. And all of that has to be done without making the phone larger, heavier or more power-hungry. (It’s worth noting the Motorola 5G mod comes with its own 2000 mAh battery pack.)

To be sure, OEMs are very good at this sort of thing and will find a way to make it work – but it does take time and lots of testing, which is why the gap between the finalized standard and the commercial product is as wide as it is, even when chipset makers already have their 5G modems and components ready for sampling.

And so much for the ‘first’ 5G smartphone, which is more like the first 5G-capable smartphone, which here means a 4G phone that supports a bolt-on 5G capability that won’t be available until early next year – a.k.a. whenever Verizon’s 5G network is actually available for mobile use, which initially will only be in four cities.

But you know, 5G is now, so who am I to be critical?

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