5G is almost a reality. Here’s what it’ll really feel like.

Hype alert: Don’t expect 5G to change your life right away.

BY

You couldn’t miss the explosion of purple and magenta amid the sedate stone and marble interior of Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall. T-Mobile was, at least temporarily, making its mark on the New York icon. 

The wireless carrier earlier this month had set up a pop-up event to promote the rebranding of its Metro prepaid arm, but I didn’t really care about that. I was drawn by the promise of a 5G demo. 

augmented-reality-5g-talking-john-legere-on-a-wine-bottle-original-file
AR is a technology that could benefit from 5G. Although T-Mobile’s demonstration wasn’t running on 5G at all. 

T-Mobile

And in one tiny part of the hall, jammed next to a giant replica of an Amazon Echo smart speaker, was a random collection of devices and experiences primed for 5G. There was a drone that could tap into the network for real-time controls and data exchange. An exercise bike and headset promised a cowboy-themed virtual reality experience. A collection of wine bottles featured photos of T-Mobile executives like CEO John Legere as an example of augmented reality — point your smartphone at a bottle and Legere comes to life on the screen with a quip about how T-Mobile’s innovation is “truly intoxicating.”

Eager to get started, I asked when I could tap into that 5G network. 

“Oh, there’s no 5G set up yet,” said a T-Mobile spokeswoman, explaining that these were “simulations.” 

It was hard to hide my disappointment. But I shouldn’t have been surprised — that’s been the story of 5G hype over the last several years. There have been tons of promises and fancy demonstrations for what 5G might look like, but few concrete, real-world examples.

That’s changing, with Verizon launching its 5G-based home broadband service (sort of) and AT&T poised to launch a mobile 5G service this year. Around the world, carriers in Korea, Japan and China are set to make the big 5G leap over the next year. 

The next-generation of cellular technology, 5G promises to change your life with a massive boost in speed and responsiveness. It’ll power applications like self-driving cars, telemedicine and a new universe of connected devices. You can expect to see 5G smartphones coming out in the first half of next year.

The bad news: Don’t expect your life to change quite yet. As with any new technology, 5G will experience some growing pains, and for many people, those promised speeds may not show up consistently — or at all. I talked to a number of experts and telecom industry executives to get a bead on what 5G will really look like in the early days. 

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An early 5G test van parked at the Verizon campus in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Off to the 5G races

The US carriers began jockeying for the 5G pole position early — Verizon talked about field trials back in 2015. With advanced networks being the next big thing, each carrier is eager to bolster its reputation for service quality, which they hope will translate into consumers heading their way.

Sprint has promised to build the first nationwide 5G network by early 2019. It’ll take a big step in that direction this year when it rolls out 5G capabilities to nine cities, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, though Sprint customers won’t be able to access 5G until the service launches next year.

T-Mobile said it would deploy 5G in 30 cities this year — including New York and Los Angeles — but likewise wouldn’t launch the service until 2019 because 5G phones aren’t ready. 

The two companies have agreed to merge, and T-Mobile says Sprint’s radio airwave assets could supercharge its ability to build out a 5G network faster than it could alone. T-Mobile Chief Operating Officer Mike Sievert said in an interview in August that the company aims to make speeds of 100 megabits a second or faster available to 90 percent of the country, with average speeds of 450 Mbps by 2024

AT&T has said it will have mobile 5G available in a dozen markets, including Atlanta and Dallas, later this year. But it’s unclear just how broadly available the coverage will be. 

Earlier this month, Verizon launched its Home 5G broadband service in select neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Dallas and Indianapolis. But the company is using a proprietary variant of 5G — and not the industry standard — which led some to argue that it fudged its way to the starting line. Verizon said it wouldn’t expand its limited initial commercial rollout this year, and will  begin delivering the service to more homes once it switches to the industry standard next year

Verizon plans to launch its mobile service early next year, and has ambitious plans for its network speeds, saying some areas could get 5 gigabits per second, or five times the fastest home broadband connection, according to Brian Higgins, vice president of device and product marketing. 

After mocking Verizon about its home broadband plans, T-Mobile is now saying it wants to get into the 5G broadband business too.

Then there’s a cable company that’s seriously talking about 6G already.

All of these plans are enough to make your head spin.

“It’s a little confusing, isn’t it? It’s confusing to me, and I do this for a living,” T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray quipped at a press conference back in March.

‘Pucks’ versus phones

At the 2017 Mobile World Congress trade show, Roger Gurnani, then the chief information and technology architect for Verizon, walked on stage during a Samsung tablet event to talk about the two companies’ work on developing 5G.

Gurnani spoke of the field trials that were under way, and at the end he teased that we might see a Samsung 5G phone in a year. It wasn’t clear whether he was joking — the Samsung executive next to him looked surprised by the suggestion.

Fast-forward to this year’s show in March, and now deep into 2018, and the only thing certain is that no 5G phone exists.

Because those phones aren’t ready yet, AT&T plans to deploy “pucks,” or mobile hotspots, that capture 5G signals and broadcast Wi-Fi, giving your devices a portable internet connection.

Pucks and laptop cards were prevalent when 4G LTE first rolled around, because it was the easiest and cheapest way to release a device running on a next-generation wireless device.

Chances are, you’re probably never going to use one. These were niche devices even back in the early LTE days, although some people use them now for work to get a temporary Wi-Fi network running. 

You’re likely more interested in the first 5G phones. Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon said during a July earnings conference call that every handset maker using its flagship Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 platform had a 5G phone slated for 2019 — a year earlier than previously expected.  

But be mindful that the early batch may suffer from some of the issues that plagued early 4G phones. Devices such as the HTC Thunderbolt were bulky, had poor battery life and tended to overheat.

Sprint and LG have vowed to create the first 5G-powered smartphone in the US, and John Tudhope, director of product marketing for Sprint, said the companies have taken into account the issues from 4G.

While T-Mobile’s Ray said he expects a premium flagship will get 5G, AT&T Chief Technology Officer Andre Fuetsch said there may be phones specifically built to house 5G technology, similar to the Thunderbolt.

“The first generation will come with its challenges,” Fuetsch said in an interview in March.

Verizon downplayed the concerns. “We learned a lot by being the 4G LTE leader,” said Brian Higgins, head of devices for Verizon, in an interview in March. “One of those is how to help our ecosystem partners improve the infrastructure, device, battery life and apps required to take advantage of new technology.” 

Also, don’t expect a 5G iPhone anytime soon.

Spotty coverage at first

Another problem with 4G LTE in those early days was coverage gaps. One minute, you were enjoying high-speed online access and streaming video, and then everything came grinding to a halt as you were kicked back down to 3G. Even if you got back into a 4G area, the phone often wouldn’t recognize it.

“Consumers should absolutely expect those early 5G networks will suffer from some of the same ills,” said Dan Hays, a consultant at PricewaterhouseCooper.

T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray at MWC 2018
T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray at MWC 2018 as he explains how the company’s use of different bands of spectrum resembles different layers on a cake. 

Roger Cheng/CNET

Given how fast 5G is supposed to be — anywhere from 10 to 100 times faster — there could be a more dramatic dropoff this time around. That’s especially the case with super-high-frequency radio waves, which deliver the fastest wireless speeds, because they often have short range and can easily be disrupted.

“Imagine if you’re going on a highway at 60 miles per hour, and then you get stuck on a street going 10 mph,” said Jefferson Wang, a managing director at Accenture Strategy. “It’s a jolt.”

The high-frequency airwaves, often referred to as millimeter-wave spectrum, require a lot more “small cells,” or compact boxes that broadcast and carry cellular signals. The Federal Communication Commission has opened the door to faster deployment of these boxes, but it will likely butt up against local municipalities and residents who don’t necessarily want them so close. That’s a potential point of tension amid all the enthusiasm for the technology.

If the carriers don’t get enough small cells deployed, you’ll likely run into small areas of intense speed and capacity, with a drop-off elsewhere as you go beyond the range of millimeter spectrum. 

The carriers intend to round out the coverage with lower-frequency airwaves for 5G, offering broader coverage and less chance of a dramatic fall to 4G. 

“The 5G experience from Sprint will be more uniform,” Sprint Chief Technology Officer John Saw said in March.      

But for all of the carriers, there’ll be plenty of areas with no 5G coverage. That’s particularly true for the deployments we’ll see this year and in 2019.

The good news: Carriers are also upgrading their 4G networks with higher speeds so the transition won’t be so bad. They’re all employing a technology called Gigabit LTE, which boosts current speeds considerably. Phones like the Samsung Galaxy S9 and the iPhone XS are already able to access it.

Price hikes?

Another concern is whether prices will change with the introduction of 5G. Former Sprint CEO Claure said in a keynote address at MWC in March that he expected 5G to be marketed as a premium service with a premium price tag.

Sprint wasn’t available to comment on whether this is still the thinking under new CEO Michel Combes, although plans may change if T-Mobile completes its deal with Sprint. 

Is it that crazy in this competitive environment? Wang notes that the model already exists for home broadband.

“You are already tolerating a payment for higher speeds,” he said.

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Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure speaking at MWC 2018. He believes 5G gives him a chance to raise prices. 

Roger Cheng/CNET

Others are a bit skeptical. Hays doesn’t believe consumers will pay a premium because there aren’t any obvious benefits yet. After all, you can stream Stranger Things on your phone just fine on 4G.

“To think you can just put 5G out there and just say now it’s some form of premium service, I think that’s probably going to be a little mythical,” T-Mobile’s Ray said.

At this year’s MWC, I asked Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg about the claim made by Gurnani, who’s no longer with the company. Vestberg said he expects to see 5G phones by MWC 2019.

“But,” he added after a brief pause, “it’s a qualified guess.”

11 smart home devices you didn’t know existed

With connected appliances, the dream of controlling every single aspect of our homes with a virtual butler is fast becoming reality.

Aside from the usual suspects – smart TVs, smart bulbs, smart speakers, smart thermostats, smart door locks, etc., did you know that there’s a whole army of smart appliances out there, waiting to go “Maximum Overdrive” in your home?

Turning your house into a smart home is exciting but be careful! Listen to my Komando On Demand podcast to learn how to watch for the warning signs so technology doesn’t take over your home.

You’ll be surprised by how many appliances are getting “smartified” nowadays. They may be wacky, weird or unnecessary, but some actually do make sense.

Here are 11 smart home devices that you didn’t know existed (but you’ll be glad that they do.)

1. Smart Toilet

Do your business in style with this smart toilet! The Numi from Kohler is a whirlpool of technology and it’s flushed with comforts you didn’t even know you needed. It has a motion-activated cover and heated seat, a retractable multi-function bidet, an air dryer and deodorizer, a foot warmer, fancy lights and Bluetooth speakers!

For ultimate toilet control, you even get a dockable touch-screen remote so you can totally flush it from afar. The price tag for this ridiculously lavish lavatory? Around $6,500.

2. Smart Pet Food Dispenser

Our pets are part of the family and they need not miss out on the smart appliance revolution. The PetSafe high-tech pet feeder will make them feel right at (smart) home.

This Wi-Fi connected pet feeder can be controlled with its own iPhone and Android app so you can feed your furry companion from anywhere. You can set meal schedules and slow dispense times to prevent bloating and vomiting. It will even notify you when your pet’s food has been dispensed.

The PetSafe Smart Feed is $179 but that sounds reasonable for your peace of mind, don’t you think?

PetSafe Smart Feed Automatic Dog and Cat Feeder, Smartphone, 24-Cups, Wi-Fi Enabled App for iPhone and…

By Water & Feed

$179.95$199.99

Rated 4 out of 5 by 168 reviewers on Amazon.com

3. Smart Bed

Having a perfect night’s sleep is vital to overall health and people have been using smart wearables like Fitbit to track nightly sleeping patterns. But what if your bed does that itself?

Sleep Number’s 360 smart mattresses can track your nightly sleeping patterns, make adjustments to their firmness and can even adjust their temperatures.

It’s not going to be cheap to make your bed smarter. These smart beds start at around $3,200.

4. Smart Egg Tray

Now here’s a smart product that you don’t think you’d need but it actually makes sense, in theory.

The Quirky Egg Minder is a smart egg tray that will tell you how many eggs you have at home and when it’s time to throw them away. LED lights on the tray will tell you which one is the oldest egg and, with its smartphone app, will alert you if you’re running low.

Ever been to the grocery store wondering how many eggs you have left at home? Well, with Quirky Egg Minder, you can just check remotely with your smartphone!

This eggs-ellent (sorry) idea can be yours for as low as $14 right now. Not a bad price to shell out (sorry, again) for if you’re looking for extra kitchen smarts.

Quirky Egg Minder Wink App Enabled Smart Egg Tray, PEGGM-WH01

By Quirky

$10.99

Rated 2.5 out of 5 by 517 reviewers on Amazon.com

5. Smart Toothbrush

If you think brushing your teeth optimally is hard enough then you deserve this $180 smart toothbrush from Oral-B.

The Oral-B Genius Pro 8000 smart toothbrush connects to your smartphone via Bluetooth and uses facial recognition to track where you’ve brushed so you don’t miss a spot.

The app will also provide real-time visual coaching on brushing time and pressure. It is so smart, pressure sensors will even automatically slow down its brush speed to protect you from excessive brushing. It’s like having a dentist in your bathroom!

6. Smart Fork

Let’s face it, the smart toothbrush will go great with a smart fork because, you know, we need all the tech help we can get for life’s basic necessities.

If the smart toothbrush can alert you if you’re brushing too hard, this smart fork will warn you if you’re eating too fast.

The logic behind the HapiFork is sound – if you want to eat healthier, you need to slow down your eating pace. And this uber-utensil can help you do it how? By buzzing when you’re biting more than you can chew.

It connects via Bluetooth to your smartphone and with an app, you can see your eating statistics unfold in front of you in real-time. You can then upload this data to Hapi.com and have everyone judge your table manners.

HAPILABS 100 HAPIfork Bluetooth-Enabled Smart Fork (White)

By HAPILABS INC.

$62.95

Rated 2.5 out of 5 by 4 reviewers on Amazon.com

7. Smart Frying Pan

Why would anyone buy a $229 smart frying pan? Well, because they can!

The SmartyPans frying pan is an interactive frying pan that has built-in sensors that track the weight of the ingredients as you drop them on the pan.

It also has built-in temperature sensors that ensure you have the perfect level of heat each time you cook the eggs you got from your smart egg tray.

With the SmartyPans app, you can follow step-by-step cooking instructions, create and share your own step-by-step recipes and even track the nutritional value of what you’re cooking. Who wouldn’t want that for $229?

8. Smart Toaster

Do you quietly judge your old traditional bread toaster and think that it’s so dumb it can’t even make perfect toast every time?

Now, you can toss that old clunker out and get the Breville Die-Cast 2-Slice Smart Toaster instead.

With its 1-touch automation, the Breville smart toaster will lower your bread automatically with delicate care, regulate the toasting time and a fancy LED panel will inform you about the current toasting cycle.

For extra entertainment, with its Lift and Look function, you can also check your toast while it’s cooking without interrupting the toasting cycle.

Breville BTA820XL Die-Cast 2-Slice Smart Toaster, 1.2-Inch Wide x 5.2-Inch Deep

By Breville (Feb 29, 2008)

$125.95$129.95

Rated 4 out of 5 by 823 reviewers on Amazon.com

9. Smart Water Pitcher

Have you ever sat at your family dinner table thinking “Honey, our water pitcher needs to get smarter fast”?

Well, say no more, Brita’s Smart Pitcher to the rescue! Nothing incredibly fancy but this Wi-Fi enabled pitcher will track and order its own replacement filters from Amazon.

How about that? A pitcher that buys its own accessories and charges them on your credit card. The robot takeover is slowly happening people.

Brita Medium 8 Cup Infinity Smart Water Pitcher and Filter – BPA Free – Black

By Brita

$43.99

Rated 2.5 out of 5 by 82 reviewers on Amazon.com

10. Smart Floss

Cultivating healthy flossing habits is challenging. It’s just too much work, right? And getting the perfect length of floss each time is so difficult, humanity definitely needs this smart dispenser.

Flosstime is an automated floss dispenser that delivers the perfect amount of floss with a single touch. It will also frown at you if you neglect to floss your teeth (judge-y appliances seem to be a recurring theme here).

You can attach it to your bathroom mirror and have your whole family join in the flossing fun. Flosstime can be yours for $26.

11. Smart Wine Dispenser

To cap this off, why not have a glass of wine from this smart wine dispenser?

The Kuvée Connect and the Kuvée Key are Wi-Fi connected wine dispensers that will always pour the perfect glass from a FreshPour enabled wine bottle each time.

And with the Connect, you can even rate, favorite, view and buy refill wine bottles on its built-in LCD touchscreen! I bet other wine bottles can’t do that.

Everything you need to know about the Amazon Echo

BY  

The Amazon Echo is the biggest tech breakout in recent memory — a voice-activated, internet-connected “smart speaker” with a built-in virtual assistant named Alexa that can answer your questions, follow your instructions and control your smart home devices. As Amazon likes to put it, the Echo is a Star Trek computer for your home.

Now approaching its fourth year, the Echo and its multiple offshoots, including the mini-sized Echo Dot and the touchscreen-equipped Echo Show, have found their way into millions of homes around the world. If they’ve found their way into yours and you don’t know what to do with them, or if you’re just curious about whether or not you should also buy in, then you, my friend, have come to the right post.

What is the Amazon Echo, and how does it work?

Let’s start at the beginning. Amazon introduced the Echo smart speaker at the end of 2014. It’s a standalone Bluetooth speaker with an array of “far-field” microphones that can hear you at a moderate distance plus a Wi-Fi connection to the Amazon cloud.

You wake the Echo up by saying “Alexa,” the name of Amazon’s virtual assistant (you can change this wake word to “Amazon,” “Echo” or “Computer,” if you like). Once the speaker hears the wake word, the ring around the top will light up blue to indicate that Alexa is actively listening for your question and command. Say something like, “what’s the weather today,” and Alexa will answer your question — in this case, with a quick summary of the day’s forecast.

Here’s how that works: Whenever you ask Alexa a question or give her a command, the Echo records the audio and uploads the snippet to Amazon’s cloud servers. Those servers translate the audio into text, then figure out the best way for Alexa to answer. That info gets sent back to your Echo speaker, where Alexa translates the text back into a spoken response. All of this happens in about a second.

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Press the mute button on the top of the Echo and Alexa will stop listening for the wake word.Ian Knighton/CNET

So, Alexa is always listening to me?

Sort of. The Echo is always listening for the wake word, but it only starts recording and transmitting audio once it thinks it hears it. Echo devices indicate this with that blue ring of light — when it lights up, that means Alexa is recording and uploading what it hears in order to figure out how to respond.

Amazon uses encryption to protect those audio snippets whenever Alexa uploads them, and it stores them in the Amazon servers so that you can play them back in the Alexa app to hear what Alexa heard and see what she thinks you asked. You can erase that backlog of audio snippets any time you like (here’s how), and you can also press a button to “mute” the microphone and keep the Echo from listening for the wake word at all. In that case, the Echo’s ring will turn red to indicate that Alexa is covering her ears.

OK. So what all can Alexa do?

There are countless ways to put Alexa to use, but here are the main ones:

 

Click here for a complete rundown on everything you can ask Alexa.

 

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The Echo is great for streaming music, audiobooks, and podcasts. If you want, you can connect the Echo with your existing speakers via auxiliary cable or Bluetooth.Ian Knighton/CNET

Click here for our top Alexa tips for music lovers.

 

Click here for CNET’s top-rated smart home gadgets that work with Alexa. 

 

Click here to learn how to set a recurring alarm on your Echo device.

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Click here to learn more about calling landlines and mobile numbers using Alexa.

 

Click here for our regularly-updated list of the 50 most useful Alexa skills.

 

Oh, and if you need to buy something on Amazon, Alexa can help with that, too. Imagine that!

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Alexa comes in a variety of different packages.Ian Knighton/CNET

How many different kinds of Echo devices are there?

After the Echo became a clear hit with the mainstream, Amazon doubled down and began releasing a number of offshoot devices designed to broaden the appeal of Alexa’s voice interface. All of them offer the same Alexa features in different packages and with different features that might interest different kinds of people. Here’s a quick list:

amazon-echo-spot-product-photos-10

Beyond those, you’ll also find Alexa in Amazon’s Fire tablets and Fire TV voice remotes — as well as a rapidly growing number of devices not made by Amazon. Amazon sees outside developers as a huge part of the Alexa strategy, and it’s making considerable efforts to make it as easy as possible for manufacturers to build Alexa into their devices.

Bottom line: Amazon doesn’t care which voice-activated device you buy — just so long as you’re talking to Alexa.

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The Echo had a head start, but Google Home is nipping at its heels.Tyler Lizenby/CNET

What are the alternatives?

The Echo had the market to itself for about a year before any real competition showed up. But these days, the smart speaker category is about as crowded as it gets.

The closest competitor would be the Google Home smart speaker ($130 in the US, £130 in the UK and AU$200 in Australia). Powered by the voice-activated Google Assistant — it comes the closest to matching Alexa’s wide variety of features and integrations. Like Amazon, Google offers a smaller-sized version for $50 (£40 in the UK, AU$60 in Australia) called the Google Home Mini. It also offers a king-sized version called the Google Home Max for $400 (£400 in the UK, AU$580 in Australia) that offers superior sound quality. Amazon doesn’t have anything that matches the Max speaker, at least not yet.

Apple does, though. Its Siri-activated HomePod, which costs $350 (£320 in the UK, AU$500 in Australia), also offers better sound than any Echo device, though the features and integrations feel narrower and less developed than what you’ll get with Amazon or Google.

Other notable competitors include the Cortana-powered Invoke smart speakerfrom Harman Kardon, and also the abundance of third-party speakers that make use of Alexa or the Google Assistant to offer a fully developed voice interface. Most noteworthy among these: the $200 Sonos One smart speaker (£200 in the UK, AU$300 in Australia), which offers excellent sound quality and your choice of Alexa or the Google Assistant for voice controls.

What other features should I know about?

We’ve covered the basics, so let’s take a look at some of Alexa’s more advanced features and how they stack up against the competition:

Voice recognition: You can train Alexa to recognize different voices, which lets her offer responses tailored to the individual user. You can also use this to keep your kids from making voice purchases — just know that the feature isn’t foolproof. The Google Home lineup can distinguish between different voices, too, but the Apple HomePod cannot.

Routines: Arguably one of Alexa’s most useful features, Routines let you trigger multiple things all at once using a single, customizable voice command. For instance, saying “Alexa, good morning” could simultaneously turn several smart lights on while Alexa reads the day’s weather forecast. You can also create custom Alexa commands using the free online automation service IFTTT, but they’ll each need to start with the word “trigger,” as in, “Alexa, trigger party mode.” The Google Home speakers have routine-like functionality, too — and like the Echo, they also let you craft custom voice controls using IFTTT. Plus, with Google home, no “trigger” word is necessary.

Drop in: If you like, you can authorize specific contacts to “drop in” on your Echo device to check in on you, or just use the feature like an intercom system from room to room. That’ll let your contacts listen and talk through your speaker (or view the camera feed if you’re using an Echo Show or an Echo Spot) without any input from you. Sounds creepy, yes, but it might make sense if you want to use an Echo device to keep an eye on a mischievous kid or an aging parent. Alexa will also let you “announce” things to the other Echo devices under your roof — a useful way to tell the family that dinner’s ready.

Memory: Always forgetting birthdays or other little pieces of info? You can ask Alexa to remember them for you. For instance, just say, “Alexa, remember that Kevin’s shoe size is 8” and when it’s time to buy your kid new shoes, you can just ask, “Alexa, what is Kevin’s shoe size?” and she’ll remind you.

External speaker support: The entire lineup of Echo devices can connect to external speakers using