I used T-Mobile's 5G network, and it's a whole lot like using its 4G network

T-Mobile 5G on OnePlus 7T Pro McLaren Edition
T-Mobile 5G on OnePlus 7T Pro McLaren Edition (Image credit: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

The early days of 5G networks are confusing, with the biggest annoyance being the explanation of what kind of 5G network a given carrier is using. There's mmWave, which Verizon is incredibly bullish on, and then there's Sub-6, which has been deployed by far more carriers around the world and is easier to launch quickly and comprehensively. (And then, there are differences in implementation with mid-band and low-band Sub-6 networks.) T-Mobile launched its Sub-6 5G network "nationwide" this week (opens in new tab) on its low-band spectrum, and I've been using it for a week on a OnePlus 7T Pro.

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

The best part of Sub-6 5G is that carriers are able to (relatively) simply upgrade existing LTE towers, and use existing low-band spectrum. Performing to towers you already have, rather than deploying thousands of small cells necessary for mmWave, dramatically increases the rate you can launch the network. And running on very low-band 600MHz spectrum means you don't need as many towers upgraded to give areas substantial coverage.

That's how T-Mobile was able to flip the switch and announce it has "nationwide" 5G coverage (opens in new tab) so quickly. Its 5G network immediately covers 200 million people, which isn't a complete match of its LTE footprint but is substantial — and will be available in the largest and densest cities. This low-band spectrum is also generally beneficial for having a signal inside buildings, which has historically been an issue for T-Mobile.

It's all, theoretically, a big win for T-Mobile. In actuality, the real-world benefits of using this OnePlus 7T Pro on a 5G network are smaller than you'd think given the big promises around 5G as a whole.

T-Mobile's 5G coverage is great, and the few times you have to drop to 4G it does so seamlessly.

To start on the positives, T-Mobile's 5G network is great in terms of coverage. I was on 5G most of the time, which is miles ahead from Verizon's tiny 5G coverage map. And T-Mobile's 5G also doesn't have the massive inconsistency and trade-offs of Verizon's: the phone holds onto a 5G connection consistently as you move around (either walking or in a car), seamlessly transitions from 5G to 4G, and doesn't seem to drain battery appreciably faster than 4G phones. We've come to expect with 3G and 4G that new networks have to come with slow rollouts, but that isn't the case here — T-Mobile's starting strong in terms of 5G availability.

Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

On the other hand, speeds you get on T-Mobile 5G are far lower than the mind-blowing numbers we see from Verizon. For the most part, I was getting downloads in the range of 50-100 mbps, with uploads in the 5-50 mbps range. On rare occasion my download speeds would go as high as 250 mbps, but those instances were few and far between. Those 200+ mbps tests aside, download and upload speeds were typically about 25% higher than T-Mobile 4G speeds. That's nothing to sneeze at, but it's hard to say you can actually notice the difference between 75 and 60 mbps with anything but a synthetic speed test — and those speeds are what we already regularly see from well-developed 4G networks around the world.

Source: Android Central

And then you hit instances where the 4G network is actually faster than 5G. T-Mobile didn't need to upgrade all of its towers to reach this 200 million population coverage, so there are times when you're connected to 5G that's weaker than a T-Mobile 4G phone right next to it — presumably because it's holding onto a less-than-optimal tower just to stay on 5G. I had many instances where my Pixel 4 XL matched or beat my OnePlus 7T Pro's speeds.

You can expect about a 25% speed bump over T-Mo 4G, though it isn't as consistent as I'd like.

And that's only an in-network comparison. Verizon's 4G network regularly beat T-Mobile's 5G network in my side-by-side testing, with consistent 50-100 mbps speeds where T-Mobile 5G was around 50 (or in some cases indoors, more like 15). The reality is that T-Mobile's 5G network suffers from the same quirks as its 4G one: speeds can be fantastic, but they're often less consistent than Verizon and AT&T, and there are many instances inside buildings and in rural areas where the service is just downright disappointing. These issues can be fixed, and T-Mobile would love you to believe that its acquisition of Sprint will accelerate those changes, but right now this is 5G done through the same exact playbook as what we've come to expect from T-Mobile's 4G; for better and worse.

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This isn't a game-changing experience yet, but it's a network you can experience just about anywhere.

The biggest win for T-Mobile is that there's really no downside to this 5G network. Sure it's often the same speed as, or only marginally faster than, its 4G network. But in some cases it's considerably faster, and you never have to hunt around to find it. Your phone's going to be on 5G most of the time; and when it isn't, you're falling back to a solid 4G network. So even though it isn't a complete game-changing experience, it's a noticeable improvement that you get to experience in far more places than the other U.S. 5G networks right now. For many people, that's a fine trade-off when they may be months or years away from having access to another carrier's 5G network where they live.

T-Mobile isn't charging more for 5G plans, so the only part of this whole situation that's a truly tough sell is its device selection. The OnePlus 7T Pro I'm using is a whopping $900, $200 more than the standard OnePlus 7 Pro (opens in new tab) and $300 more than the OnePlus 7T (opens in new tab); and your only other choice is the Galaxy Note 10+ 5G for $1300 (opens in new tab). The OnePlus 7T Pro McLaren Edition has been a joy to use, but so is the regular OnePlus 7 Pro — and I don't think I can really value access to this 5G network at $200.

T-Mobile's 5G pitch will be dramatically easier when it has a complete portfolio of 5G phones, and the price premium for getting one isn't so dramatic. Because as far as the network goes, it's off to a great start.

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

  • I'm not surprised
  • T-Mobile 5G, almost as good as Verizon 4G! Great comercial.
  • When poking at with sarcasm, it’s best to spellcheck
  • T-Mobile's 600 MHz 5G is pretty much the same as Verizon's 700 MHz 4G from SIX years ago.
  • TMO is also doing 4G on the 600 Mhz bands. My S10 supports it and about a month ago I noticed a dramatic improvement in signal strength in Downtown Denver where I live and work.
  • With T-Mobile, going from no bars to one bar is a dramatic improvement.
  • I've got the OnePlus 6T now, which I love, and I'm generally happy with the service. But there are some places that I'm in frequently, where the service issues pop up. A stretch of road that I drive every day that has no service at all, and even in the middle of my condo (which is a brick building), away from the windows, I sometimes don't get great service. I priced the upgrade to the McLaren, and it's a big hit every month, do you think this would get any better, or best just to wait it out a while?
  • And as soon as Verizon fires up their 5g on their 700mhz T-Mo will be right back to second fiddle. 
  • Andrew, Did you ever confirm you were on band 71 (aka 600mhz). I have had this phone for 4 days and not once attached to band 71 yet my phone consistently says that I am on 5G. Furthermore, when I search for networks (turn of connect automatically), I see no T-mobile 5G only T-mobile 4G. How is this possible? (to be on 5G and not connected to 71). Also, I have yet to see 100+mbs while on 5G. Thoughts?
  • turn of connect automatically hasn't been updated for 5g yet. this 5g uses a combination of bands 2, 4, and 71 (i'm pretty sure) and none of the signal check apps are updated for 5g yet. so i usually show band 66 on signal check when the phone shows 5g. i don't expect speeds over 100mbs in Chattanooga until the sprint merger is settled one way or the other. right now i get band 71 at home but no 5g which is slightly disappointing. But, overall i'm happy i jumped in.
  • What gets lost in the 5G hype is that TMO also turned on 4G in Band 71. My S10 supports it and I have noticed dramatic improvements in signal strength in Downtown Denver.
  • Sub 600 is what's used where I live and I got 301 mbps download speed compared to my 120 mbps fibre broadband at home, can't wait for 5G to become a bit more widespread here, it will really make a difference
  • Great article. Is the McLaren (3120 x 1440 pixels) experience even impacted by 5G? Probably not, as T-Mobile's network was probably delivering HD+ speeds. In the absence of showing materially different video resolution (which would be extremely hard to judge), it's about speed test results (reminds me of early days of DSL when we had to go to a specific Yahoo link called Broadband). Can T-Mobile's Hotspot actually deliver more than 1080p speeds to a laptop or TV? No. I think it would be good to frame the difference a user will actually see from 5G, which is minimal until T-Mobile removes the Hotspot video restriction. The difference does not show up until there's a screen that can display 5G improvements.
  • Its all marketing. We are still talking about phones. As long as i get good signal and sites that are not over congested aka still get 10+ download i am happy. While i have had 70 and 80 meg download on speed tests the device never uses those types of speeds. Sure some app downloads or updates may be big but those are not regular usage environments. Those are here and there types of uses.
    Yes i use my device to watch tv when i am at lunch or use tethering to watch it on my iPad and i still get great quality. I am happy to see TMO use lower band for better coverage while still giving us good speeds. I dont need mmWave that you loose as soon as you step into a building or go a block away. Give me 600mhz and 700mhz of spectrum with LTE and 5g on both and add lots of users.