For the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of talk around 5G. Promises of near-instant downloads for huge files, little to no latency on video calls, and even the option for home 5G broadband. In 2019, we’re finally starting to see that 5G dream become closer to reality with the first wave of 5G smartphones readying for the consumer market.
The Moto Z3 is one such phone, at least in a workaround way; though it was released all the way back in August of last year, the Z3 has been retrofitted with 5G technology through the use of Motorola’s Moto Mod system. The 5G Moto Mod, originally shown off at the same time as the Z3 itself, contains its own entire Snapdragon 855 chipset and Qualcomm’s X55 5G modem, allowing it to connect to Verizon’s (and only Verizon’s) new 5G network.
The 5G indicator in the status bar doesn’t actually appear until there’s 5G transfer happening.
That network just rolled out earlier this month, with Minneapolis and Motorola’s hometown of Chicago serving as its early testing grounds. I visited the latter to try Verizon’s 5G for myself, with a fresh Moto Z3 and 5G Moto Mod in-hand. I was given a list of known 5G tower locations, including popular spots like the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park, and off I went.
Even standing close by the towers, though, finding a 5G signal on the Moto Z3 was a challenge. The 5G UWB indicator in the status bar (which is hilariously big compared to the other elements of the Android UI) doesn’t actually appear until there’s 5G data transfer happening on the phone, and it tends to cycle back and forth between 5G and 4G LTE a lot. When I was first getting set up with the Moto Z3, I was told to remove and reattach the Moto Mod when I can’t get a good signal — this is all still clearly in its early stages, and it hopefully won’t be such a finicky experience in a few months when things have matured a bit.
I was warned that standing directly under a tower would give me suboptimal results — sure enough, standing just a few feet away from the tower off of Franklin Street and Grand Avenue, I saw speeds around 150 to 200 Mbps down. Not quite the mind-blowing speeds I was hoping for, though still considerably better than the ~30Mbps down I saw in the same spot on Verizon’s LTE network. Unfortunately, I was told that uploads still deferred to LTE for the time being.
Once I backed away by a few meters, I started seeing much better speeds, in the neighborhood of 500 Mbps, give or take. That number starts to go back down very quickly, though, once you introduce buildings to the equation. In the various areas where I tested Verizon’s 5G network, performance dramatically deteriorated once you step into a windowed building; the darker the tint on the glass, the more significant the impact, often dipping back down into LTE territory in the low 100s or even double digits.
Verizon’s 5G network isn’t ready for prime time just yet, but it’s in no worse shape than LTE was during its initial rollout.
That comes as no surprise, though; Verizon and other 5G players have been very open about the hurdles this millimeter wave 5G technology will face when it comes to obstacles and building penetration. I was told to expect a range of about 800 feet on average from each tower in the city, but I couldn’t be given an exact number (or even an approximation) when factoring in problematic materials like brick and glass.
There’s also the issue of the device itself. While I appreciate the cleverness of adding 5G to an older device by means of its own accessory ecosystem, and the Moto Z3 is, by all means, a perfectly fine phone, this isn’t the most graceful solution out there. The Moto Mod is a thick attachment; after all, it has its own processor and modem, and even an additional 2000mAh battery to combat the significant power drain that comes with handling 5G. With the Mod attached to the back of the Z3, it very much feels like two separate pieces of hardware, rather than one coherent device.
There’s no reason to pay more each month for 5G in its current state, but it’s off to a promising start.
You also have to keep pricing in mind; between the Moto Z3’s $480 price tag and the 5G Moto Mod’s $350, you’re paying an awful lot for an eight-month-old midrange device to test out Verizon’s cutting edge new network. Verizon is running promotions to give its customers an easier head start, including $150 off of the Moto Mod, but those deals won’t last forever, and you’ll also need to factor in the $10 additional charge to your monthly bill for access to the 5G network. At the moment, that’s flat out not worth it.
It’s important not to lose perspective, though; rest assured, this is still a great start. LTE is still a much better experience than 5G in Chicago, but that’s because it’s been around for close to a decade and had plenty of time to improve through both network expansion and software updates. In time, you’ll see the same thing happen with 5G, but even now, the fact that I’m able to pull in over half a gigabit on the Moto Z3 is encouraging.
Verizon has plans of rolling out 5G in as many as 20 cities by the end of the year. That would already be a lofty goal if the network was ready for prime time in Chicago and Minneapolis alone, but with so much work left to be done in just these two test markets, I’m not sure what to expect just yet.
Gateway to 5G
The best (and only) way to try 5G for the time being.
The Moto Z3 isn’t the most powerful phone out there, but it’s a reliable midrange device with clean Android Pie software and decent dual cameras. It’s also the first phone on the market with access to Verizon’s 5G network, provided you live in Chicago or Minneapolis and add on the 5G Moto Mod.