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Galaxy S20 brings 5G to Samsung customers, whether they want it or not

Every new model in the company's Galaxy S lineup taps into the ultra-fast network. And you're paying for it, even if you don't actually use the 5G connectivity.

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Samsung has made a huge 5G push over the past year. It continues with the new Galaxy S20 lineup.

Angela Lang/CNET

Last year, 5G phones were just getting started. This year, it will be hard to avoid them -- and you're going to pay more for the superfast technology, whether you actually want it or not. At least, that was the message from Samsung at its latest Unpacked event, held Tuesday in San Francisco.

If you want one of the company's newest Galaxy S20 flagship phones, the only option in the US and most other markets is to buy a version that comes with 5G. And the base model for this year costs $250 more than last year's lowest-end Galaxy S10. The lone phone Samsung introduced this week without 5G is the $1,380 Galaxy Z Flip, the foldable that will run on the 4G networks of AT&T and Sprint when it its stores Friday. 

Even if you don't have a 5G network or a 5G wireless plan, you'll still be buying a 5G Samsung phone (unless you opt for the Flip or one of the older -- and now $150 cheaper -- Galaxy S10 phones). 

"Samsung is making 5G available to more people more quickly than anyone thought possible," Tae-moon Roh, the new head of Samsung's mobile business, said Tuesday at the company's product launch.

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5G significantly boosts the speed, coverage and responsiveness of wireless networks, running 10 to 100 times faster than a typical cellular connection today. It's the most significant advancement in mobile network technology since the introduction of 4G a decade ago, and it could have major implications for how we live. But up to now, a lot of those promises have been unfulfilled. 

The next-generation networks are live in parts of the US and other countries around the globe, but they're not perfect. Coverage has been spotty, and it turns out that some varieties of 5G aren't actually that much faster than 4G. The few devices available last year were expensive, were tied to specific carriers and couldn't access all types of 5G. If you bought one of the 5G phones available in 2019, it won't be able to tap into the newer, broader 5G networks that AT&T and T-Mobile turned on late that year.

But 2020 should be the year 5G really takes off. The US carriers have aggressive plans to expand their networks, and each should offer more than a dozen 5G phones this year. (AT&T and T-Mobile both told CNET in December that they'll each offer at least 15 5G phones in 2020). Essentially every phone maker in the world will have a 5G phone this year, including Apple

Now that all of Samsung's flagship devices have 5G, the market should get an immediate boost. Already, the company offers more 5G models than basically every other mobile vendor. While analyst firms differ on which company shipped the most 5G phones (some say Samsung, while others say Huawei), Samsung offers more 5G models than its rivals. That ranges from midrange devices like the 749 euro ($827) Galaxy A90 to the $1,299 Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G

Last year, 5G phones made up 1% of the total market, according to Counterpoint Research. In 2020, the percentage should jump to 18%, Samsung said. The South Korean electronics giant shipped more than 6.7 million Galaxy 5G phones from May through December 2019, it said last month. 

"We feel like this is the year that 5G is going to go mainstream," Suzanne de Silva, head of product management and marketing for Samsung Electronics America, said at a press briefing ahead of the Galaxy S20 launch. "5G is going to give consumers a reason to upgrade."

The good news

There are pluses and minuses to gaining 5G by default in Samsung's newest phones.

The good news: The new crop of 5G phones don't have limitations faced by the earlier versions. One device can work on the networks of multiple carriers, and you'll even be able to buy unlocked 5G phones. (Last year, each 5G phone was tied to a specific carrier. If you bought a Verizon phone, for instance, it would only work on Verizon.)

The new devices can tap into both variations of 5G -- the ultra-fast but finicky millimeter wave and the slower but steadier low-band spectrum -- and they all sport Qualcomm's newest X55 modem, which connects to everything from 2G to all variants of 5G. That modem is what will allow you to move one device between carriers and have better battery life than older 5G phones. 

"You're going to have a lot of flexibility with these devices," Caleb Slavin, Samsung Electronics America senior manager of product management, said ahead of the Galaxy S20 launch. 

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The Galaxy Z Flip is Samsung's only new phone without 5G. 

Angela Lang/CNET

Ultimately, buying a 5G Samsung phone now -- even if you don't have a 5G network nearby -- means you're future-proofing your phone. By the time 5G is live in your area, you'll be ready for it with a 5G device that can immediately connect to the network. The odds are high that it will happen within the next year or two. AT&T and T-Mobile, for instance, both plan to have nationwide coverage this year with both low-band spectrum and mmWave. 

And we're holding onto our devices longer than ever before, making it more vital to buy a phone that's still useful in two or three years. Last year, people upgraded their Galaxy phones, on average, every 26.6 months, Samsung said. In 2016, the upgrade time frame was 22.2 months, the company said.

"If you look at replacement rates across the globe, it's like once every three years in the United States and once every four years in some other markets," Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon said in an interview ahead of Samsung's event. "Within the lifespan of your phone, you're going to get 5G coverage."

And the bad

Now for the bad news: the price. Because 5G is still so new, it commands a premium in smartphones. Samsung's Galaxy S20 devices start at $999, while last year's 4G-only Galaxy S10 models began at $749. The Galaxy S20 even costs more than the Note 10, which has typically been positioned as Samsung's highest-end device. Samsung has also improved the cameras and boosted other features in the S20, but it's likely that a big reason for the increase is the 5G modem. 

The Galaxy S20 starts at $999, the S20 Plus retails for $1,199 and the S20 Ultra begins at $1,399. By comparison, the prices of last year's models were $749 for the Galaxy S10E, $899 for the regular S10 and $999 for the Galaxy S10 Plus. If you wanted 5G, you had to pay $1,299 for the Galaxy S10 5G, or $400 more than for the regular Galaxy S10. The Note 10, when it hit the market in August, started at $950. The Plus version began at $1,099, and a 5G version of that device cost $1,300

While you'll be able to get a Galaxy S20 5G phone for less than last year's 5G models, you're still going to pay a premium for the technology. Samsung last year dropped the starting price of its Galaxy S devices after it found consumers just weren't buying many models that cost more than $1,000

Samsung is keeping the Galaxy S10 lineup around after the launch of the S20 and is dropping the price on all three models by $150. The S10E will cost as little as $599. If you're looking for an inexpensive 4G-only phone, you can now find an attractive deal. Samsung also introduced new, cheaper "Lite" versions of its S10 and Note 10 in January.

But when it comes to 5G, Samsung could face tough competition over pricing. Companies like Nokia phone maker HMD plan to introduce 5G phones that are about half the price of last year's 5G phones, placing them in the $500 to $700 range. "Many consumers cannot afford or are not willing to pay $1,000-plus for the device," HMD Chief Product Officer Juho Sarvikas told CNET in December

Qualcomm's Amon, meanwhile, said that same month that some Chinese companies are aiming to launch 5G phones with his company's Snapdragon 765 processor that cost around 2,000 yuan (about $284).

That would make Samsung's $999 phones look pretty pricey. At least you can use them for several years. 

Because Samsung's devices can tap into all variations of 5G, "these are the first true 5G phones," Technalysis Research analyst Bob O'Donnell said. "They cover everything, which is what people have been waiting for."