What to Expect From 5G Phones—and When

The early ones will be expensive, and they may not change the mobile experience. So, should you wait to buy one?

In the coming months, you will be able to buy your first smartphone compatible with faster 5G networks. It will likely come loaded with features like a large screen and souped-up camera.

“Even if you have a 5G phone this year, your chance of actually accessing a 5G network is probably fairly low,” says Mark Hung, an analyst at research firm Gartner Inc.

To understand why, consider that there are two ways to provide 5G coverage—and the phone you choose may not be designed to handle both.

One method delivers 5G signals on the high-frequency end of the spectrum. The upside is extremely high speeds—fast enough, it is often said, to download whole seasons of a TV show in minutes. The downside is that these signals don’t go through walls or other obstructions very well. The other method of delivering coverage—using the lower end of the spectrum—means that signals travel better, but speeds aren’t as fast.

Most carriers will eventually use both methods of delivery, but at this point not all 5G phones will be able to access both—so choosing a phone means deciding which technical trade-off you want to make. (That said, 5G phones will work with existing networks, such as 4G LTE, so you won’t get stuck if there isn’t compatible 5G coverage nearby.)

One big unknown, even among devices that have been unveiled: how long their batteries will last. That may impact their appeal at first, although battery life may improve in subsequent generations as it has for prior models of smartphones.

Batteries Are Taking Over the World

For all the “gigafactory” hype, Tesla doesn’t make batteries: Cell production is the responsibility of its Japanese partner Panasonic. The other leaders in the field are LG Chem and Samsung SDI ,both listed subsidiaries of the namesake Korean conglomerates, which supply the electric-vehicle projects of Nissan, General Motors and BMW , among others.

.. Hot on the Koreans’ heels are two Chinese companies determined to supply the ballooning Chinese electric-vehicle market: BYD, 25% owned by Berkshire Hathaway and also an electric-car maker, and CATL, which is planning a $2 billion initial public offering in Shenzhen in the coming months.

.. These five companies and a few newcomers—among whom car makers are conspicuously absent—currently intend to build 24 factories with a total capacity of 332 GWh by 2021

.. Investors looking to benefit from this gold rush need to take a very long-term view. The capital requirements are vast, and the contracts being signed are at wafer-thin margins. Sam Jaffe, managing director of battery researcher Cairn ERA, says the companies are taking “the traditional Asian conglomerate approach” of prioritizing market share over profits.

.. And manufacturers are under intense pressure from environmental regulators to sell electric cars even though their cost is uncompetitive. The only solution for car makers will be to pile pressure on battery prices. Big new factories will enable suppliers to cut unit costs, but profits could get lost in the squeeze.

.. Investors may be better off looking further up the supply chain. The most valuable component of a battery is its cathode

.. The risk for these companies is that a radically new technology makes existing investments obsolete.

.. John Goodenough, a now 95-year-old professor at the University of Texas considered a founding father of the lithium-ion battery, this year claimed a breakthrough with “solid-state” cells, which sideline various problems by replacing a flammable liquid electrolyte with a hard layer. Toyota expects to sell cars with solid-state batteries by the early 2020s; British engineering firm Dyson has penciled in a 2020 launch date for a solid-state car.

Want a Car That Goes Crazy Fast? Go Electric

With luxury auto makers—from Porsche to Aston Martin—poised to release electric sports cars that upend earnest eco-clichés, going green will soon entail going startlingly fast

“What is often forgotten is the current drive to EVs was initiated by Nissan, Mitsubishi [the i-MiEV] and Tesla,” said Aston Martin CEO Andy Palmer, who championed the Leaf program when he was a vice president of Nissan. “Without all three and VW’s Dieselgate, we would not be seeing this revolution.”

But having been more or less obliged to build such cars, auto makers still face the challenge of making them desirable and status-bearing. It’s comforting somehow that this part of the auto industry, at least, has not changed: You have to sell the sizzle with the steak.

.. With its 800-volt charging technology, the Mission E is targeting more than 300 miles of range and a 15-minute quick-charge good for 250 miles. Also: 600 hp, all-wheel drive, and 0-60 mph in 3.5 seconds, if that does anything for you.

.. If you are wondering how eco-weenie mobiles got so mega, the simple answer is bigger, badder batteries and the systems that manage, support and cool them. The average specific-energy and power density of lithium-ion batteries has been rising steadily for the past decade. As they do, they allow more energy to be put in the bottle (to go farther) and widen the bottle’s mouth so more energy comes out at once (to go faster).

.. By virtue of a comparatively lower center of gravity, EVs tend to corner flatter and harder without body roll. EVs also put torque to the ground more efficiently. Unlike conventional traction-control systems, an e-motor’s twist can be modulated hundreds of times a second, exploiting all available adhesion between tire and surface without spinning.

.. For driving enthusiasts there is also a little game-changer ahead called independent torque vectoring. By virtue of their compactness, EV motors can be arrayed at all four wheels, allowing each to work independently and cooperatively, speeding up or slowing down to help the car in extreme maneuvering. As the driver heads for a corner, the inside front wheel slows, or even drags, the outside tire pushes harder, the rear wheels do the same, and the directional power actually bends the car’s path through the turn.

.. “I would contest that with or without legislation, we would be investing in EVs,” said Mr. Palmer of Aston Martin. The design opportunity “has got both our engineers and designers excited.”

.. But is faster always better? “The power of an EV powertrain is not in question,” said Mr. Palmer. “The biggest step change is how it feels for the driver (and passengers) versus an internal combustion engine. Although we as a brand are loved for the sound of our engines, we don’t see any issue with the sound of silence.”

..  2018 Audi e-tron Quattro, a mid-size SUV with a 95-kWh battery, nominal range of 310 miles, and 0-60 mph in 4.6 seconds. Porsche has indicated it too will offer an EV crossover, Macan-sized, on the VW Group’s new dedicated architecture.