Google’s newand , introduced at Google’s Tuesday, both seem poised to rival the and the as the best phones of 2021. They boast impressive cameras, fast processors and stylish designs. Where Google appears to differ from its Apple and Samsung rivals, at least on the first day of preorders, is in whether its new phones will work with the latest 5G networks.
The short answer? It’s very complicated, particularly if you’re looking to buy a phone directly from a carrier or unlocked from Google itself, or from a third party like Best Buy. Whereas you can buy a new iPhone 13, put your SIM card in and know that it will be able to use the latest networks from your carrier, the same can’t be said right now about the Pixel 6.
At issue appears to be interpreting a mix of several unclear web pages from the search giant. Google’s main Pixel 6 and 6 Pro tech specs pages all list two different models: one that supports all flavors of 5G — millimeter-wave and “Sub-6” (which is a term that encompasses midband and low-band 5G) — and another that supports Sub-6 networks but not millimeter-wave.
A support page, meanwhile, says that the Pixel 6 will support all flavors of 5G in the US while the 6 Pro will be limited to just the millimeter-wave flavor.
It’s a mess, but here is what we know right now and what you should know if you’re thinking of buying Google’s latest phones.
The Pixel mess
With the Pixel 6, Google appears to be sending mixed messages. Depending on which page and fine print you look at, the device may or may not work with all versions of your carrier’s 5G network.
And there does seem to be a discrepancy, both in the devices and the pricing. Verizon confirmed to CNET that buying a Pixel 6 or 6 Pro directly from Verizon will get you a phone that works on all of its flavors of 5G, millimeter-wave and Sub-6.
There is, however, a premium for the Verizon Pixel 6. When buying directly from Verizon the phone will cost you $700, or roughly $100 more than Google charges for an unlocked Pixel 6 purchased directly from the Google Store. Of course, whether that unlocked Pixel 6 for $100 less will work with Verizon’s millimeter-wave network remains a mystery.
The 6 Pro starts at around $900 from both Google and Verizon.
AT&T tells CNET something similar. When buying directly from AT&T, both the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro will support millimeter-wave and Sub-6 versions of 5G. AT&T’s issue? Its pricing starts at $740 for the Pixel 6 and $940 for the 6 Pro, both higher than what Google charges for unlocked versions. A representative for the carrier did not share a reason why its pricing is more expensive.
Like its rival, AT&T could not confirm if the unlocked models would work with all flavors of its 5G.
T-Mobile, meanwhile, matches Google’s pricing of $599 for the Pixel 6 but its model only supports the midband and low-band versions of 5G, not millimeter-wave. The 6 Pro, which supports all flavors of 5G at the carrier, is similarly priced to what Google charges. It remains unclear what networks an unlocked model could connect to.
Google has not responded to multiple CNET requests for comment.
The different flavors of 5G
As people have been holding onto their phones for longer periods of time, it makes sense that when buying a new device today you will want it to be capable of tapping into the latest 5G networks for the next few years.
US carriers, namely Verizon and AT&T, have been actively deploying millimeter-wave 5G across parts of several dozen cities (plus stadiums, arenas and airports) around the country. Verizon, in particular, has been touting its millimeter-wave network (called “Ultra Wideband”) in its early 5G marketing over the last few years.
T-Mobile has done some millimeter-wave 5G rollouts, but has largely focused on the other Sub-6 forms of 5G.
Millimeter-wave is the fastest version of 5G. It has download speeds that can reach several gigabits per second but it suffers from severely limited coverage, particularly outdoors where it can be limited to just a few select blocks in a city or sections in a stadium. It also struggles to penetrate indoors.
Low-band 5G offers the best coverage and can work fine indoors. but it often has speeds equivalent to a good 4G LTE connection.
Midband 5G, as its name implies, offers a middle ground between the two: significantly faster speeds than 4G LTE while still covering a wider area and working indoors. T-Mobile has been the most active of the US carriers with deploying midband 5G thus far (what it calls Ultra Capacity), and has previously said it plans to cover 200 million people nationwide with this service before the end of 2021.
and have each spent billions of dollars in recent months buying up midband spectrum known as C-band, with both planning to begin deploying the networks starting at the end of this year and into early 2022.
Both carriers have told CNET that the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro should be compatible with their respective C-band networks. T-Mobile didn’t immediately respond when asked if its Pixel phones would support its.
What should you do?
The carrier support for the Pixel 6 is a big problem. Nobody wants to buy a phone, find out it doesn’t work as expected and then have to return it and go through the process again. Unfortunately, right now the only way to know you’re getting a Pixel that works with your carrier is to buy directly from that carrier.
If you’re able to take advantage of a trade-in or upgrade deal this might not be a bad option, particularly at AT&T or Verizon where the deal could offset the price difference between buying from a carrier or buying from Google.
As for buying directly from Google? You may want to hold off until the company clarifies what is going on.