Doubtless you’ve heard the terms 3G and 4G thrown around a lot in the past couple of years. They’re clearly two of the most important buzz-terms for carriers and handset manufacturers these days—and yet no one seems to know exactly what they mean. We don’t blame you for feeling confused: high speed data isn’t just inherently complicated, its meaning is deliberately obscured by carriers and phone-makers. Why? Well, in a way, it’s not unlike the old cliché of the crooked car salesman: if no one knows exactly what a Double Premium Laser-guided Rust-Proofing is, then they’re more likely to be convinced not only that they need it, but that it’s the best and most new-fangled thing of its kind.
So, is 4G just an empty term, a scam designed to get you behind the wheel of that pricey new Android phone? Not exactly. Both 3G and 4G (but most especially 4G) are umbrella terms, encompassing a wide range of technologies. With 3G, you could be reasonably confident you knew what you were getting into with a particular data plan, but 4G can be downright obscure.
First, the basics: the ‘G’ in both 3G and 4G stands for ‘generation’—not, as the uninformed consumer might guess, for some ambiguous unit of data. Before 3G was, of course, 2G, the cellular service you likely received on that hot-pink Motorola RAZR you keep in the back of a drawer and would rather not mention, and before that, 1G, found on the first analog cellular devices.
The 3G designation encompasses a few networks, including: W-CDMA (the original, and most widespread 3G network), EVDO-Rev. A, EDGE (a variant of the 2G GSM network, rarely branded as 3G), and HSPA+ (the newest and theoretically fastest variant). How is it that all of those different networks get described as 3G? Well, according to the International Telecommunications Union (or ITU), those networks all fall within the relatively narrow criteria that designates 3G—basically, a range of speeds. Makes sense, right? Well, not exactly. There are in fact a range of criteria set out by the ITU to designate the differences in the wireless generations, but only a few them are actually taken seriously.
What is 4G, really?
The one and only network that is more or less universally accepted to be true 4G is LTE, or Long Term Evolution. That name should give you a hint as to the already ambiguous nature of the designation; LTE remains in its early stages, coverage is spotty, and the technology, both in your phone and in the cell tower, isn’t really ‘done’ yet. That said, LTE is theoretically capable of extremely high speeds, and offers some concrete advantages over 3G networks.
Most importantly, LTE employs two different network interfaces: one for the download of information, and one for upload. Without delving too deep into tech jargon, that means, basically, that LTE is more efficient than the 3G networks, and has the potential to drain less energy from an enabled device (the key word there is potential, but we’ll get back to that idea in a minute).
At this point, there are no phones available that are exclusively 4G-enabled. That’s because a) 4G networks are not available across the US on any carrier; and b) a variety of standard services—text messaging and calling, for example—are not yet supported over 4G. That means that every time you send a message on a 4G phone, it has to switch radios.
There’s been a fair amount of debate—between carriers, mostly—over the designation of 4G, and for good reason. Consider, for example, this convoluted spat between AT&T and its competitors: When Apple released its most recent iPhone operating system, iPhone 4S models on the AT&T network began showing 4G on their service bars. Those who own iPhones, or have considered owning iPhones, likely know quite well that that famous handset only supports 3G networks—a ‘fact’ that may have discouraged (or nearly discouraged) a fair number of you from buying the iPhone in the first place. Is the 4G indicator a glitch, then? Nope. In the period between iOS version releases, AT&T found a loophole of sorts in network terminology. According to the ITU, the carrier’s HSPA+ network just barely qualified as 4G, or at least a competitor to 4G. For the marketing folks at AT&T, it was a no-brainer: their 3G network was now, in the eyes of the powers at be, worthy of the prized 4G label.
All this might lead you to believe that 3G and 4G are indeed completely devoid of meaning. Which isn’t quite true. AT&T’s 3G network was successfully rebranded as 4G because of the speeds it’s theoretically capable of—that is, because it has the potential to one day be extremely fast (a staggering 168 Mbits per second—almost unfathomably fast). That’s actually a hair higher than the speeds that LTE is theoretically capable of. But right now, HSPA+ is decidedly slower than LTE, always. Sure, the difference between the best 3G network and LTE isn’t particularly great, but it is real.
How Can I Make an Informed Purchase Amidst All This Confusion?
The one more-or-less safe rule to follow when considering data speeds is that within a carrier the difference between 3G and 4G is indeed real. Even when a carrier has rebranded 3G coverage as 4G, you can rest assured that whatever they’re still calling 3G will be slower. Of course, LTE remains the fastest radio band available, and handsets capable of LTE coverage (as opposed to 4G) are typically advertised as such.
But LTE has one serious drawback: it drains battery-life. The problem isn’t with LTE itself—as we mentioned above, it’s theoretically the most efficient form of data transmission—but with the fact that a phone can never be solely LTE-equipped. Depending on where you live, your phone may almost never receive LTE coverage. But even if you do live in a location with strong LTE signal, your phone will still regularly switch back and forth between 3G and 4G, or, in certain cases, run both simultaneously. Either way, battery will take a serious hit. Depending on the user’s habits, many LTE phones won’t make it through the day on a single charge—a fact that most manufacturers don’t exactly make plain to potential customers.
When deciding on a handset, a host of considerations should come into play, many of them related to your own habits—the way you work, the way you keep in touch with others, and the way you consume media. For those who like to stream video and fly through web pages on-the-go, LTE can pose serious advantages. For those who simply want a convenient way to check email, get directions, and visit YouTube occasionally, it’s less clear cut. With an LTE phone, you may find your battery dead when you need, at no benefit to you. The take-away here: Consider phones individually. Don't fall for the buzz-words of the moment. There are plenty of great phones out there, and the formula for greatness isn't as clear cut as some would have you think.