Ask Techland: What’s the Deal with 4G? Is the New iPhone 4G?

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Have a technology question you’d like answered? Send it to tips@techland.com and we’ll do our best to answer it.

The Question:

What’s the deal with 4G? It’s different from each company, right? My friend said the new iPhone is 4G on AT&T but not on Verizon. Is that true?

Techland Responds:

Yeah, 4G is kind of a mess right now. Everyone’s being told they need it but nobody’s being told what it really does, except that it’s faster.

For starters, a 4G phone doesn’t perform any faster than a 3G phone as far as its innards are concerned. The only place it’s “faster” is when accessing wireless data. Other than that, if you put two identical phones next to each other, one with a 4G chip and one with a 3G chip, the interface and apps would be equally smooth on both phones.

As far as smartphones go, here’s a basic overview of the various connection options in order from slowest to fastest:

3G < WiMAX (Sprint) < HSPA+ (AT&T/T-Mobile) < 4G LTE (Verizon/AT&T)

For simplicity’s sake, we’ll consider 4G speeds to be anything other than 3G even though the post-3G technology is sometimes referred to as 3.5G. And 4G in the U.S. isn’t true 4G as far as worldwide standards go, but the masters of marketing at Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile have squeezed the 4G toothpaste out of the tube by referring to 4G in the sense that the devices use “fourth-generation” networks here, so let’s just go with it.

The four major carriers use different flavors of 4G, which is where a lot of the confusion comes from. In their defense, any “4G” device can theoretically pull in wireless data a lot faster than 3G devices, regardless of the flavor. Sprint uses “WiMAX”, T-Mobile uses “HSPA+”, Verizon uses “LTE” and AT&T uses both HSPA+ and LTE, depending on the device. LTE is the next big thing, so if you’re really concerned about speed and you want to future-proof yourself, look for an LTE smartphone.

(MORE: Ask Techland: Best iPhone Plans by Carrier)

So let’s use your home internet connection to set the speed bar. If you’ve got a basic package from, say, Comcast or Time Warner, your maximum internet speed is probably around 15 Mbps (megabits per second) meaning, that, under perfect conditions, it’ll take you one second to download 15 megabits of information to your computer—not to be confused with megabytes (*sigh* this is getting really nerdy).

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