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

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Fifteen megabits are equal to 1.875 megabytes, and let’s say the average downloaded song is around 3.75 megabytes: You should be able to download a standard song in about two seconds under perfect conditions using your home internet connection.

Now, back to phones. Here are the average 4G speeds promised by the various carriers, along with their respective coverage maps—after all, 4G’s no good to you if it’s not available in your area:

Sprint 4G: 3-6 Mbps | Coverage Map

T-Mobile 4G (HSPA+): 8 Mbps (average) | Coverage Map

Verizon 4G (LTE): 5-12 Mbps | Coverage Map

AT&T 4G (HSPA+): “Up to 4X faster” than 3G | Coverage Map

AT&T 4G (LTE): “Up to 10X faster” than 3G | Coverage Map

So going purely by the numbers promised by the carriers themselves, we see that Sprint pulls up the rear, then T-Mobile, then Verizon’s LTE network takes the top spot. That’s on paper, at least. AT&T doesn’t divulge actual numbers but its HSPA+ speeds *should* be similar to T-Mobile’s and its LTE speeds *should* be similar to Verizon’s.

I can tell you from experience (at least in Boston, where I live) that these carriers are actually wildly underestimating their speeds, which is refreshing in a way. I’ve used 4G Sprint phones that have cleared 10 Mbps, and I’ve cleared 20 Mbps with T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon handsets. One time I was testing a Verizon hotspot on my computer and I had to double-check that I’d disconnected my 30-Mbps Comcast modem—that’s how fast it was.

(MORE: Verizon 4G: Fast But Expensive)

The thing to remember is that on a mobile phone, most websites switch over to mobile-optimized versions anyway, so the difference in load times between a 3G and a 4G network doesn’t really do 4G justice. But you’ll see a big difference when using video streaming apps like Netflix, and you’ll see a huge difference when sharing a 4G phone’s connection with an actual computer.

Which 4G network is the best? That depends on where you live, and each carrier can pepper you with reasons why the other guys’ networks aren’t up to par, but the simple answer is that they’re all pretty good.

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