AT&T iPhone Gets New 4G Icon, but Speed Hasn’t Actually Increased

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Jared Newman / TIME.com

Trouble in Nerdville! Thanks to Apple’s most recent software update, some AT&T iPhone 4S owners are now noticing new “4G” icons where the “3G” icons on their handsets once lived. So does that mean the iPhone 4S has a 4G connection now?

4S4GNo.

And “no” in two ways. Either it doesn’t have a 4G connection at all or it doesn’t have a 4G connection now, since it’s always had one.

There’s some marketing at play here but whatever the case, your phone’s connection speed is no faster today than it was last week.

AT&T has touted the iPhone 4S as a 4G-capable phone since it first went on sale (notice the “4G” icon in the image on the right), but only with Apple’s most recent software update has AT&T been able to display a 4G icon next to the phone’s connection status.

The Verge’s Nilay Patel refers to this as “a triumph of marketing,” and laces his post with various tweets from people saying things like “I have 4G on my iPhone now?! #hellyeah”. That type of consumer confusion is really the biggest problem here.

Says Patel:

Owners of the [AT&T] iPhone will notice no difference in performance or data transfer speeds; the device will not magically connect to AT&T’s shiny new 4G LTE network. It will simply receive a deceptive labeling change that allows AT&T to market the iPhone as a 4G device against competitive phones from Verizon — including, perhaps most importantly, Verizon’s own 3G iPhone 4S. It is a triumph of marketing for AT&T, and a rare acquiescence to a poor and confusing user experience for Apple.

AT&T’s spokesperson responded that the use of the 4G icon is “essentially the same as many other current AT&T smartphones,” which is true. The issue is that the definition of a “4G” cellular connection has basically become “anything that’s faster than 3G” here in the U.S.

We actually fielded this question when the iPhone 4S first came out: Is the iPhone 4S a 4G phone on AT&T and a 3G phone on Verizon? Here’s a snippet of the answer:

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 4Gas 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…

…So, short answer (too late), under optimal conditions the iPhone 4S on AT&T is theoretically faster at downloading and uploading data than the Verizon (and Sprint) versions. But as far as the world standards for 4G networks—as set by the International Telecommunications Union—go, none of the networks in the U.S. qualify as delivering actual 4G speeds.

*Sigh* – it’s complicated, right? The basic thing, though, is that the new 4G icon on your AT&T iPhone 4S hasn’t actually done anything different to your phone. It’s been offered as a “4G” phone at AT&T since day one due to how AT&T and T-Mobile define their HSPA+ networks.

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

10 comments
JohnThompson
JohnThompson

At&t is not a true 4G service.As far as The I phone goes yes it is the oly faster phone than Verizon. Verizon Wireless is the only advanced and largest True 4G network in the united states. At&t is a Fast 3 G phone service. All though they claim to be the largest or larger than Verizon Wireless not true if you are talking true 4 G. AT&T also has all most a third of it's calls drop or does not connect in 36 of the fifty states they are in let alone the count these small towns as apart of saying they are the largest 4G net work. I believe you are supposed to be in a major city also including rural areas as well as one of a large city to claim to be considered as a network countable. Best phones and only true 4G in United States is Verizon Wireless. Don't be hood winked by the commercial with kids who do not even have a clue as to what it is about they are talking about

albertcuesta
albertcuesta

@josejacas Vale, luego te enseño la conexión con Verizon.

josejacas
josejacas

@albertcuesta yo no he hablado de Verizon, he hablado de AT&T. Ese icono de 4G es falso, sigue siendo HSPA+.

albertcuesta
albertcuesta

@josejacas ¿He dicho yo algo de AT&T en mi tuit? Era genérico, por dios.

josejacas
josejacas

@albertcuesta no pretendia serlo. Disculpa aceptada :)

albertcuesta
albertcuesta

@josejacas Eso es cierto. Disculpa el tono. He dormido poco y estoy muy harto de trolls. Y no digo que tú lo seas.

josejacas
josejacas

@albertcuesta un “lo sé” habría bastado, no hacia falta el tono con el que me has contestado.

josejacas
josejacas

@albertcuesta has puesto una screenshot de AT&T diciendo que tenias 4G. Eso no es 4G real y te lo he comentado de forma casual.