Ask Techland: If the iPhone 5 Is 4G, Why Is Talk Time Rated as 3G?

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Question:

I’m confused about talk times on the new iPhone. Will it use the 4G network for voice or just data? The specs show 3G talk times for battery life. I thought 3G was going away.

Doug Answers:

This is a great, straightforward question with a complicated, technical answer.

The short version is that the iPhone 5 does indeed use 3G voice channels for voice calls and 4G channels for data, mostly because 4G voice channels aren’t quite ready to go yet here in the U.S.

The long version has been explained in great detail at AnandTech.com, the very-excellent and in-depth hardware site. The explanation is actually an off-shoot of another question that came about shortly after the iPhone 5 announcement: Why doesn’t the iPhone 5 support simultaneous voice and data on Verizon or Sprint? That’s long been a selling point for AT&T — which supports simultaneous iPhone voice and data – that hasn’t been overcome by Sprint or Verizon yet.

Apple‘s Natalie Kerris told the New York Times that it wasn’t possible to stuff the ability to handle concurrent CDMA (the technology used by Verizon and Sprint) voice calls and LTE data onto a single chip. Apple would have had to add an extra antenna to the Verizon and Sprint versions of the iPhone 5. The Times‘ Brian X. Chen sums it up nicely: “Leaving that third antenna out allows Apple to simplify the process of manufacturing the iPhone for multiple carriers. Plus, in the next two years, 4G LTE technology is supposed to evolve to support voice calls, which would render another antenna unnecessary.”

That last bit is important. Basically, 4G LTE voice capabilities are on the way but it’ll take some time for widespread adoption to occur. Given that Apple waited this long to roll out an iPhone that harnesses a 4G LTE data connection, it’s almost certain that the company is going to wait for 4G LTE technology to evolve even more before it adds newer voice capabilities.

The downside, for now, is that the new iPhone won’t do “HD Voice”-type calls like some other smartphones (see Sascha Segan’s PCMag.com article for a good explanation). I experienced HD Voice in Sprint’s new HTC Evo 4G LTE smartphone and it did a great job of filtering out background noise, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a make-or-break feature yet – especially since whomever you’re talking to will also have to have an HD Voice-capable phone. Verizon is rolling out a feature similar to Sprint’s HD Voice known as VoLTE, or “voice over LTE.”

So the upside is that 3G voice still works fine for most people and it’ll continue to be the standard for quite a while. As Segan succinctly notes, “VoLTE is the future, and most global carriers will be going there over the next two years, including Sprint, eventually. It’ll be a carrier requirement, so the iPhone will support it eventually. Look for simultaneous voice and data on Verizon and possibly Sprint in the iPhone 6 or 7.”

MORE: 4G Reality Check: Here’s Where a 4G LTE iPhone Would Actually Matter
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