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

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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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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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I’d submit that if you’re looking for a smartphone and you don’t care about streaming video or sharing its connection with a computer, a 3G device will probably work just fine for you. The technology is well-supported and battery life tends to be longer, given that 4G devices continually search for 4G towers unless you turn the 4G connection off (4G phones fall back to 3G networks if they can’t find a 4G signal).

Battery life in 4G devices is constantly being improved, though, so it may not be too much of an issue for long. And, again, if you want to future-proof yourself, LTE is where everything’s heading here in the U.S., at least as far as your next two-year contract is concerned.

Is the AT&T iPhone 4S a 4G phone?

As for the new iPhone, your friend is right in the sense that AT&T (and T-Mobile, for that matter) considers devices using the HSPA+ protocol to be 4G devices—as such, the iPhone 4S is listed as a 4G device on AT&T’s website. The Verizon iPhone 4S uses a 3G network, which Verizon rates as having average download speeds between 0.6 Mbps and 1.4 Mbps.

Keeping in mind that companies are underestimating average speeds, take a gander at something like Gizmodo’s nationwide iPhone 4S speed test, for instance. You’ll notice that the AT&T model pulled in an average download speed of 2,400 Mbps, while the Verizon version managed 1,854 Mbps. That’s a difference, to be sure, but it’s not a huge difference.

But note that if you take a look at the three speed tests run by Gotta Be Mobile (here, here and here), you’ll notice the AT&T iPhone 4S’ upload speeds are generally two to three times faster than the Verizon version’s upload speeds. Upload speed is important, too, since you’re basically uploading data every time you request a website to load up on your phone.

(MORE: Ask Techland: How Can I Clear Up Space in Gmail?)

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.

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