When deciding between a 3G or 4G smartphone consider coverage limitations, battery life and download speeds of different carriers.
With all the hype around the advent of 4G, I thought it might be a good idea to look at the real differences between 3G and 4G devices, how they interface with 3G and 4G Wireless Networks, and offer some insights that might help you sort out what you actually need right now. Speed vs. Service … let's consider the following:
For the record it is April 15, 2011 — This is information is time sensitive. According to Tony Malone, Verizon's VP Network Ops, Verizon plans to cover 100 million Americans in 25 to 30 metro areas with 4G LTE by the end of 2011. It will double that coverage by early 2012 and completely cover the US by the end of 2013. Interestingly, due to its 700-MHz license, Verizon's 4G LTE Network will cover a greater portion of the US than its 3G Network covered.
3G is a defined standard. Verizon's EVDO (Evolution Data Optimized) Rev A provides speeds of 600Kbps-1,400Kbps Download (bursts to 3.1Mbps), 500Kbps-800Kbps Upload (bursts to 1.8Mbps) — Is that too geeky? Sorry — at its best, 3G is comparable to low-end home DSL service. I live in New York City where there is good 3G and 4G coverage. I just ran some broadband speed tests on my 3G Verizon iPhone 4. In three consecutive tests it averaged 500 Kbps down and 300 Kbps up — well below the published specification. 500 Kbps is just a little better than I used to get with my AOL dial-up account in 1996. (Geeks: Please do not write me an email or comment about 56k modems being 10x slower than 3G. A 56k modem with compression yielded approx 200Kpbs performance. There was less stuff to download in 1996 and perceived speed with about the same. As a practical matter, in an area with a substantial amount of contention, I have enjoyed 3G download speeds of under 200Kbps and so have you!)
That said, 3G email is fine, Exchange Server runs fine, Calendar runs fine, Contacts sync fine, Google is snappy, apps run great, YouTube buffers a bit, and the web is clunky, but serviceable. 3G speed is what we have become accustomed to in our modern-American mobile world.
4G, which stands for 4th Generation wireless network technology, is really a marketing term. It may sound technical, but the truth is that standards organizations, such as the International Telecommunication Union, have not officially defined 4G. Oops!
Not to worry, Verizon has done it for us. From its point of view, LTE (Long Term Evolution) is "the" 4G standard. Verizon says that 4G is six to 10 times faster than 3G. I can't verify that, but again, from my apartment in NYC, I ran broadband speed tests on my Verizon HTC Thunderbolt. In three consecutive tests it averaged 21 Mbps down and 2.5 Mbps up. Trust me, that's fast for a wireless device. In fact, I'd be happy if my Time Warner Road Runner Extreme Cable Modem consistently gave me this kind of performance.
If you are looking for raw wireless speed, 4G from Verizon is as fast as it gets.
But … speed is not everything. And 4G is not everywhere!
Over the past few weeks several awesome 4G devices have hit the market. AT&T introduced its 4G Motorola Atrix. Now AT&T doesn't really have a 4G network. As I said in a previous article, if you read the fine print in AT&T's agreement, it says: "4G speeds require a 4G device and are delivered when HSPA+ technology is combined with enhanced backhaul. 4G speeds available in limited areas with availability increasing with ongoing backhaul deployment." As of this writing that means AT&T 4G is only available at full speed in Northern CA, Greater LA, Greater Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Charlotte NC, Baltimore, Buffalo, Boston, Providence RI and, Puerto Rico. If you are not in one of these areas, AT&T 4G is 3G.
This will change over time. AT&T also plans to cover the US with its 4G Network. But, for now, what this really means is that the 4G Atrix will fallback to a 3G when it can't find a 4G signal. And, as you can see from reading the previous paragraph, that's pretty much everywhere in the USA. This is also true with the Verizon HTC Thunderbolt and its new Samsung 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot SCH-LC11 and every other device on the market that calls itself 4G.
Now, as Verizon's VP Network Ops said, Verizon has about 1/3 of the USA covered with LTE and plans to have about 2/3's covered by early 2012 and most of the USA covered by the end of 2013. That's just about the time your new 2-year contract is going to end. Hummm … seems like most people really won't have 4G coverage for a while.
Just how many batteries do you need for 4G?
Sorry to bury the lead, but 4G may not be for you. Why? Battery life. 4G devices look for 4G networks. When they can't find a 4G network, they fallback to 3G. However, unless you turn off the 4G radio, the devices keep searching for 4G signals. This absolutely eats batteries. Sadly, some devices don't even let you turn off the 4G feature, but even those that do, require you to constantly know where you are and be conscious of the status of your network and your equipment. Yuck!
So, if you are used to popping in an extended battery and doing your 3G business all day long, you are going to need two extended batteries or four regular batteries in our current 3G/4G hybrid world. Do you really want to charge one to three extra batteries every day? Do you want to buy the extra equipment to do that? Do you want to spend the money on the batteries?
If you need the speed, and you know where you are, and you are geeky enough to always be conscious of whether your background data, 4G radio and WiFi radio are on or off, then a 4G device may be for you.
However, if you are a normal person who travels for business and is not used to constantly monitoring battery life and tweeking your device to extend it, you might want to rethink 4G.
Should you avoid 4G devices? No. Most of the 4G devices available today not only have access to the much faster 4G wireless networks, the devices themselves are significantly more powerful than their 3G counterparts. This makes the entire 4G mobile computing experience much, much more productive and enjoyable.
Should you cancel your 3G contract and rush to get a 4G device? No, unless you have a specific reason to do so. And, if you have a reason, you are not reading this article.
If your contract is up between now and the end of 2011, don't be afraid to purchase a 3G device instead of a 4G device — you won't absolutely need a 4G device until late 2012 and, remember — the carriers will support 3G for at least 10 more years.
Do I love my 4G smartphones? Yes, I strongly love them. Note the plural. I have not yet spent a day without four battery changes on my primary phone. (A Verizon HTC Thunderbolt). Just for a point of comparison, I had a extended battery on my Verizon 3G BlackBerry Bold 9650 which never needed charging on any business day during its service life. I don't miss it, but I do miss the battery life.
About the Author: Shelly Palmer is the host of "Digital Life with Shelly Palmer," a weekly half-hour television show about living and working in a digital world which can be seen on WNBC-TV's NY Nonstop Tuesdays at 10p Eastern and online, and the host of "MediaBytes," a daily news show that features insightful commentary and a unique insiders take on the biggest stories in technology, media, and entertainment. He is Managing Director of Advanced Media Ventures Group, LLC an industry-leading advisory and business development firm and the President of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, NY (the organization that bestows the coveted Emmy® Awards). Mr. Palmer is the author of Television Disrupted: The Transition from Network to Networked TV (2008, York House Press) and the upcoming, Get Digital: Reinventing Yourself and Your Career for the 21st Century Economy (2009, Lake House Press). You can join the MediaBytes mailing list here. Shelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org For information visit www.shellypalmer.com