3G vs 4G primer: What are the major differences?

For average consumers, “3G” and “4G” are two of the most mysterious terms in the mobile technology dictionary, but they're relentlessly used to sell phones and tablets. If you're shopping for a new phone, which of the two you should choose isn’t always a clear-cut matter – you shouldn't necessarily always plump for 4G because it’s the higher number and “better”. This primer will help explain which technology is the best to pick.

3G and 4G explained

First things first, the "G" stands for a generation of mobile technology, installed in phones and on cellular networks. Each "G" generally requires you to get a new phone, and for networks to make expensive upgrades. The first two were analogue cell phones (1G) and digital phones (2G). Then it got complicated.

Third-generation mobile networks, or 3G, officially brought “mobile broadband” to the table with minimum consistent Internet speeds of 144Kbps. There are now so many varieties of 3G, though, that a “3G” connection can get you Internet speeds anywhere from 400Kbps to more than ten times that.

New generations usually bring new base technologies, more network capacity for more data per user, and the potential for better voice quality, too.

4G phones are supposed to be even faster, but that's not always the case. There are so many technologies called “4G,” and so many ways to implement them, that the term is almost meaningless. The International Telecommunications Union, a standards body, tried to issue requirements to call a network 4G but they were ignored by carriers, and eventually the ITU backed down. 4G technologies are typically considered to include HSPA+ 21/42, WiMAX, and LTE – although some consider LTE the only true 4G of that lot. Indeed, some people say that none of the above are actually fast enough to qualify as 4G.

There are many different ways to implement LTE, too, so you can't assume all LTE speeds are the same. Carriers with more available radio spectrum for LTE can typically run faster networks than carriers with less spectrum, for instance.

When to go for 4G

Over the course of 2013, 4G LTE has become more commonplace in the UK. EE had a head start over the other carriers, and has now got a well-established LTE network – indeed, it expects to reach a coverage level of 98 per cent of the UK by the end of this year. Both Vodafone and O2 launched their LTE networks at the end of the summer, and they’re aiming to have similar blanket coverage to EE come the end of 2014. Three has just kicked off its LTE network last week, and aims to serve some 1.5 million customers come February 2014. That means 4G is becoming an option for more and more folks.

If you’re in a 4G-covered area, and you like to surf the web and especially stream video, 4G can be heaven. If you connect a laptop to your mobile link, 4G makes a huge difference. In general, anything involving transferring large amounts of data gets a big boost from 4G. Watch out for the data limits on your service plan, though; it's easy to use up a lot of data very quickly with 4G.

If you have a 3G phone and you've been frustrated with slow data, 4G may be the solution. 4G won't solve any dropped call problems, though, as all calls will be made over older networks until carriers switch to voice-over-LTE during the next few years.

Finally, if you want to future-proof yourself, get a 4G phone. 4G coverage is only going to get better, and that's where the carriers are spending most of their money right now. You can assume that all 4G phones also support your carrier's 3G and 2G networks as well.

Should you even consider 3G?

There are a few reasons why you might still settle for a 3G phone. Obviously, if you live in an area that doesn't have 4G coverage, there's no advantage to a 4G phone. In fact, you'll have serious battery life problems if you buy an LTE phone and don't disable 4G LTE, as the radio's search for a non-existent signal will drain your battery quickly.

If your phone is mostly for voice use, you have no need for 4G data. Save your money and save battery life by choosing a device which doesn’t support the high-speed network.

If you're strapped for cash and buying a phone off contract, you may have to settle for 3G to save money. In that case, be sure to get the fastest 3G phone possible – one that supports the highest class of HSPA+ possible: If not 42 or 21, then 14.4.