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Our week with Samsung's 4G-enabled Galaxy Note 2 LTE

Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave for the past few days, you’ll know that EE launched the UK’s first 4G network last week. But does having a 4G equipped smartphone in your pocket really make that much difference? Are you really going to be doing that much more than you would with a 3G handset? After a week with a Samsung Galaxy Note 2 LTE in my pocket, I can confirm that the answer to both those questions is yes.

I’m not going to talk about what the Galaxy Note 2 is like, if you want to lowdown on this handset read Stuart’s full Galaxy Note 2 review. However, I will say that I’m something of a convert. Anyone who knows me will have heard me moan about how big the Note 2 is, and how I’d never want a device that large in my pocket, but having spent a week with a Note 2, I’m starting to see the attraction.

I do, however, think that my newfound fondness of the Note 2 has much to do with the fact that this one is hooked up to EE’s new 4G network, which does make this handset a supremely versatile device. When you can flawlessly stream HD video, or download the latest HD games to a handset with a screen this big and bright, the Note 2 and 4G starts to look like a marriage made in heaven.

The strange thing is that I’m not really a heavy mobile data user. Yes, I’ve been moaning that EE isn’t offering unlimited data packages, but a recent check of my data usage showed that I’d only downloaded 1GB in the past three months! The reason for this is that my phone is on Wi-Fi whenever I’m at work or at home, meaning that I’m only actually consuming mobile data while commuting, or when out and about at the weekends.

So, according to my own recent history, even EE’s entry level tariff should be enough for me right? Wrong. You see, what this past week has proved to me is that if I had access to the kind of data speeds that EE’s 4G network is offering, I’d be using far more mobile data than I am now. While I don’t feel compelled to try and stream HD video on my 3G handset, I found myself doing it all the time on the Galaxy Note 2 LTE. I accept that part of that is down to the novelty of very fast mobile data, but I can’t help but feel that because the streaming experience is so good over 4G, I’d want to enjoy it whenever and wherever possible.

Throughout the week I was getting between 12mbps and 18mbps both down and up, dependant mainly on time of day. That’s not quite as fast as the speeds I was getting from the Huawei 4G Mobile Wi-Fi unit, but it’s still faster than a great many UK residents get from their home broadband services. And having that complete freedom to do pretty much anything online, without the need to find a Wi-Fi hotspot is indescribably liberating. No longer will you put things off until you get home, you’ll just fire up those big downloads and chuckle to yourself as the speed ramps up. Well, that’s the theory at least.

You see even if I take the capped data plans out of the equation, there’s another small but significant stumbling block for 4G early adopters – coverage. To be fair to EE, it hasn’t made any wild promises about coverage. It claimed 11 UK cities at launch with a handful more by the end of the year. It comes as no surprise that the service will be rolled out in the most densely populated areas at first, before spreading across the rest of the country. But that brings with it a certain sense of irony. Most of the time when I’m in London, I’m in the office, where my phone is connected to Wi-Fi, and let’s face it, there’s no shortage of Wi-Fi hotspots in London either.

Over the past week I found that when I really wanted 4G connectivity I couldn’t have it – specifically, on my commute home. As my train pulled out of Waterloo, I watched the Note 2 switch from 4G, to HSPA+, to 3G and occasionally to no data coverage at all. So any thoughts of whiling away my journey streaming YouTube or Netflix were quickly dispelled.

This issue isn’t really a criticism of EE, as much as a celebration of the fast data speeds the company has brought to the table. If I wasn’t aware of just how good an 18mbps data speed is on a mobile handset, I wouldn’t be so disappointed about not maintaining that speed on my journey to and from work.

The past week has shown me that I most definitely want a 4G phone in my pocket, and if I had one I’d be consuming far more data than I am now. But it also showed me that wider coverage is key to getting the most from a high-speed data service, especially if you’re a daily commuter.

Riyad has been entrenched in technology publishing for more years than he cares to remember, having staffed and edited some of the largest and most successful IT magazines in the UK. In 2003 he joined forces with Hugh Chappell to create They built TR into the UK’s market leading technology publication before selling the title to IPC Media / Time Warner in 2007. As Editorial Director at Net Communities, Riyad will be helping to develop the publishing portfolio, making IT Pro Portal the best publication it can be.