4G vs 3G: Which do you need?

Ken Perkins | June 9, 2015


If you’ve ever wondered what the difference is between your cell phone carrier’s 4G service and its 3G service, well, EVERYONE has wondered about that. Do you need 4G, or could you get by just fine with 3G?

Unless you’re fairly technical, the whole 4G versus 3G thing can be confusing.

We all get the obvious parts, like G stands for ‘generation,’ so 3G is ‘third generation’ and 4G is ‘fourth generation.’ Fourth generation is newer than third generation, so 4G service is better than 3G, right?

In some ways that is certainly true. But in other ways there is absolutely no difference at all between 3G and 4G service.

Take cell phone conversations, for example. Although this could change in the future, 4G currently does nothing to enhance voice calls for the vast majority of cell phone customers.

The benefits of 4G service over 3G involve data transfer. Carriers tout 4G as much faster at moving data than 3G is. Usually that’s true, but not always.

One of the ambiguities of 4G service is that there are no technical standards that must be met for cell phone service to be considered ‘4G.’ For example, U.S. carriers utilize various technologies and implementations that result in widely varying network speeds, yet the carriers call all of these ‘4G.’

This lack of standards caused Sascha Segan, lead mobile analyst at PC Magazine and a guy highly respected in the industry, to say the term 4G as it’s used today “is almost meaningless.”

Do I need 4G? So is 4G actually a better choice for you than 3G? Like a lot of things in life, it depends.

First, do you have access to a 4G network? While the carriers claim 99 percent of the population is covered by 4G networks, there are huge swaths of the U.S. and Canada that are not covered by 4G service. If you live in or spend a lot of time in an area that lacks 4G service, paying for a 4G phone and data plan may not make sense.

On the other hand, 4G phones are backward compatible. If they can’t detect a 4G signal, they will default to an available 3G network.

How you use your phone or other cellular enabled devices is really the key to answering the 4G versus 3G question. Here are 3 scenarios when you absolutely need 4G.

1. You upload a lot of data If you shoot and upload video from your phone, or large photo files, you need 4G. The upload speed of 4G can be up to 40 times faster that of 3G uploads. This situation is the ideal use case for choosing 4G service over 3G.

2. You download a lot of data If you stream a lot of video, constantly listen to Spotify or download apps frequently you should opt for 4G.

3. You want to future-proof your cellular experience If you want a phone or tablet that will serve you for several years, and you have no interest in upgrading during that time, go for a 4G LTE device. LTE is the most common 4G technology and the closest thing there is to a 4G standard. LTE will likely be around for at least several years before it goes away.

Is 3G good enough? If you do the above activities primarily while connected to a Wi-fi network, you can probably be just fine with a 3G mobile device/service.

If you use your phone mostly to talk and text and only occasionally stream video or music while on the mobile network, 3G will probably work well for you.

Most other commonly used mobile apps – email, social media, weather, web browser, etc – work fine on a 3G network.

There’s a misconception that you can only watch video on your mobile device while connected to a 4G network. Not true! I’ve watched plenty of video while connected to 3G service.

It’s something you may not want to do extensively, because you can run into occasional buffering. But for sporadic video viewing, I’ve found 3G networks can work fine.

Did you like this post? Find it helpful? Do you have questions about this topic? Please let us know how we’re doing by commenting below.

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