Does 4G Use More Battery Power Than 3G?

Nicholas Jones | March 8, 2018

There’s a lot of interest in this topic because the question and similar variations get asked a lot. Often the query is made with an answer presupposed – that 4G sucks away battery power faster than 3G.

But like many tech-related questions, this one has a short and easy answer as well as a more nuanced longer answer that considers the topic in additional depth.

The short answer is yes, everything being equal, a 4G radio in today’s smartphones uses battery power at a higher rate than a 3G radio performing the same functions. But of course everything is NEVER equal, so taking that easy answer at face value is misleading.

The longer answer, which we consider below, is that a smartphone’s 4G radio consumes only nominally more power than the 3G radio, to the point that unless you use a meter to compare the power consumption, you probably can’t tell the difference between 4G battery usage and 3G.

However, it’s pretty common for people to feel like their phone using 4G service consumes battery faster than when using 3G. There are several reasons for that anecdotal observation, and we’ll mention a few of them below.

But here’s the truth – your smartphone’s battery consumption is kinda complicated. We’ll try to discuss the topic here without getting too far into the weeds.

What takes more battery life, between 3G and 4G?

We can’t realistically think about the battery consumption of your phone’s 3G or 4G radio in isolation. Consider your smartphone’s battery consumption as you surf the Internet. The 4G or 3G radio has you connected to the mobile network, and at the same time your screen as well as your processor are also operating and consuming battery power.

In addition, there are other battery considerations:

  • which frequency the cell signal you are receiving is being carried on
  • how strong the incoming cell signal is
  • and whether you’re currently moving or stationary.

The signal frequency matters because different radio wavelengths actually consume power at different levels. That’s a fairly technical discussion that we’re not going to consider here. But you can Google it if you want to learn more.

The incoming signal strength is a straightforward consideration. The stronger the signal, the less battery power your phone uses to detect and collect that signal. This same principle is the reason why a cell signal booster can increase your phone’s battery life in weak-signal areas – boosted signal strength means less battery consuption.

Finally, being in motion or stationary can have a big impact on your phone’s battery consumption. Why? Lets consider how the mobile network operates.

As you move (typically in a vehicle, although the same principle applies to walking, jogging or bicycling) your phone’s network connection is maintained by one cell tower until you reach the limit of that particular tower’s range. The connection is then “handed off” to the next tower which maintains it until you reach that tower’s range limit.

This tower-switching continues seamlessly as you move. The battery consumption issue primarily occurs when you’re moving through an area covered by a mixed mobile network of 3G and 4G towers. Each time your network connection switches from a 4G tower to a 3G tower (or vice versa) your phone must jump from using its 4G radio to the 3G radio.

This jumping back and forth from 3G radio to 4G radio and back again uses a LOT of battery power, much more than if your phone could simply use one radio or the other without switching. Because your phone is in fact using 4G network when it’s available, to a casual observer this 4G/3G-tower-switching situation probably looks like 4G service is sucking away your battery life. But the reality, as noted earlier, is actually more complicated.

The real reason “4G Uses More Battery”

We all use our phones a lot more now than we used to back in the 3G days (pre-2009). Our mobile phones were originally meant to allow phone calls and texts. Nowadays they often also function as our primary entertainment hub for web browsing, watching video, streaming music and podcasts and, of course, playing games.

4G facilitates these entertainment funtions by delivering to us the same amount of data in a much shorter time than 3G can do. This means in any given period of time, we can consume a lot more content (in the case of video, at higher resolution) by using 4G. This improved user experience in turn typically leads us to spend more smartphone time on task, even when the “task” may be watching funny cat videos.

Theoretically, 4G should allow us to spend less time on our smartphones, and therefore consume less phone battery power. But in the real world it doesn’t work that way. Instead of spending less time, we spend more. Instead of using less phone battery, we use more – often a LOT more.

So which really consumes more battery, 3G or 4G?

The 3G radio in your smartphone uses less battery power than the 4G radio. But 3G is also much slower at moving data, so the 3G radio must operate (and use battery) for a longer time to compensate for its lack of speed.

The 4G LTE radio uses slightly more power, but moves data much faster so it can complete a task quicker and put itself into its low-power “ready” state sooner.

A lot of people make the case that the 4G LTE radio is a more efficient user of battery power than is the 3G radio.

However in terms of raw battery life, turning off 4G service will in most situations allow a smartphone battery to last longer. But of course the smartphone user experience will suffer greatly if we’re restriced to only using 3G service. Most people simply won’t do that.

And as we noted, your smartphone radios never operate in isolation. The screen (which is, without exception, the biggest battery power suck on any smartphone) and the phone processor always operate in conjuction with the radios.

Like we said at the top, there’s the short answer and the complicated answer. Most of us will opt to use 4G service whenever we can. And because of that, we will frequently be on the lookout for an AC outlet to charge our phone battery.

 

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