Your Phone Sucks: 3G vs. 4G

AT&T advetisement

This is the time of year when there’s a real lull in the phone (and in fact, devices in general) market. Not much is being released or even announced as of late. So here at Your Phone Sucks we’re going to take some time to answer a reader’s question, one that probably many of you have asked yourself:

“What is the difference between 4G and 3G? My phone has the option to turn my 4G off, and it is off most of the time. When should I turn the 4G on?”

This is a rather loaded question. Let’s start with the short answer.

And believe me this was as short as I could manage.

The short:

If your use case for your smartphone is on a daily cycle, you should leave your 4G on all the time. For example, I leave my phone (a Samsung Galaxy Nexus on Verizon) plugged in at night as well as when I’m at work. I not only leave the 4G on, I leave the WiFi and GPS features on as well. The phone is smart enough to know when to use each of these, turning off the others, but there is still a small penalty on the battery. However, it’s never a big deal because the battery is being topped off most of the time.

Side note: If you’re asking yourself whether leaving your phone plugged in overnight will kill the battery, the answer is no. You’re thinking of older battery technologies, specifically “nickel cadmium” and to a lesser extent “nickel-metal hydride.” All contemporary smartphones use “lithium-ion” batteries, which do not suffer when overcharged. The primary decline in a battery’s performance is actually a factor of its lifespan. Simply put, the newer a battery is, the higher proportion of its maximum capacity will be useable. A two year old battery may charge only up to 70% capacity. Leaving it plugged in vs. unplugging it at 100% makes no difference.

If instead you are travelling or for whatever reason aren’t going to be near a charger for several hours a day, then yes you should turn off the 4G. You should also turn off the GPS when you’re not using it, and you should turn on the WiFi anytime you are near a hotspot. WiFi will supersede your phone’s data connection, and WiFi is both more power-efficient and faster. GPS will typically only be turned on by your phone when you open a mapping app, but it doesn’t hurt to manually turn it off if you’re really worried about battery life.

So when do you use 4G? When you need to download specific things quickly. Yes, obviously everything will be faster on 4G, but simply loading a website probably won’t be that noticeable on 4G vs. 3G. Perhaps you’re walking to the subway, and you forgot to sync your podcasts. Turning on 4G will let you download several podcasts in a matter of minutes. Want to watch a YouTube video while waiting for the bus? Turning on 4G will not only load the video faster but will also most likely give you access to a better quality version of the video. The only other use where 4G makes a huge difference is uploading. In fact, 4G can be faster uploading files than even WiFi. So if you’re uploading a bunch of photos to Facebook, turn on 4G.

The long:

So I happen to know this reader has a…wait for it…”Samsung Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch” for Sprint. I am not shitting you. That is its actual name. If you read “4G” in the title and surmised this phone supports faster 4G speeds, then you’re right! Sort of. It’s a lot more complicated than that. To explain what the “4G” in the Epic 4G Touch means, we have to back up a bit.

There are 4 major carriers in the US as we all know: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile. The other minor carriers (US Cellular, Leap, etc.) typically piggy-back off of the 4 majors, so we can ignore them. Have you ever tried to imagine physically why your T-Mobile phone won’t work on Verizon? Probably not, because you’re not a huge nerd like me. Well since you asked: These 4 each have set up physically different antennas all over the country. Stop for a second and think about that. You might have assumed there are like, what, a bunch of antennas that everyone shares? You know, like a radio tower? No. Literally there will be a T-Mobile antenna sitting next to an AT&T antenna next to a Sprint antenna and so on, and they don’t talk to each other. (To be fair, Sprint and T-Mobile do have agreements with Verizon and AT&T, respectively, to allow roaming on each other’s networks.) AT&T and T-Mobile use “GSM” as their cellular technology, while Sprint and Verizon use “CDMA.” All you need to know is that they are incompatible with each other, and to a lesser extent incompatible even with other carriers using the same tech. (Within GSM, there are several “bands,” and most phones support only the bands that belong to their carrier of choice.)

So far we have been discussing 2G and 3G only. It’s not worth discussing what the differences between 2G and 3G are, because in both GSM and CDMA the faster 3G system really was just an increased performance version of the older 2G standards. In other words, Verizon didn’t make a huge change to make 3G devices; they were simply using newer chips and antennas and such. Obviously I am simplifying, but “the long” explanation is already spiraling out of control.

Now that we know that the carriers have specific and different 2G/3G systems, what about the 4G? Surely Verizon just took it’s 3G and like, cranked it up, right? If you watch their commercials this involved a combination of lightning, robots, and razors. Boom! 4G. No, actually there are 3 distinct implementations of 4G in use by the 4 carriers. In fact, knowing what their previous 2G/3G systems were has no bearing whatsoever on understanding their 4G.

The simplest to start with is T-Mobile, because they are lying to everyone. T-Mobile essentially did what everyone did in the move from 2G to 3G (updating the same hardware with newer versions to increase speeds slightly) but called it 4G. T-Mobile’s version of 4G is “HSPA+,” otherwise known as “high speed data packet…plus.” Exciting! All you need to know is that the only benefit to HSPA+ is slightly increased theoretical download speeds. These phones are indeed faster than their non-4G parents, but just barely. They’re not fundamentally better at having more signal, they’re not fundamentally faster with uploads, and they’re frankly never going to reach the speeds of their true 4G rivals.

Sprint was technically the first US carrier to launch a 4G network. At the time — and as of this writing — Sprint deployed a “WiMax” 4G network. WiMax seemed like a great idea. Sprint could partner with Clearwire (a mobile broadband internet company) to share the bill, while being first to bring 4G to market. WiMax was seen as a leading technology because it could reach much faster upload and download speeds compared to 3G. More importantly it was ready. The first 4G US phone was also the first WiMax phone, the HTC Evo 4G, which launched in June of 2010 (right around when the iPhone 4 came out). At the time it was considered an incredible step-up from all other Android phones. Remember our reader’s Epic 4G Touch? Well, it shares a lot in common with the original Evo 4G, namely in its use of WiMax. All WiMax phones have [at least] two separate antennas, one of which is devoted entirely to WiMax (the other is often a combo 2G/3G/WiFi/GPS/Bluetooth). This means the phone is physically operating a different piece inside whenever you click that “4G On” button. See why it’s draining the battery? The other important distinction is that WiMax is data only. So when you turn on 4G, you’re not turning off the normal CDMA antenna. Your phone needs that for voice and text messages. This is also why the phone gets hot (more energy = more heat).

Verizon came next, but this time they didn’t like like T-Mobile, nor did they half-ass it with a partnership with some other company like Sprint, and regardless they didn’t slowly build their network over the course of several years. Nope. Verizon was like, “yah, Spring, we see your crappy WiMax and raise you LTE all over the place! Bah-blam!” LTE is the true future-proof 4G standard. It is the fastest, most reliable, and most commonly adopted 4G technology in the world. Know who uses WiMax besides Sprint? South Korea. That’s it. Everyone else is either using LTE or plans to do so. LTE supports voice-over-IP (VOIP) which means eventually you’ll be able to make calls over LTE, theoretically allowing your phone to turn off its other antenna. Right now no one does that, but it’s coming. Plus, as chips continue to shrink and the technology matures, eventually LTE is going to be integrated into the other components of your phone (rather than as its own chip), resulting in thinner devices with better battery life. Sounds too good to be true? It’s not. It really is better.

On top of all of this, Verizon and AT&T (who, while using a GSM network for 2G/3G unlike Verizon, also decided to move to LTE for 4G, like Verizon…it’s confusing) have deployed 4G in the 700 MHz spectrum. MHz? Spectrum? Whoosie whatsit? All you need to know is that the lower the MHz, the better. Lower frequency radio waves are longer/more powerful and can thus penetrate walls of buildings better than their high-frequency brothers. Sprint’s WiMax operates in the 2,500 MHz band. Notice the difference? When I had an Epic 4G (an early Sprint WiMax phone) I could not keep a 4G signal in the interior of my apartment, whereas the Galaxy Nexus (which is LTE) has no problem with that.

To make things even more confusing, Sprint recently announced they will essentially abandon WiMax in a few years while they transition over to LTE as well. That’s right, folks. That beautiful new Sprint phone you just bought is the last of its kind. Don’t worry, though, because Sprint’s not going to just shut of the antennas overnight. For a while they will operate both WiMax and LTE, and by the time they finally do kill the former, it’ll probably be time for a new phone anyway.

So what’s the lesson? Michael can’t answer a simple question to save his life. Jokes! No, the lesson is that not only is this all extremely confusing, but carriers want you to be confused. If you glazed over my brief mention of AT&T using LTE you probably also forgot that they’ve been calling their HSPA+ phones “4G” (just like T-Mobile did, and still does) for over a year now, even though they planned on transitioning to “true 4G LTE” by 2012. Ugh! So confusing!

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2 thoughts on “Your Phone Sucks: 3G vs. 4G

  1. Jerch says:

    Well to say the state of cellular interoperability in the United States is a mess would be an understatement, but that’s sort of a discussion for another time. In the UK, for example, it’s common practice to buy a phone unlocked and use it on the carrier of your choice, which is a supported practice technologically. The downside is that they have to purchase the phone unsubsidized (i.e., for $600-800) off contract. With T-Mobile and AT&T, users can at least use certain unlocked phones on either’s 3G networks. Or in some cases one can buy an unlocked phone designed for the UK that ALSO happens to support T-Mobile and/or AT&T. Clearly, there is no obvious means for the average consumer to navigate this. The history of AT&T is of course a long and interesting one to look into. I recently read about how when cellular technology was in its infancy, AT&T wanted to have a monopoly on it as well, but an engineer from Motorola was first. Remember when everyone had the same [landline] telephones, and you received them from AT&T? Can you imagine if that’s how cell phones were provided? Nuts.

  2. nobody says:

    My dad worked for AT&T all of his adult work life. I remember him being particularly irritated when “Ma Bell” was forced to dismantle their monopoly and share their phone lines with competitors. Evidently, that situation no longer applies to today’s cellular towers–for good and for bad.

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