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3G and 4G: What’s the difference?

3G and 4G cell phone towerNow that smartphones have become fairly ubiquitous, so too have the terms 3G and 4G. Wondering what the difference is? We’ve got the lowdown for you, along with a few tips that’ll help you decide whether or not you need to dish out the money for a shiny new 4G phone.

The Difference

On the surface, the difference between 3G and 4G is pretty simple. The “G” is short for generation, so 3G and 4G represent the third and fourth generations of mobile broadband Internet. As a rule, provided that you’re on the same carrier, a 4G connection will be faster than a 3G one. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that a 4G network of one carrier will always be faster than the 3G network of another. 

To be advertised as 3G, a network is required to meet a set of technical standards for speed and reliability, and must offer peak data transfer rates of at least 200 kilobits per second. The first networks that met this standard rolled out in the U.S. around 2003, and as smartphones began to gain more widespread use, demand for faster mobile broadband access saw a corresponding rise. In just a few short years, this push for faster data rates drove the standard forward, and today 3G networks can be anywhere from 200 kbps to dozens of times that fast.

To be advertised as 4G, a network must offer peak data rates of at least 100 megabits per second for high mobility communication (users in cars, trains, etc.), and at least 1 Gigabit per second for low mobility communication (pedestrians and stationary users). Not all 4G networks are created equal though – they come in a variety of different flavors, and some are faster and more widely deployed than others. The most common deployments are LTE, WiMAX, and HSPA+, but LTE is undoubtedly the most widely used amongst major US carriers.

It’s also worth noting that each new generation of wireless broadband typically requires your cell phone provider to make upgrades on their towers, and therefore requires you to upgrade your phone so that it can send/receive signals through the new infrastructure. A 3G phone cannot communicate through a 4G network, but newer generations of phones are practically always designed to be backward compatible, so a 4G phone can communicate through a 3G or even 2G network. 

3G and 4G coverage map

When to go with 3G

You might want to skip the 4G route and opt for a 3G phone if:

  • Your area doesn’t have 4G network coverage. If you don’t have the network, there’s no point in buying a 4G phone, since it wouldn’t be able to communicate with any 4G cell towers to relay the signal. That being said, most 4G phones are backward compatible, meaning they can still connect to 3G towers when a 4G network isn’t available. If you’re anticipating 4G expanding into your area, a 4G phone might not be a bad choice.
  • You don’t really use a lot of data-hungry applications. If you don’t plan on streaming lots of music and video from the web, you probably don’t need the blazing fast speeds offered by 4G. Most apps for basic stuff like GPS, weather, email,  and social networking will work just fine on a 3G connection. 

When to go with 4G

You might want to consider getting a 4G phone if:

  • You want a newer model cell phone. 4G networks are becoming pretty standard, so most of the newest and most cutting-edge phones (Samsung Galaxy S3, iPhone 5, etc) are typically 4G phones. 
  • Your carrier has a solid 4g network in your area. If its there, you might as well take advantage of it.
  • You use lots of data, and could benefit from faster speeds. If you like to watch YouTube on your way to work, stream Spotify everywhere you go, and you rely on a boatload of internet-connected applications to make it through the day, then go with a 4G connection. Having blazing-fast internet in your pocket at all times is insanely useful, and data plans usually cost the same amount regardless of whether they’re on 3G or 4G. 

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