5G vs. LTE: What’s the difference, and does it matter?

5G will undoubtedly be faster than LTE, but here’s how else it will be different

Samsung's 5G concept phone
Samsung’s 5G concept phone

If you’re shopping for a phone or thinking about switching carriers, then you’re probably going to come across the terms 5G and LTE. Both relate to mobile networks, but there is a lot of confusion about the technology right now. If you’re uncertain whether you need more than LTE coverage, or wondering if you should buy a 5G phone, then we have you covered right here as we pit 5G vs. LTE and explain the differences.

In short, the G stands for generation, so 5G is the collective term for the fifth generation of mobile network technology. LTE stands for Long-Term Evolution, and it’s a 4G technology. The newer 5G is not a replacement for 4G, so you’ll find LTE and 5G technology working together for the foreseeable future.

What advantages does 5G bring?

“The main advantage that 5G offers over 4G LTE is faster speeds — primarily because there will be more spectrum available for 5G and it uses more advanced radio technology,” Els Baert, director of marketing and communications at NetComm, told Digital Trends. “It will also deliver much lower latency than 4G, which will enable new applications in the [Internet of Things] space.”

In simple terms, 5G will allow us to download and upload data much faster than older technologies. The theoretical top speeds for 5G are extremely fast, between 1 and 10Gbps download speeds and 1 millisecond latency, but realistically we might expect minimum average download speeds of 50 Mbps and latency of 10ms, compared to current average 4G speeds around 15Mbps and 50ms. This will depend on network coverage, the number of people connected in your vicinity, and the device you’re using.

Because 5G is an umbrella term that covers a lot of different technologies, it’s difficult to separate everything neatly and there’s some overlap. The higher speeds that really set 5G apart from any of the 4G LTE flavors require mmWave (millimeter wave) high-frequency bands. These high frequencies have very large bandwidths, so they’re ideal for keeping everyone connected in busy environments like stadiums. Making this work efficiently depends on massive MIMO (multiple-input multiple-output) and beamforming. While 4G base stations might typically have 12 antennas to transmit and receive data, thanks to massive MIMO, 5G base stations might support 100 antennas. The thing about these higher mmWave frequencies though is that they are much easier to block and multiple antennas can lead to greater interference. Beamforming is employed to identify the optimum route to each connected user, which helps to reduce interference and boost the chances of easily-blocked signals reaching their intended recipient.

5g speeds infographic
Visual Capitalist

While 4G LTE relies upon relatively few large masts that are built miles apart, 5G will require lots of small cells much closer together. These mini 5G base stations may be placed on top of street lights or on the sides of buildings every few hundred feet in urban areas. Logistically building a network like this out is going to be a challenge, it’s going to be expensive, and it’s going to take time.

What about 4G LTE-A?

Just because 5G is beginning to roll out, that doesn’t mean 4G is finished or that it has stopped evolving. The latest top 4G technology to be developed is LTE-A (Long-Term Evolution Advanced) and it promises a maximum speed of 1Gbps, though the realistic average will likely be comparable to the lower end of 5G. There’s also LTE-Advanced Pro, which is even faster still.

Unfortunately, AT&T has chosen to label some of its 4G technology as 5G E (5G Evolution) and pushed out 5G E logos onto phones that actually don’t support 5G. Which brings us to an important distinction: While 4G LTE, LTE-A, and LTE-A Pro will work with the smartphones you own right now, true 5G will require you to upgrade to a new phone with the right hardware inside.

Should you care?

If you consider that you want at least 25Mbps to stream 4K, ideally 50Mbps, which LTE already offers in some places, then you may wonder what you need the extra speed for. The truth is that if you have good LTE coverage right now, you probably won’t immediately see a lot of benefit switching to a 5G phone.

“The most important thing for an average phone owner is to have a high-quality connection with a decent speed,” Baert said. “In the end, it’s not about the technology, but the service being delivered. For many end-users this can be achieved with 4G LTE. More high-end users, will require the higher speeds and lower latency that 5G can bring.”

The future of 5G may be driverless cars, wireless VR gaming, and remote control robots, and many other applications for the technology will doubtlessly emerge, but it’s going to take time for 5G to offer tangible benefits for most people.

As if to emphasize this point, Apple is reportedly not going to release a 5G capable iPhone until 2020. We do expect to see several 5G Android phones released this year, but unless you’re lucky enough to live in an area that gets early 5G coverage, they aren’t going to make much difference to your everyday life. In the long term, there’s no doubt you’ll want a 5G phone, but choosing between a 4G LTE iPhone or a 5G Android will be a tricky decision for a lot of people this year.

Ultimately, 5G networks will complement 4G and LTE coverage and the two will work together to ensure that we get a fast connection wherever we happen to be.

Cars

How Verizon and Team Penske are using 5G to make Indy 500 race cars faster

Team Penske, the most successful race team in Indy 500 history, is using Verizon 5G in its bid to win the 2019 Indy 500. Modern race cars generate tons of data, and a 5G connection lets teams harvest that data faster.
Mobile

T-Mobile One is being rebranded to Magenta, new users get to keep discounts

T-Mobile offers a number of plans for you and your family, but how do you know which one is best for you and your situation? Here, we break down the specifics of each plan to help you decide.
Mobile

U.K. carrier EE will flip the switch on its 5G network on May 30

5G will launch on all major networks in the U.K. during 2019. Here are all the details from Vodafone, EE, O2, and Three UK to help you get onboard with the right carrier, and choose the right phone.
Mobile

FCC chairman and commissioner support the T-Mobile and Sprint merger

T-Mobile and Sprint are getting closer to merging. After a few failed attempts, the two companies announced their merger at the start of 2018. The new T-Mobile could be better positioned to take on the likes of Verizon and AT&T.
Apple

Apple iPhone Lightning Dock gets price knocked down to just $39 on Amazon

Apple acolytes are always eager to buy brand-name products, and the Lightning iPhone Dock is a solid option as a desktop charging station. Secure yours now at Amazon for just $39, down from $50.
Deals

Apple iPad and iPad Pros get big discounts for Memorial Day weekend

Apple iPads have been getting a lot of great discounts so far this year, and Memorial Day 2019 proves to be no exception. With prices as low as $249 for newer models, Memorial Day weekend is a great time to pick one up.
Mobile

Lyft’s wallet-friendly Shared Saver option arrives in six more U.S. cities

Lyft is expanding its wallet-friendly Shared Saver option to Atlanta, Las Vegas, Miami, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Seattle after launching it earlier this year in Denver, New York City, and San Jose.
Mobile

Huawei's situation in the U.S. may improve when trade war is resolved

The U.S. Commerce Department has added Huawei to its "Entity List." Google, Intel, and ARM are all confirmed or rumored to be ceasing business with the company, which may have disastrous effects on Huawei.
Mobile

You can't fool us -- this is definitely the Moschino Honor 20 Pro phone

Honor has launched the Honor 20 Pro and the Honor 20 at an event that took place in London. The new smartphone is surprisingly compact, with an impressive four-lens camera for taking stunning shots, day or night.
Deals

Amazon Memorial Day sale: Apple Watch, Surface Pro, and 4K TV Deals

Amazon is discounting a number of different items. Smartwatches, tablets, 4K TVs, smart home devices, and laptops are all getting discounts to stay competitive with prices from Walmart and Best Buy.
Deals

Best Memorial Day sales 2019: Amazon, Best Buy, and Walmart drop discounts

If you're looking to save big on some shiny new stuff for Memorial Day 2019, we've gathered everything you need to know into one place. Find out where to save the most money before the summer hits its stride.
Mobile

The 20 best iPhone SE cases to keep your phone looking like new

Protect your iPhone properly with one of the best iPhone SE cases or covers. That metal-and-glass body is prone to scuffs and scratches, so it pays to buy a decent case. We've got protective and stylish options for you here.
Emerging Tech

The best solar chargers for your phone, tablet, and other battery-powered gear

Looking for a gizmo that can help you charge your phone while on the go? Here, we've outlined the best solar chargers on the market, whether you're looking to charge your phone once, twice, or three times over.
Product Review

Garmin’s Forerunner 245 Music is all a runner needs to measure performance

Garmin's new Forerunner 245 fitness watch offers advanced metrics, onboard color maps and music. Is this trio a winning combination? We put the watch through its paces to find out.