4G vs 3G: Which do you need?

June 9, 2015 — by KEN PERKINS



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.

Related posts:

Why Do I Have Such Poor Cell Phone Reception?

How Does a Cell Phone Signal Booster Work?

How to Extend Cell Phone Range in the Middle of Nowhere


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    Comments (7)

    Luisa Torres on July 12, 2015 at 5:50 pm said:

    This information is greate! know I understand the difference between 4G and 3G.
    Thank You very much!

      Pat Everett on August 6, 2015 at 1:27 pm said:

      Article was most informative. Kind of knew the difference, but not well enough to explain it to someone else. Article is brief and to the point on a level most people can understand.

        Jessica Lacy on August 18, 2015 at 6:44 am said:

        Very good. I’ll try these tips now, see how it goes the functioning of my battery. Still do not have 4g, but when you have spent hope this battery will decrease. Congratulations on the site and thanks for sharing with us. WWW hitechinstitute in

          Cinda White on August 31, 2015 at 4:06 pm said:

          I am a weboost certified retailer and I often get asked this question. My answer way always do you have 4g in your area and 4g is just for data. That is a good answer but after reading this I have a much more accurate and easy to understand response that answers the question and is actually explanatory instead of vague. Thank you for this post!

            Ken Perkins on August 31, 2015 at 4:18 pm said:

            Thanks for reading, Cinda. We appreciate your feedback.

            Mary on September 7, 2015 at 6:55 am said:

            Also, you can’t use 3g while on a phone call. I always thought that sucked, especially when I’d be trying to navigate to a place using maps on my phone while communicating with the person I’d be meeting up with and I can only do one at a time.

            Bob Bergwall on November 12, 2015 at 7:52 am said:

            Thanks for the comparison, now I can make an
            Educated choice.