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What is the difference between 3G and 4G?

29th September 2014
What is 4G LTE Advanced?

Mobile networks talk a lot about 4G, hyping up the fact that it’s newer and faster than 3G and those two things are indeed facts, but they’re not the only differences. Here’s everything you need to know about the differences between the two.


How fast is 4G

This is the obvious bit. 4G is faster than 3G, a lot faster. To be precise 4G offers typical download speeds of around 14Mbps and typical upload speeds of around 8Mbps, with top theoretical download speeds of roughly 150Mbps and top theoretical upload speeds of around 50Mbps and those are set to get even higher when the next generation of 4G, known as LTE-A, comes around starting from next year.

3G by comparison typically has download speeds of between 3-6Mbps, with peak speeds of 42Mbps, while the upload speeds tend to range from 0.4-3Mbps on average, with maximum possible speeds of around 22Mbps, though in the case of both 3G and 4G your actual speed can be a lot lower than even those averages if you don’t have much signal.

In practical terms 4G tends to be around 5 times faster than 3G, which means everything happens five times faster. If you’re downloading a small file for example it will take seconds rather than minutes and large files will take minutes rather than hours.

If you’ve used a 3G device you’re probably aware that it’s noticeably a lot slower with data than your home internet. Websites can take upwards of ten seconds to load, files can take a long time to download and videos and songs may have to buffer before they stream.

With 4G you’ll find that websites load in just a few seconds, songs and videos stream almost instantly and files download a lot faster as outlined above. In other words it’s a lot closer to a high speed broadband connection than a typical 3G one. So it makes a lot of difference.

It also opens up your phone or tablet to usage cases which weren’t even really possible on 3G. For example you can stream high definition videos and play online games, where before you’d have needed a Wi-Fi connection. That’s a big boon when travelling or just out and about, away from the Wi-Fi net of your home or office.


Not all of the differences work out in 4G’s favour and one of the downsides is the potentially higher cost. Prices are starting to level out and some networks such as Three and Tesco Mobile offer 4G at no extra cost, but others still charge a premium, so while you’ll be getting faster data, you’ll also potentially be paying more for it.

With the exception of Three you also can’t get unlimited 4G data, but a number of other networks offer unlimited 3G data.


There’s also the question of compatibility. While just about every smartphone and even a few dumb phones support 3G there are still a number that don’t support 4G, particularly cheaper and older phones.

Before plumping for a 4G contract you’ll want to check that your handset is actually compatible and if it’s not you’ll need to shell out for a new one first.

If you want to be able to keep up with the fastest 4G speeds that are coming in the future you’ll want to go one further and even make sure your phone supports Category 4 LTE or above. That allows them to download over 4G at speeds of up to 150Mbps, while Category 6 takes it up to 300Mbps. Right now only a small number, such as the iPhone 6, actually support Category 4 and for the time being it won’t benefit you much, but from next year you might start to find that you can’t always get the fastest speeds available if you’re on a phone which doesn’t have that support.


Not only do some smartphones not support 4G but many areas still don’t have a 4G signal. The networks are all working hard to bring 4G to the UK in its entirety and they’re making good progress, with EE leading the charge with over 70% of the UK population covered.

But before jumping on the 4G train you’ll want to check that whatever network you’re plumping for actually has 4G in your area, otherwise you’ll still only be getting 3G speeds much of the time and you’ll potentially be paying a premium for the privilege.



Speed isn’t the only advantage of 4G, it also opens you up to VoLTE. This stands for Voice over LTE and means the ability to make calls over 4G, which has various advantages. Perhaps most significantly it leads to far higher call quality than normal phone calls. You can think of it as high-resolution calls, where voices are crystal clear.

It also allows calls to connect up to twice as fast and opens up the possibility of enhanced calling features, such as video calls straight from the dialler and video voicemail. VoLTE hasn’t yet been rolled out in the UK, but EE is trailing it in Oxfordshire this year and plans a proper commercial launch sometime next year and while O2, Three and Vodafone haven’t made any specific announcements you can bet they’re working on it.

Vodafone, meanwhile has already made a successful Voice over 4G call at its UK lab in Newbury, Berkshire and it’s now conducting a wider trial with its employees.

So while cost, availability and compatibility are all issues for 4G, it’s undeniably better overall than 3G and it’s set to get even more so as coverage improves, prices go down and VoLTE rolls out. It’s not yet essential but it certainly provides a better overall experience, just make sure you can actually get it in your area.

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