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​4G versus 3G: One of Life's Big Decisions?

Posted by on Jul 20, 2015

The infinite upgrade path (as pioneered by Microsoft) has become so prominent a feature of modern life, that it goes largely unchallenged. Marketers manipulate our desire to get our hands on that must-have, "new and improved" product. We long ago crashed through an absurdity barrier on this around the time when washing powder manufacturers promised their latest product could make your clothes, "whiter than white".

Now, cell phone service providers have joined the crusade. They would have us throw our obsolete 3G cell phones in the trash and rush ever further up Mount Perfect, toward the faster than fastest, 4G LTE service. Out with an old, and in with the new! There’s no doubt that 4G brings improvements over 3G. But do you actually need it? Would you be using a jackhammer to crack a peanut?

The whole 3G versus 4G issue can seem more complicated than a prime time soap opera, so here's cell phones 101.


  • G is 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.


Well done. Give yourself a round of applause. Smoke a cigar if it makes you feel better. Just don't get too smug because in many ways 3G differs from 4G as much as your left leg differs from your right.

For a start, 4G does nothing to enhance voice calls. So the abuse you get from your buddy over last season's lamentable performance of your ice hockey team will not hurt any less over 4G than it did over 3G.

Now that we have plugged you back into the reality matrix, we can talk about 4G’s actual capabilities - And these are substantial, rather than the hype.

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. The lack of a definitive technical standard for 4G service doesn't help. U.S. carriers, for instance, use various technologies and implementations. These result in widely varying network speeds. Yet these are all tagged as "4G". This uncomfortable fact led Sascha Segan, the ead mobile analyst at PC Magazine, to claim that the term 4G "is almost meaningless".

Enough of the fancy talk. The important question to ask yourself is, do I need 4G? Here are some things to consider.


Do you have access to a 4G network? Carriers often claim ninety nine percent population coverage for 4G networks. Yet, large areas of the U.S. and Canada are not covered by any service, leave alone 4G service. Clearly, If you're in a place that lacks 4G service, paying for a 4G phone and data plan makes as much sense as buying chicken feed by the truckload when you don't own a henhouse.

Backward Compatibility

On other hand, 4G phones are backward compatible. If they can’t detect a 4G signal, they will default to an available 3G network. That is good to know, right?

3 Occasions When 4G is the Right Answer

How you use your phone or other cellular enabled device is really the key to answering the 4G versus 3G question. Here are 3 scenarios when 4G service becomes a must have service.

When uploading a lot of data

If you upload video or large photo files from your phone you really do need 4G. Upload speeds through 4G are up to a sizzling 40 times faster that of 3G uploads. If there is one situation that defines 4G as a killer application this is it. This helps as long as the place where you normally would perform uploads and downloads is within the 4G coverage area.

When downloading a lot of data

If you stream a lot of video, constantly listen to Spotify, or download apps a lot, opt for 4G. Again, this is true as long as you are within 4G coverage area of your cellular provider.

When you want the basic technology to last

If you want a phone or tablet that will continue to meet your basic needs for a few years yet. And you fear being shunned by friends and family for betraying them by sticking with 3G, 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 several years yet.

Is 3G good enough?

If you already use these services over a Wi-Fi network, you should be just fine with a 3G mobile device and 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. (There’s a common misconception that you can only watch video on your mobile device while connected to a 4G network. Not true! I’ve watched plenty of videos while connected to 3G service.)

Most other commonly used mobile apps - email, social media, weather, web browser, etc. work fine on a 3G network. It is 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.

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