3G vs 4G: which is best for you?

17 January 2017

Buying a new mobile phone or plan is a veritable maze of techy jargon. From megapixels to megabytes, capacitive touchscreens to quad-core processors; there is a huge, constantly changing list of things to know and learn about. If you find it all a bit baffling, never fear — you are not alone.

In this article we take a look at two important network technologies, both of which you are likely to encounter when deciding on a new phone as both are currently in use across Australia. What is the difference between 3G and 4G?

3G and 4G are terms used to describe different groups of wireless internet standards. The “G” stands for generation, where 3G means 'third generation' and 4G stands for 'fourth generation'. As it is with most techy things, the larger number indicates the newer, better version of a particular technology.

Quick comparison

Essentially 3G and 4G networks do the same thing. Both are capable of connecting your phone to the internet, just that one is faster than the other. Obviously there are some in-depth technology differences, but from a user's perspective, here are a few quick facts:

  • 4G is often up to 10x faster than 3G in real-world use — with speeds commonly between 20Mbps and 50Mbps (which is really fast). New 4G technologies such as "Carrier Aggregation" - where your smartphone connects to multiple cellular frequencies at once - can offer even faster speeds in certain areas. If your phone supports it, you could get speeds of up to 450Mbps per second in Sydney's CBD. That's almost five times as fast as the NBN. 
  • This speed will fluctuate depending on how far you are from a network tower and on the power of the radios inside your phone. Typically you will find the best 4G coverage in metro CBDs and weaker 4G signals as you leave these densely populated areas. Your conection will fall back to 3G in areas connecting major cities.
  • You don't need to worry about which network you are on as modern phones are designed to switch between available networks and find the best and fastest for your location.
  • You need a newer 4G device to use a 4G network, though: older devices designed solely with 3G radios will only work on 3G networks.

As you can see, the difference between the speeds of 3G and 4G really start to show as the size of the files increases. This is due, in part, to one of the small detail differences between the two: 3G speeds ramp up over time, while 4G speeds remain consistently fast from the beginning to end of a download.

More importantly, you can see how for everyday use, there is a pretty insignificant difference. If you mostly use the internet connection in your phone to browse Facebook, download emails and watch YouTube videos, you won't really notice the difference between 3G and 4G when you have a strong network connection.

Which is better for you?

Generally this isn't a choice you will need to make. All of the major telco suppliers in Australia offer 4G services, as do the vast majority of smaller providers, and you will use these networks automatically if you own a compatible phone.

4G is faster and therefore the better of the two technologies. And, not just a little faster; our testing has seen real-world examples of where 4G can be up to 10 times faster than 3G, or even more. In high-reception areas 4G real-world speeds can well exceed 2x the maximum potential speed of the fixed-line ADSL2+ connections.

There is absolutely no down-side to using 4G instead of 3G, other than that it uses a tiny bit more of your phone's battery. And you might burn through your data cap just that little bit faster, especially if you go wild when tethering. 

Q. Why even bother with 3G?

This is a good question. If 4G is so much faster and capable of more, why do the 3G networks even exist?

These older networks are still a really important part of the mobile networks as a whole, offering essential support to the 4G networks and acting as bridges between the major cities. There may come a time in the future when the 4G networks reach all parts of Australia, but for now these networks cover only the parts of the country with the most people.

  • Voice calls are still made over 3G networks, for now. Even in the cities where 4G is available, all voice calls are connected on the older 3G networks. 4G calling is slowly become a thing - Voice over LTE, or VoLTE - but is only available on some networks and certain phones.
  • 4G networks are still slowly rolling out to regional areas, meaning that 3G still provides the backbone coverage in many less populous areas across the islands.
Q. Is 4G more expensive?

No, not at all. Vodafone, Telstra and Optus all offer a combination of 3G and 4G services and there is no extra charge for the faster speeds. In fact there is no way to select to use 3G or 4G, it all falls under the category of “data” on a mobile monthly plan.

Where you might spend more money is on the phone you choose. All of the latest and greatest smartphone handsets are 4G-ready and come with a premium price tag.

Many cheaper phones are now also 4G ready, and unless you're buying a phone for less than $100, you'll almost certainly end up with a 4G device. However, if you really want 4G speeds on the cheap, be sure to look closely at the specifications before you buy a prepaid handset.

Things to keep in mind:

  • 4G is much faster than 3G
  • You don't pay extra for 4G services
  • Most voice calls are placed over the older 3G networks (for now)
  • Most new phones are 4G-ready, except for some of the cheapest models


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