Every time you glance at a bus or turn on the telly, chances are you’ll have 4G adverts in your face, screeching about how mega-fast mobile broadband will make your life complete. But just what is 4G, what are the benefits, and do you really need to upgrade your contract? And if you decide to take the plunge, which 4G handset should you buy?
What is 4G?
4G is basically the natural successor to 3G mobile networks, providing a faster means of accessing the internet on your phone. It uses a completely different frequency to existing 3G networks, which means you’ll need a new 4G-enabled mobile phone to access it.
There are a couple of different forms of 4G, but the one we use here in the UK is ‘LTE’ (which stands for ‘long-term evolution’). You can quickly identify which phones are currently 4G compatible because they’ll have ‘LTE’ either in the name, or listed in the specs.
What are the benefits?
The main benefit is speed. Anything to do with downloading data – e.g. browsing the web, downloading apps, streaming music and video, or navigating with maps – will be a good chunk quicker in 4G hotspots. The quoted figures put 4G at around five times faster than 3G, but in our tests it’s hovered anywhere between two to four times quicker. That’s enough to make a real difference, especially when streaming media is involved – as anyone sick of the spinning ‘buffering’ symbol will testify.
Our 4G phone even hammered our office Wi-Fi into submission when it came to download and upload speeds...
So should I upgrade?
So far the only network offering 4G is EE, and contract prices have raised a few eyebrows, starting at the rather hefty £36 a month for relatively little data allowance. Coverage is still scarce too – we’d recommend entering your postcode into EE’s coverage checker tool, at ee.co.uk, to see if your area is supported.
The rest of the 4G network will be auctioned off to rival mobile operators such as Vodafone in early 2013, so from this summer we can expect other deals to spring up nationwide. If you can hang on until then you’ll probably get a better deal, but if the money doesn’t matter and you regularly use your phone to access movies and music online, 4G should give you stress-free streaming.
4G Phone Face-Off
If you’ve decided to take the plunge with 4G, the only thing left to figure out is which handset to plump for. Here's our 4G phone comparison, and clicking each phone header will take you to our full Mobile Choice review...
Apple iPhone 5
HTC One XL
Huawei P1 Ascend LTE
Samsung Galaxy S III LTE
Samsung Galaxy Note II LTE
4-inch Retina display, one of the sharpest smartphone screens around, but compact enough to suit those with small hands
4.7-inch HD display, both supremely crisp and pleasingly vibrant, and spacious enough to enjoy movies and web browsing
4.3-inch Super AMOLED display, so bright that it can be clearly read even in direct sunlight, and sharp enough to make HD movies look fantastic
4.8-inch Super AMOLED display, one of the biggest around apart from the gigantic Note II, makes games and films look incredible
5.5-inch Super AMOLED display, the biggest to be found on a smartphone but the 1920p resolution keeps images crisp
How fast is it?
We don’t know much about Apple’s A6 processor, but it’s quick enough to run all your apps and games
1.5GHz dual-core processor, a downgrade from the original HTC One X’s quad-core processor
1.5GHz dual-core processor, putting this on par with the HTC, although Samsung’s phones offer more grunt
1.4GHz quad-core processor, easily enough power to play the latest games for some time to come
1.6GHz quad-core processor, the most powerful phone in this group, making it perfect for games, media and more
8 megapixels with LED flash, can take panorama shots
8 megapixels with LED flash, ‘burst mode’ and still shots while shooting video
8 megapixels with LED flash, lots of great filters and editing tools, takes sharp pics
8 megapixels with LED flash, ‘burst mode’ and tons of features inc. sharing options
8 megapixels with LED flash, same feature set as the Galaxy S III LTE
4GB + MicroSD
16GB + MicroSD
16GB/32GB/64GB + MicroSD
Media battery life
Four and a half hours
Aside from the typical slick design and Siri actually being useful now, the iPhone’s strength is still the App Store. Gamers and app fans will be in heaven, with a massive selection of quality downloads
As usual, HTC has turned out an excellent portable media device, thanks to the beautiful spacious screen and built-in Beats Audio, which enhances your tunes and film scores
The eight megapixel camera is quietly capable, even if it’s lacking the incredible features of the HTC and Samsung phones. The Ascend is the cheapest 4G phone on contract right now, so good if you’re on a budget
It’s impossible to pick out one killer feature: the vibrant HD screen, feature-packed camera, quad-core power and excellent tools such as Pop Up Play (which plays video in a window while you do other things) combine into one glorious whole
The brilliantly responsive S-Pen stylus allows you to scribble notes, craft works of art and interact with apps in a whole new way, all on a magnificent (and ridiculously large) HD display
The creaky iOS 6 interface is looking its age, while the new Maps app is nothing short of dire outside of large towns
It’s a shame the power has been cut from the original One X, plus it suffers from the weakest media playback life here
The Huawei’s stodgy design isn’t as loveable as the other phones here, while the virtual keyboard is a bit ropey
Any faults are mostly nitpicking, but Samsung’s buggy S-Voice command tool is mostly useless
That enormous frame is going to put off a lot of people, making it difficult to fit the Note II LTE inside most pockets
Only on EE contract