There is no question that 4G is better than 3G; it is newer, the number is bigger and people get more excited by it. However, in case those differences aren't enough, we sent three readers marching around town trying to map out the data speeds achieved on both 4G and 3G -- all in the name of science.
Like 3G (and Wi-Fi...and just about all wireless connections) it is difficult to determine just how good a 4G connection will be at any given place and time. Internet speeds can vary massively from one street to the next with seemingly little reason why. Similarly, speeds can vary at one spot from one day to the next. This is why I have opted to use the mean speed as a basis of meaningful comparison between 3G and 4G.
For testing the 4G connection, I'm using EE's 4G Nano SIM in the HTC One M8. For testing 3G speeds I'm using Virgin Mobile inside the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. My general technique has been to wander around town and take a reading of my internet speeds on both phones simultaneously. The data points being collected are:
- Download speed
- Upload speed
Each pin represents one reading, with the label showing the download speed achieved using 4G. Clicking on a pin will display the full data, including the 3G speed for comparison. I'm sure there are many better ways to display this comparison but this is the best I could think of.
While the graph is a nice way to visualise how fast the download speeds can be from EE's 4G as you wander around, it doesn't serve as the best way to compare against 3G speeds. For that, I hear you asking for things like averages... and probably some tables. I've got you covered, don't worry.
From 15 readings, the following tables show the maximum, minimum and mean speeds recorded for both 3G and 4G.
This means that on average, the download speed is over 4x faster on 4G than it is on 3G. The upload speed is even more impressive weighing in at over 10x faster on 4G.
Whilst raw stats are fine, some real-world examples wouldn't go amiss. As such, here are some video comparisons of starting a stream from Netflix, downloading an app from the app store and finally a side-by-side speed test in action.
There isn't too much to comment upon here; the video loads faster on the HTC running 4G than the Samsung running 3G. The 4G video starts streaming in around 3 seconds while the 3G connection starts in around 6 seconds.
Unsurprisingly, apps install faster on 4G apps too. I had to give up in the video on the 3G connection as it began to bore me. Once you go 4G, you don't want to go back.
This video highlights one of the inconsistencies mentioned before; the 4G upload speed is rather unimpressive despite recording much higher results in this area before.
There is no doubt that 4G offers users a better experience than 3G. When discussing internet speeds, faster is always better. Most of the time you are pulling content from the internet and download speed is the most important. You want to look at cats* and you want to look at them now damnit! I understand.
However, when you are wanting to share something to the internet, that's when your upload speed comes into action. That lunch you are about to eat isn't going to selfie* itself, is it?
*other uses of the internet may exist.
Regardless of which way the bits are flowing it is never fun waiting for them to get there. I am impressed at how much faster the download speeds are on 4G and I am genuinely amazed at how much faster the upload speeds are. I appreciate that 4G isn't available in every city yet but if it is available in yours, I'd recommend treating yourself to it immediately.
I'm in the slightly fortunate position that I recently obtained an HTC One M8 phone at work, on Vodafone's 4G network. With the lovely HTC One M8 kindly provided to me by EE and Gizmodo UK, on super-fast EE4G, I was in a prime position to do some head-to-head testing of these two 4G networks with identical handsets. A bit more of an "apples to apples" test than my previous efforts with the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 on EE4G and a Nokia 920 on Vodafone 4G (although that test also proved EE to be faster). You can read my review on that here.
Test One -- 4G Reception at my "yard" in Stanmore, HA7
Vodafone 4G 1 or 2 bars signal strength, 9.87Mbps down 0.76Mbps up:
EE 4G 1 or 2 bars signal strength, 25.64Mbps down 6.67Mbps up:
My "real world" test was to download three tracks from 7Digital (under 30MB). Both networks downloaded the same three MP3 tracks in under one minute over 4G. But, as you see above, EE4G was a lot faster than Vodafone when using Speedtest.
Minutes later I lost the Vodafone 4G signal completely and it went down to HSDPA and then a few minutes later came back with 4G! For those of you EE haters out there, you should try Vodafone, and then you might find that EE isn't that bad after all.
Just to be sure Speedtest wasn't playing up, I then tried the speedof.me website using the Chrome browser on both devices. See the results for yourselves below:
9MB vs 35MB?! No contest! Shockingly bad result from Vodafone either way you look at it.
Round 1 -- EE4G!
Earlier I mentioned that I had signal problems with Vodafone when switching from 4G to 3G and HSDPA randomly while sat in my front room. I later experienced this again, whereas the EE 4G phone stayed consistently on 4G. Take a look:
Round 2 -- Test from Soho Square W1D inside office
Vodafone 4G 3 bars signal strength, 7.25Mbps down 4.48Mbps up:
EE 4G 3 bars signal strength, 11.71Mbps down 11.14Mbps up:
Round 2 to EE again!
4G vs 3G
I tried to test 4G vs 3G on both Vodafone and EE and I have to say, once you go 4G you can never go back! Downloading anything on 3G was extremely painful. I tried to download some songs and gave up and resorted to 4G again. I didn't even have the patience to try and write some stats on this, it really just wasn't usable for anything.
4G vs Wi-Fi
I guess the big question then is if you are stuck with 3G, are you better off using WiFi whenever you can, and does Wi-Fi beat 4G?
To test this out I downloaded a 118MB file from my Hightail cloud storage via EE 4G and it took a pretty amazing 42 seconds.
I then tried the same file again on my home Wi-Fi and it downloaded in a grand total of 6 minutes 57 seconds. This may say more about my wonderful home Wi-Fi or internet but there's no denying that EE 4G trumps my home connectivity. Not a scientific test but with a 50MB BT Infinity internet connection, my money was on WiFi winning this one.
Browsing web pages, you're not going to be downloading this volume of data so Wi-Fi makes more sense than 4G, especially when you're paying for a limited amount of data usage.
When I'm not testing phones and networks as a Gizmodo Testmodo guinea pig, I'm a Three customer that, despite having access to its free 4G connections, very rarely can pick up a 4G signal in my own South London home. I had no such problems with EE's 4G using the HTC One M8 however -- aside from a notorious blackspot in my bedroom that would struggle to even receive a morse code or smoke signal, let alone a mobile one, I consistently received 4G coverage during my testing, averaging three bars signal.
The 4G speeds, however, left a little to be desired. 10 successive tests using the Ookla Speedtest.net app returned an average 4G download speed of 9.002Mbps, with a low of 3.83Mbps and a high of 12.20Mbps. Uploads averaged 2.35Mbps, with a low of 0.67Mbps and a high of 5.15Mbps. According to RootMetrics figures from as far back as October 2013, EE's average download and upload speeds should hover around 19.3Mb and 12.9Mb respectively.
So my speeds aren't breathtaking -- my home fibre connection is at least three times as fast, and (as you'll see in a second) it's lower than you'd find in other places in London. But then compare it to the 3G speeds -- downloads averaged 2.863Mbps, while uploads averaged 0.31Mbps over the last-gen connection. For downloads, that's almost three times slower than the 4G speeds. Even when it's not at its fastest, 4G still smokes 3G.
Even with these reduced speeds though, the 4G connection was speedy enough for me to take advantage of some of the HTC One M8's best features. iPlayer TV show streaming ran at a crystal clear quality without a stutter or the need for consistent buffering you'd find with a 3G connection, allowing me to revel in the lavish 1080p 5-inch display. Likewise, Spotify tracks were pulled from the cloud without issue, letting me throw my horns up to some Dimmu Borgir, absolutely blasting out of the loud (and surprisingly full-sounding) BoomSound speakers.
Thankfully, things looked much healthier once I was in Central London. Wandering around, 4G download speeds averaged 15.94Mbps, hitting highs of 20.68Mbps and lows of 13.20Mbps. And while the app captures a snapshot of connectivity each time, I generally found that the higher speeds were maintained as I moved from location to location around the centre of the city. Upload speeds were similarly improved, averaging 4.537Mbps, with highs of 5.99Mbps and lows of 3.57Mbps.
Armed with the consistently-speedy download rates, I took a quick Google Maps tour around North London. 4G makes such a difference when using maps -- I was able to walk around at a comfortable pace, the map updating fluidly as I moved, rather than stuttering as I dragged it to my next planned location. I was able to smugly hide the fact that despite living here my whole life, I'm still basically a tourist in my own city!
Our third reader, Amanda Foley, was unable to take part in this week's challenge due to illness, so South London-based Alex Purvey stepped in to cover for her. When he's not testing 4G speeds, he works as a charity fundraiser.
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