Four Days with 4G: What's It Really Like?

By Sam Gibbs on at

Since our LTE-equipped Samsung Galaxy S III arrived in the office we've been putting EE's new 4G network through its paces. It's fast, there's no doubt about that, but is it life changing, and should you fork out a hefty premium for it.



Let's get one thing straight, EE's network is much faster than 3G in my testing. Now that's in and around central London where 3G speeds aren't exactly stellar to start with, but we've got a direct video comparison for you so you can see the difference in speed with your own eyes. Of course, if you're routinely hammering down HSPA+ or DC-SIGN at a phenomenal rate, then speeds of at least 9-10Mbps with highs of 30Mbps+ might not be anything out of the ordinary for you. But, I can tell you that in central and west London that's almost unheard of from a mobile network.

Having said that, EE's real-world network hasn't been as fast as the O2 LTE test network we were lucky enough to put through its paces a year ago. Those tests were performed using 4G dongles plugged into laptops, however, which will probably make quite a difference compared to a phone. Also, it's important to remember that there are other people on EE's network; they might not be 4G users, but as evidenced by the boost in 3G speeds caused by the upgraded backhaul to EE's cell towers, everyone shares the same pipe. So, what you're looking at here, and what I've been testing and experiencing over the last four days is a real-world LTE network, performing exactly how it would if you bought a 4G phone right now.


Data Usage

Ever since EE announced its price plans, it's been criticised for meagre data allowances, especially on its lowest £36-a-month plans that pack only 500MB to play with. I can safely say that this criticism is 100 per cent warranted. In light, general usage -- the kind of stuff that your average advanced smartphone user would do with their phone without hammering it -- I've chewed through well over 1GB of data in just four days. Now, that's more than the first two tiers of EE's 4G plans give you for a whole month, in less than 1/6th of a month.

Admittedly, most of that data usage came from apps and music streaming, although not a lot of either, considering what's actually possible at 10Mbps+ speeds. During general web browsing, bearing in mind I sit in front of a computer all day, so we're talking commuting and out and about only, I devoured about 100MB in those four days alone. That on its own doesn't bode well for that puny 500MB plan.

One of the big questions surrounding 4G data is how much is enough? Honestly, it's really difficult to tell you that right now, and that's because we're only just getting started with 4G. In my own experience, I don't think you can actually get enough. 4G will enable you to pull down data so quickly that downloading things, or streaming stuff is effortless. That means you're much more likely to do it, so your 3G data consumption can only really be used as a very conservative guide. Whichever way you look at it, 4G is likely to change the way you use your phone, and so you're probably going to consume a lot more data. But, really, that's what we expected, right? Even if the networks didn't.


Network Coverage

Already, EE's 4G network coverage is surprisingly comprehensive. That doesn't mean that there's 4G everywhere by any stretch of the imagination, but weak 4G signal is available over most parts of central and west London at least. Weak signal also bestows you at least 9Mbps, which is quite a boost over the often-crappy data rate you get in weak 3G signal areas.

It can take quite a while to get a lock on a 4G signal in weak areas though, with the phone bouncing between 3G, HSPA and HSPA+ while you wait. There have been times when it's taken a good 60 seconds to get a 4G lock, but once you do the data flows thick and fast. Of course, the beauty about EE's 4G is that it's supported by a pretty decent 3G network, so even when you're out of 4G it's not like you're dumped back to the practically unusable GPRS or EDGE.

One of the often-questioned aspects of EE's 4G roll out on the 1800MHz band has been whether or not you'll get decent indoor signal. In my testing, 4G signal didn't seem to change much indoors or out, so at least here in London, it shouldn't be an issue at all. Yes, in theory, the 1800MHz band shouldn't have as good distance coverage or wall penetration as the 800MHz band that the other UK networks will be fighting over in the official 4G auction later this year, but so far, so good.



Having 4G on your phone is more of an enabling experience than anything else. The instant speed boost is noticeable, especially with the dramatically reduced ping times, which means the click-to-bang time is greatly reduced. But it's the opening up of possibilities, which were inconceivable before on slow 3G, that 4G is really about.

For instance, streaming music over 3G has always been a bit hit and miss. If you've got a good lock on an HSPA+ signal, then you've got more than enough bandwidth for streaming a few MP3s, but more often than not it's just not a goer. Stuttering music is one of the most annoying things you can experience on your phone, so often it's just not worth it. However, with even the slowest, 9-10Mbps speeds I've seen on 4G in my four days, music streaming is an absolute breeze.

Streaming from Google Music, for instance, happens instantly, and the speed is decent enough to get a good buffer going, meaning even if you hit the London Tube, and 4G drops out when you're fully underground, the music doesn't stop. Likewise, watching streaming video is so free and easy that you'll actually do it, and not have to wait. Having said that, it'll be a little while before you can benefit from higher-quality streaming from the likes of the BBC iPlayer, because it detects cellular data and only gives you a crappy 3G stream, even over 4G speeds. Once true variable data rate video streaming, which the likes of Netflix use, is more common, you'll get Wi-Fi or better quality video over your 4G connection.

As I've said in the past about 4G and it's benefits, speed is just one part. And just like the increasing fixed-line broadband speeds, 4G data speeds will enable more and more innovative services. Cloud-based tools are actually usable for instance, and local storage really isn't an issue when you can stream or pull down things that fast.


Should You Buy It?

If you have the money to burn, you're looking for a new phone, and you live in one of EE's covered zones already, then 100 per cent yes. EE's brand new 4G network is the bleeding edge, and life on the bleeding edge is wonderful. If you're reading this you're probably a geek and you already know that just as well as I do. You'll get consistently fast speeds, low pings, and the data rate to enable more and more innovative services. Hell, even without new stuff, doing everything faster and effortlessly is awesome.

Unfortunately, buying into 4G right now is going to be a very expensive proposition. In my opinion there's no point in going for anything less than 3GB of data allowance, and even then you might chew through it pretty rapidly. The good thing is that you can buy data boosters when you run out of allowance, and upgrade your tariff for more data if you're likely to constantly burn through your allowance.

My recommendation is also go just go with a 12 month plan, which adds an extra £10 a month to your contract, but it gives you the flexibility to change networks, once the other UK networks have 4G up and running sometime next year. The other alternative is to buy your own 4G phone and pick up a SIM-only 4G plan from EE. It'll be cheaper, monthly-wise, but you'll have to wait until EE releases its SIM-only deals.

So, the question of whether to buy or not really comes down to this. Do you have the best part of £60 to £70 a month to spend on your phone contract, which you don't have to sacrifice other stuff for? Then do it, as 4G is awesome. But for the rest of us, if 3G + Wi-Fi out and about is fast enough, then I'd say skip this round out.