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Submitted by George Elliott on Mon, 03/26/2012 - 8:37am.
First things first, the "G" stands for a generation of mobile technology, installed in phones and on cellular networks. Each "G" generally requires you to get a new phone, and for networks to make expensive upgrades. The first two were analog cell phones (1G) and digital phones (2G).
Third-generation mobile networks, or 3G, came to the U.S. in 2003. With minimum consistent Internet speeds of 144Kbps, they were supposed to bring "mobile broadband." There are now so many varieties of 3G, though, that a "3G" connection can get you Internet speeds anywhere from 400Kbps to more than ten times that.
4G phones are supposed to be even faster, but that's not always the case. There are so many technologies called "4G," and so many ways to implement them, that the term is almost meaningless. The International Telecommunications Union, a standards body, tried to issue requirements to call a network 4G, but they were ignored by carriers, and eventually the ITU backed down. 4G technologies include HSPA+ 21/42, WiMAX, and LTE (although some consider LTE the only true 4G of that, and some people say none of them are fast enough to qualify.)
There's one rule to follow: Each generation will offer faster Internet speeds than the last; that is, on the same carrier.
The mobile carriers are still building out their 4G networks, so first, you need 4G coverage to appreciate a 4G phone. Of the national carriers, Verizon and T-Mobile have the broadest 4G coverage. AT&T currently covers about a quarter of the U.S. population. Sprint is switching 4G systems, from WiMAX to LTE. The two are incompatible, so you must check coverage in your city for the specific variety of 4G you're buying.
Surf the web and especially stream? Connect to laptop? 4G is the way to go.
If you have a 3G phone and you've been frustrated with clogged-up networks, 4G may be the solution. 4G won't solve any dropped call problems, as all calls will be made over 3G networks until carriers switch to voice-over-LTE during the next few years.
Finally, if you want to future-proof yourself, get a 4G phone. 4G coverage is only going to get better.
If you live in an area that doesn't have 4G coverage, there's no advantage to a 4G phone. In fact, you'll have serious battery life problems if you buy an LTE phone and don't disable 4G LTE, as the radio's search for a non-existent signal will drain your battery quickly. In general, if you value battery life more than Internet speeds, stay with 3G.
By: George Elliott