3G vs 4G – which phone network is right for you?

You've probably heard the term 4G - but what does it mean? Read on and we tell you.

It doesn’t seem like that long ago when more of us started using 3G on our phones to browse the web and send emails.

However it’s actually been around since 2003 in the UK. That’s long time in technology terms and anyone who’s watched TV or been to the cinema over the last several months will know, 4G is now the latest mobile technology.

[Read more: Extra Speed 4G - discover how BT Mobile's add on can speed up your phone]

But what is 4G and how does it differ from 3G? And if you are wondering about all the wonderful benefits it will bring, what exactly are they?

Read on to find out and check out the video below to find out more.

What is 3G?

‘3G’ is short for ‘third-generation’ and it’s simply a shorthand for a mobile communication standard (and associated technology) that improved upon the previous ‘2G’ standard (also known as ‘GSM’).

The government allocated 3G licences in 2000. Five companies - Hutchison Whampoa, BT Cellnet, Orange, One2One and Vodafone - spent a combined £22.5 billion buying licences.

3G was also marketed heavily for its ability to support face-to-face video calls, but few people seemed interested in that at the time.  Where 3G does score, however, is in its ability to transfer data quickly — and that’s why it proved so popular once smartphones started to take off for browsing the internet, checking social media and sending email on the go.

3G has gotten faster and faster over the years as standards evolved, and most networks are now capable of delivering download speeds of 7.2Mbit/s. That means you can download a 100MB file in about two minutes.

The key word here, however, is ‘capable’. In practice, download speeds are affected by signal strength, how busy the mobile network is, whether or not you’re moving around, the speed of the web server and a host of other factors.

[Related story: Getting started with BT Mobile]

What is 4G?

4G or fourth generation is sometimes called ‘LTE’, for Long Term Evolution. It is even faster than 3G - up to five times faster in fact. It launched in August 2013 and around 99% of the UK is currently 4G-ready.

Faster speeds means you can download things like music and movies, upload photos and videos more quickly, while web pages loads faster.

With BT Mobile you can enjoy fast 4G in more places than O2, Vodafone and Three.

4G VS 3G

In theory, 4G supports 300Mbit/s downloads and 75Mbit/s upload. In 2014, Ofcom published research that showed 4G to be around twice as fast as 3G.

In its tests, it found that the average 4G download speed across all networks was 15.1Mbit/s, compared to 6.1Mbit/s for 3G. Upload speeds were even better, at around seven times faster 12.4Mbit/s for 4G, compared to 1.6Mbit/s for 3G.

In the video above see how 4G mobile speeds perform against 3G in our trial.

How much does 4G cost?

BT has a range of 12-month SIM-only plans with its new BT Mobile offering which includes 4G at no extra cost.

BT Broadband customers can get discounts of up to 50% on BT Mobile. The 6GB and 15GB plan includes the free BT Sport app. Here’s what the three BT Mobile tariffs get you:

  • 500MB data, unlimited minutes, unlimited BT-Wi-fi and unlimited texts
  • 3GB data, unlimited minutes, unlimited BT-Wi-fi and unlimited texts
  • 6GB data, unlimited minutes, unlimited BT-Wi-fi and unlimited texts, free BT Sport app
  • 15GB data, unlimited minutes, unlimited BT-Wi-fi and unlimited texts, free BT Sport app

Browse our best SIM Only Deals

[Related story: What type of SIM card is right for you?]

Do I need 4G?

If you need high-speed internet access on the move, its speeds are certainly impressive.

4G is like a great idea if you download lots of data on a regular basis. So if you are using video streaming using services like Netflix, watching videos on YouTube and using video chat services like Facetime, 4G will bring a much smoother and faster experience.

BT Mobile coverage checker

Make sure you’re in an area with good 4G coverage by checking out BT Mobile coverage

In order to be able to access 4G, you will need a 4G-compatible phone. Many new phones are 4G ready, so check the manufacturer’s website or the box, BT Mobile states whether each handset it sells if 3G compatible.

Even if your phone isn’t 4G ready, you can still access 3G speeds, which are fine if you are just web browsing and sending email.

Read more: How to boost your home wi-fi

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