This holiday buying season, plenty of would-be smartphone owners are looking at 4G phones, wondering what benefits there are to 4G, and whether they need them. We'll take a look at a few of the important questions, weigh the pros and cons, and tell you what you might want to consider.
What is "4G"?
With all the different marketing spins out there, it's no surprise that some people are vague on exactly what 4G really is, or how it would benefit them. Put simply, "4G" (for fourth generation) as it's used in describing smartphones is any means of providing very-high-speed Internet access "over the air" on mobile phone networks. The various providers have a bunch of different standards and technologies they use -- LTE, WiMAX, HSPA+ -- but it all boils down to "fast internet," faster even than the relatively fast speeds of 3G phones.
Of course, the provider you're on will affect just how fast you're talking about. Sprint's 4G WiMAX network runs a relatively "slow" 3 to 5 megabits per second, while Verizon's LTE delivers speeds of 10 to 20 Mbps. Each one is different, but it comes down to a choice between "fast" and "really, really fast."
As always, the most important question is whether your area is covered. Verizon is still in the process of rolling out its 4G LTE network, and right now, it is available only in major cities. The same is even more true of AT&T's LTE-based network, though its slightly slower HSPA+ network is more widespread. Sprint's WiMAX service is fairly widespread, and T-Mobile has deployed its HSPA+ across much of its coverage area, but so far, all these carriers are primarily offering 4G service in and around large metropolitan areas. Rural areas are relegated to 3G at best.
Pros and Cons
As with a lot of new technologies, though, 4G does have its downsides. In this case, it's pretty simple: the faster you transmit data, the more battery power it will cost you. And 4G technologies are relatively new, so designers haven't had as much time to tweak them to be power efficient as they have with older tech. So, you'll get much poorer battery life with a 4G phone than you would from a 3G. And how much poorer will be at least somewhat proportional to the speed boost.
Newer devices, particularly from Motorola and Samsung, include much bigger batteries than older smartphones to help deal with the added power drain. This means that instead of short battery life being the trade-off for 4G, increased size and weight is. For some people, this is problematic, for others, it's not. Often, a hands-on feel for a device in a store is the only way to know for sure.
There is also another limitation you should keep in mind: most of your 4G options run the Android OS. Despite what many people think, the iPhone does not support any type of 4G at all. There are no Windows Phone or BlackBerry models with LTE or WiMAX, though there are HSPA+ options.
So why make the trade-offs?
Well, besides the simple allure of faster speeds, 4G enables some things that aren't possible or practical on 3G - like streaming HD-quality video or high-quality two-way video calling. And let's not underestimate the allure of speed, being able to pull down a 5MB Android app in 4 seconds instead of 45. Even with the caps some providers put on downloads, that's a lot of lightning fast songs, movies and apps delivered over the air to your phone.
Which One Should You Get?
So you've decided to get in on the 4G wave, but which phone is best for you? Fortunately, we have some recommendations that will get you on the right path, whether you're looking for a cutting-edge device, or a budget buy that will give you a great smartphone that you can buy for less than $100.
The Bleeding Edge
Samsung Galaxy Nexus (Multiple carriers)
This brand new release is the most advanced Android phone to date, featuring a large, full HD quality screen -- 1280 x 720 pixels -- as well as a huge battery and 32GB of storage, making it the current king of the smartphone heap.
Motorola Droid RAZR (Verizon Wireless)
Motorola's newest Droid combines pretty much all the specs of it's predecessor, the Droid Bionic, while tossing in a better quality AMOLED screen and a slimmer design, all topped off by Verizon's incredibly fast 4G network.
Samsung Galaxy S II (Multiple carriers)
The Galaxy S II is a step down from the newer Galaxy Nexus, but still a powerhouse on it's own, available on most carriers and packing all the perks.
The Budget Buys
Samsung Infuse 4G (AT&T)
A little older than the Galaxy S II, the Infuse still manages to pack in an amazing screen and lots of memory, along with a sleek design and excellent battery life.
Motorola Photon 4G (Sprint)
Sprint's answer to the Droid Bionic, the Photon 4G has a high-end feature set, access to Sprint's truly unlimited data, and perks like HDMI out other cheap phones can't match.
T-Mobile Sidekick 4G (T-Mobile)
Despite being designed as a messaging device for the younger set, the Sidekick 4G has solid Android features, as well as an exceptionally comfortable keyboard, making it a great choice whether you do a lot of texting and email, or just want to be able to type in comfort.
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