iPhone 5 on 3G vs 4G: Is 4G LTE worth the extra money?

September 14th, 2012

For the first time in the UK, the new iPhone 5 will be available with 4G LTE. Is it worth going for 4G or would it be a better option to stick to 3G?

Apple announced their latest generation smartphone earlier this week: the iPhone 5. Due to be released on September 21st, the new iPhone will contain support for super-fast downloads over 4G LTE mobile networks. Whereas the iPhone 4S can potentially achieve download speeds of up to 21Mbit/s using 3G technology (HSPA+ technology to be precise), the new iPhone 5 can potentially achieve download speeds of up to 100Mbit/s on compatible 4G networks.

With the launch of the UK’s first 4G network from EE earlier this week, British consumers will for the first time be offered a choice of the iPhone on a 3G data plan or a 4G data plan. In this article, we compare 3G and 4G or on the iPhone 5 and look at which option you should go for.

How do download speeds compare between 3G and 4G?

The new iPhone 5 supports both 3G and 4G networks. If you’re on a 4G data plan from EE (4GEE) and you live in one of the 16 cities with 4G coverage from EE, you could potentially experience download speeds of up to 100Mbit/s from your iPhone 5. This 100Mbit/s figure is only a theoretical maximum however: in reality you’d probably experience download speeds closer to 15Mbit/s. This is roughly equivalent to what you’d expect from a good home broadband connection.

If you’re on a 3G data plan from Three, O2, Orange, T-Mobile or Vodafone, you can potentially experience download speeds of up to 21Mbit/s using the iPhone 5’s support for 3G HSPA+ technology. Once again however, 21Mbit/s is only a theoretical maximum: in reality you’d probably get speeds closer to 4Mbit/s. Customers with an iPhone 5 on the 4GEE service will fall back onto the Orange and T-Mobile 3G networks if they lose 4G coverage.

For more information, check out our in-depth guide to download speeds on 2G, 3G and 4G and what they mean.

What do these download speeds actually mean? What download speeds do I actually require?

4G offers higher download speeds but they’re probably not necessary.

For the majority of normal smartphone usage such as web browsing, e-mail, instant messaging or checking Facebook, there is no minimum download speed requirement.

A typical webpage is around 100 kilobytes in size and would take around 0.2 seconds to load fully on a typical 3G connection (note that we’re using typical download speeds of 4Mbit/s here and there are 8 bits in every byte). On a typical 4G connection, it would just under 0.1 seconds to download fully.

A typical high-quality photo captured from a digital camera will be around 2MB in size. The full image would take around 4 seconds to download on a 3G connection and only 1 second on a 4G connection. Although it’s a quarter-fold reduction, it’s still a saving of only 3 seconds. Note that the majority of images online are reduced in size so will download quicker.

Some online activities such as video calling or streaming video from the internet require a certain download speed to work properly. This is because data must be transferred in a timely fashion. If data can not be transferred quickly enough, you may experience pauses in playback regularly (e.g. buffering).

The following activities require a minimum sustained connection speed:

Activity Required Download Speed
Browsing the Web (for a good experience) 0.3Mbit/s, but lower speeds OK
Watching YouTube Videos 0.5Mbit/s
Listening to Online Radio 0.13Mbit/s
Skype voice call 0.1Mbit/s
Skype video call 0.5Mbit/s
Skype video call (HD) 1.5Mbit/s
Watching iPlayer (standard definition) 1.0Mbit/s
Watching iPlayer (high definition) 3.2Mbit/s

Many other activities such as reading e-mail and sending instant messages use up very little bandwidth. They will work well on any connection, including a 2G GPRS connection.

Do I really need 4G on my iPhone 5?

EE are the only company currently offering 4G in the UK.

In our opinion, 4G probably isn’t worthwhile for the majority of consumers at the moment. As the above table shows, a 3G HSPA+ connection at 4Mbit/s should be more than capable of doing almost anything you’d want from your smartphone. Whilst a 4G LTE connection will certainly be faster than a 3G connection, we argue that these speeds are simply superfluous for most uses. For this reason, we recommend purchasing the iPhone 5 on a 3G plan.

What is the price difference between iPhone 5 on 3G and 4G?

Prices have yet to be announced for the iPhone 5 but we’ll be updating our iPhone 5 price comparison page as soon as they are.

How do download speeds compare between different editions of the iPhone?

Download speeds on the iPhone 5 compare to previous models of the iPhone as follows:

Handset Network Technology Maximum Download Speed Typical Download Speed
iPhone 5 4G LTE 100Mbit/s 15Mbit/s
iPhone 5 3G HSPA+ 21Mbit/s 4Mbit/s
iPhone 4S 3G HSPA+ 21Mbit/s 4Mbit/s
iPhone 4 3G HSPA 7.2Mbit/s 1.5Mbit/s

If I buy a SIM-free version of the iPhone 5, will I be able to use it on other networks?

The SIM-free version of the iPhone 5 (if purchased in the UK), will work on all of the major UK networks. You’ll be able to get 2G and 3G coverage from all of the UK’s mobile phone networks and 4G coverage from EE.

If you are purchasing an iPhone 5 from outside the UK, you must check which edition of the phone you are buying. The A1429 model, which is being sold in the UK, will work with EE’s 4G service in the UK. The A1428 model (sold on AT&T in the US and multiple networks in Canada) will work with 2G and 3G in the UK but will not work with EE’s 4G service. The A1429 CDMA model (from Sprint & Verizon in the USA) will not work on any network in the UK.

Will the iPhone 5 work with upcoming 4G services from O2, Vodafone and Three?

Most probably not – although it could possibly work on Three’s 4G service which is due to launch in the second half of 2013.

The iPhone 5 model being sold in the UK will be the A1429 (GSM edition). This supports LTE at three wavelengths: 850MHz, 1800MHz and 2100MHz. EE’s 4G service makes use of the 1800MHz radio band so will be supported by the A1429 model.

Until now, the most likely outcome of the upcoming mobile spectrum auction is that new 4G LTE services from O2, Vodafone and Three will make use of the 800MHz and 2600MHz frequency bands. Unfortunately, these are not supported by any model of the iPhone 5.

As Three recently agreed to purchase spectrum from EE at 1800MHz, there is the possibility of them launching a 4G service next year which will be compatible with the iPhone 5. As O2 and Vodafone do not have significant holdings at 1800MHz, their only option for launching a 4G service on the iPhone 5 would be to re-farm their existing 3G spectrum at 2100MHz. However, this is unlikely as it would degrade their existing 3G services.

It is probable that Apple will eventually release a new version of the iPhone 5 with support for the 800MHz and 2600MHz frequency bands. This is because both of these frequencies are becoming popular in Europe. For this reason, if you’re waiting for a 4G LTE services from O2, Vodafone or Three you should wait until they launch their 4G services before buying an iPhone. This is because there is no guarantee the A1429 model of the iPhone 5 will work on their new networks.

Doesn’t the iPhone 4 also support 4G?

No. It is a common misunderstanding that the iPhone 4 supports 4G technology. Both the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 4S only support 3G technology. The misunderstanding originates from the fact that before the iPhone 4, the previous generation of the iPhone was known as the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3G S. The 4 in ‘iPhone 4’ simply refers to the fourth-generation iPhone rather than 4G network technology.

Where can I find the cheapest deals for the iPhone 5?

Our iPhone price comparison tool compares the cost of all iPhone 5 tariffs in the UK to help you find the lowest-priced deal.

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About Ken

Ken Lo

My passion is helping people to get the most out of their mobile phone. I've been blogging at Ken's Tech Tips since 2005.

Aside from writing about mobile technology, my interests are in software development, digital marketing and physics. Outside of the blog, I work with numerous technology companies helping them to explain their product and helping them to market it to consumers. Please get in touch for more information.

Your Comments

We'd love to hear your thoughts and any questions you may have. So far, we've received 2 comments from readers. You can add your own comment here.

  1. Victor Winters said:

    Well, obviously, 4G will be better and faster than 3G. The only question there is whether a buyer can afford a 4G-capable unit or not.

  2. Jeremy said:

    Just like any new technology, 4G is more expensive, but provides the better and faster services. Of course, it is only for a user to decide what to choose, but if you should load load of data on your smartphone or tablet, you need to use video calling, etc. it is a better option to pay a bit more, but to use the most advanced 4G network.

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