It’s possible to access the internet on your smartphone with a 2G, 3G or 4G connection. But what does this actually mean, and is 4G really worthwhile?

In the UK, we now have a wide choice of smartphones and mobile networks, each promising a different download speed. 4G handsets and 4G networks are promising super-fast download speeds of up to 100Mbit/s whereas the latest 3G smartphones and tablets are promising download speeds of up to 42Mbit/s.

In this article, we take an in-depth look into download speeds and compare the speeds offered by 2G, 3G and 4G mobile networks. We’ll also consider “real-world” download speeds and discover how they impact upon your smartphone experience. Finally, we ask whether you’re better off with a 3G plan or a 4G plan.

What does “download speed” actually mean?

Comparing 3G and 4G to 2G is like comparing a motorway to a country lane.

“Download speed” is a measure of how quickly information can be transferred from the internet to your smartphone. The higher the download speed, the less time it takes to download webpages, photos and videos. Download speed is measured in bits per second (a bit is either a one or a zero in binary) with most download speeds given in terms of megabits per second (Mbit/s where 1Mbit/s is equal to one million bits per second).

On smartphones, the highest download speeds can be found on 4G mobile networks (such as EE in the UK). 3G mobile networks also offer very good speeds (Three, O2, Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone) whereas 2G mobile networks suffice only for basic web browsing and e-mail.

How do the download speeds compare on 2G, 3G and 4G?

As the name would imply, fourth-generation (4G) mobile networks offer the best download speeds. They promise download speeds of “up to 100Mbit/s” though in reality you’ll find the average download speed is around 15Mbit/s. The UK’s only 4G network at the time of writing is EE (see our review of EE’s price plans and EE’s SIM Only plans).

Most of us in the UK use third-generation (3G) mobile networks. The most recent version of 3G technology (called Dual-Carrier HSPA+, or DC-HSPA+ for short) offers download speeds of up to 42Mbit/s. Average download speeds on DC-HSPA+ are about 8Mbit/s. You’ll only be able to access this on the latest handsets however: devices supporting DC-HSPA+ include the iPhone 5, the Google Nexus 4 and the Nokia Lumia 920. Older 3G handsets will either support speeds up to 7.2Mbit/s or 21Mbit/s.

Your smartphone will sometimes fall back upon second-generation (2G) mobile networks if there is no 3G coverage where you live. This will show up as a “G” icon or an “E” icon on your device. 2G offers significantly slower download speeds than 3G and 4G technology.

The download speeds of different network technologies compare as follows:

Generation Technology Maximum Download Speed Typical Download Speed
2G GPRS 0.1Mbit/s <0.1Mbit/s
EDGE 0.3Mbit/s 0.1Mbit/s
3G 3G (Basic) 0.3Mbit/s 0.1Mbit/s
HSPA 7.2Mbit/s 1.5Mbit/s
HSPA+ 21Mbit/s 4Mbit/s
DC-HSPA+ 42Mbit/s 8Mbit/s
4G LTE 100Mbit/s 15Mbit/s

Note that our table provides two download speeds: a theoretical maximum (based on the limits of the technology) and a typical download speed (which is more representative of what you’d actually experience). The download speed that you actually get will depend on factors such as your location, whether you are indoors or outdoors and the amount of congestion on your local mast.

What download speeds are actually necessary on a smartphone?

In the majority of smartphone use cases (e.g. browsing the web, reading e-mail, sending instant messages and checking Facebook), there is no minimum download speed requirement. A faster download speed simply means a shorter wait for your content to appear on the screen. In general, we believe that a 3G connection is sufficient for most users and that the higher speeds offered by 4G connections provide only marginal benefits.

Download times for various types of content compare as follows on 4G, 3G and 2G:

Activity 4G Download Time 3G Download Time 2G Download Time
Accessing typical web page 0.1 seconds 0.2 seconds 8 seconds
Sending an e-mail without attachments <0.1 seconds <0.1 seconds 0.8 seconds
Downloading high-quality photograph 1 second 4 seconds 3 minutes
Downloading an music track (MP3) 3 seconds 10 seconds 7 minutes
Downloading an application 3 seconds 12 seconds 8 minutes

For this comparison table, we have used the average 2G/3G/4G download speeds from the table earlier in this article. These average download speeds are 15Mbit/s (4G LTE), 4Mbit/s (3G HSPA+) and 0.1Mbit/s (2G EDGE). Typical file sizes used in our calculations: 100KB for a webpage, 10KB for a basic e-mail, 2MB for a high-quality photograph, 5MB for a music track and 6.1MB for a typical application download.

Some activities such as listening to online radio and video streaming have a minimum download speed requirement. This is because data must be transferred in a timely fashion. If data can not be transferred quickly enough, you will experience regular pauses during playback (content 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 still 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

For comparison, average download speeds are 15Mbit/s on 4G (LTE), 4Mbit/s on 3G (HSPA+) and 0.1Mbit/s on 2G (EDGE). This means that typical 3G and 4G connections should be capable of everything in this table.

Our analysis shows that both 3G and 4G connections are fully capable of sustaining all of the activities in this table. The typical download speed of 4Mbit/s on 3G HSPA+ is more than sufficient even for streaming high-definition video. For this reason, we argue that the average consumer has little to gain from 4G. 4G still lacks a “killer application” which isn’t possible on 3G.

What is the relationship between Kbit/s, Mbit/s and Gbit/s?

There are 1,000 kilobits (kbit) in a megabit (Mbit) and 1,000 megabits in a gigabit (Gbit). This means that a 1Mbit/s connection is twice as fast as a 500kbit/s connection. Wikipedia has a full explanation.

You may find that 2G download speeds are often stated in kbit/s (the maximum download speed on GPRS is 80kbit/s; for EDGE the maximum download speed is 237kbit/s). In the tables above, we have stated these download speeds in Mbit/s for ease of comparison.

What’s the difference between Mbit/s and Mbps?

There is no difference between Mbit/s and Mbps: they are both different ways of abbreviating “megabits per second”. At Ken’s Tech Tips, we use the term Mbit/s as it ensures greater clarity. The alternative term, Mbps, is often confused for “megabytes per second”.

The distinction between bits and bytes is important. Whilst download speeds are usually specified in “megabits per second” (Mbit/s), download limits are usually specified in megabytes (MB). There are 8 bits in a byte (and hence 8 megabits in a megabyte).

Is it worth getting a smartphone with 4G?

No. In our view, the majority of consumers have very little to gain from 4G. Although it is slower than 4G, 3G technology is already fast enough to handle more-or-less anything you can throw at it, including the streaming of high-definition video.

If you regularly download high-quality photographs, MP3 files or smartphone applications you’ll notice that 4G is faster. However, this time saving is measured in seconds. This benefit may also be negated by the download limits on 4G tariffs.

We recommend sticking with 3G for several reasons:

  • Price. 3G price plans are significantly cheaper. It’s possible to get a 3G SIM Only tariff from just £6.90/month whereas 4G price plans start from a mammoth £21/month.
  • Unlimited Data. If you’re sticking to 3G, it’s possible to get a all-you-can-eat/unlimited data plan. This will allow you to use your smartphone without worrying about data limits. All 4G price plans in the UK currently have a download limit.
  • Battery Life. 3G handsets offer significantly better battery life than 4G handsets.
  • Download Speeds. The faster download speeds of 4G will mean very little in day-to-day use: 3G is “good enough”.

How can I find out the download speed of my smartphone?

You can download the “Speed Test” application for iPhone and Android to find out the download speed of your connection. If you’re testing your download speed from a computer, use the SpeedTest.net website instead.

How do download speeds relate to download limits?

There is an indirect relationship between the speed of your connection and the amount of data that you’re likely to consume. On a fast connection, you won’t need to wait as long to download a web page or a video. This improved experience would encourage you to use your connection more regularly and to access more content on-the-go. For this reason, we recommend opting for a larger download allowance when on 4G.

EE’s entry-level price plan comes with a 500MB download limit. It has been widely reported that a sustained average throughput of 15Mbit/s would lead to your entire monthly download allowance being depleted in just 4 minutes and 27 seconds. In reality, this is a slightly unrealistic scenario but it underscores the importance of keeping an eye on your data consumption. Streaming just one hour of online video would use up the entirety of your 500MB monthly download allowance.

Where can I find out more about 4G in the UK?

At the time of writing, there is only one 4G network in the UK: 4GEE. We’ve got a full review of EE and their SIM Only price plans.

Your Comments 51 so far

We'd love to hear your thoughts and any questions you may have. So far, we've received 51 comments from readers. You can add your own comment here.

  • Your detailed elaboration is very helpful and I would recommend latency factor is added in your paper to make it more complete to cover major performance impacting issues that are commonly seen in real world.

  • Hi Mr. Ken
    My questions to u are:
    1. Does Jio network in India (powered by reliance) really gives 4g speed as promised by its M.D.-Mr. Mukesh Ambani.?
    2.When will 5g network reach in India according to u n what will be its approximate speed?

    • Hi Archit,
      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, I’m not an expert on the mobile networks in India so I’m not able to answer this question for you. With regards to 5G, I don’t believe the standards have even been finalised – I’m expecting it’ll be another 3 or 4 years before the first commercial test deployments, so a full commercial rollout is likely to take even longer.
      Ken

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