If you're in the market for a new smartphone or if you simply keep an eye on the latest and greatest mobile devices, you've probably heard a lot about 4G and LTE.
But does 4G/LTE really matter to the average smartphone user?
Last year, I would have answered "No, not really." In fact, I wrote a blog post explaining why I was resisting LTE back in November 2011. But after using a few different LTE devices for a number of months, I changed my mind, and there's no turning back now. I'll explain why, but first I want to clear up some confusion.
Not all 4G is created equal. For example, carriers including AT&T and T-Mobile call their HSPA+ networks "4G." I tend to think of HSPA+ as "faux G" or 3.5G, which is faster than HSPA and EDGE, but not nearly as fast as LTE. Then there's WiMax, which is technically true 4G, but it still isn't as reliable or as fast as LTE. WiMax coverage in the United States is also much more limited than LTE coverage.
The majority of major U.S. wireless carriers now have LTE networks, but individual LTE-network coverage varies widely by geographic area. And data speeds can also be very different depending on your location. (T-Mobile is the only major U.S. carrier without an LTE network; the company says it will launch its LTE network in 2013.)
For this article, I'm referring to the benefits of LTE 4G. I live in the Boston area, and I'm lucky enough to have relatively widespread AT&T and Verizon Wireless LTE coverageI'm not a Sprint customer, so I'm not familiar with Sprint's LTE in Boston. On average, I see AT&T and Verizon download speeds of more than 20 Mbps and sometimes up to 40 Mbps. And I get average uploads between 5 Mbps and 20 Mbps. For context, these data speeds are at least three to four times faster than the average HSPA+ speeds I see on AT&T and T-Mobile.
That's all fine and good, but the question here isn't whether or not LTE is faster than HSPA+ or CDMA Rev. A or EDGE. It definitely is. The question is whether the faster speeds matter to average users.
The Case for LTE: Why 4G Really Does Matter
Almost half of U.S. consumers say LTE doesn't matter to them, according to research from market-analysis firm Piper Jaffray. More specifically, more than 46 percent of people surveyed said they don't need access to a 4G LTE network, and 26 percent of respondents said they think all 4G LTE networks offer roughly the same data speeds and overall experience, CNET reports.
The Piper Jaffray survey findings suggest that U.S. consumers are misinformed, and I'm willing to bet that the majority of respondents who said they don't care about LTE have never used an LTE device, at least not regularly. The benefits of LTE will vary by individual user and by location, but they're also clear for users who want the most out of their mobile devices. Here are some reasons why.
Four Reasons Why You Need an LTE Phone
1) Overall Device and Network Performance
Assuming you live in an area with decent LTE coverage, you should immediately notice enhanced overall network and device performance when connected to LTE. Faster data speeds mean your device can communicate with the Web and your various online services more quickly and efficiently. And your overall device performance should improve as well because your phone doesn't have to work as hard to send data to or receive it from nearby towers.
Consumers with LTE devices see significantly fewer network and device problems related to slow data speeds, according to a recent study from J.D. Power and Associates, with LTE users seeing 5 percent fewer problems than all others surveyed, and up to 8 percent fewer issues than consumers with HSPA+ devices.
However, you'll pay more for those data speeds and enhanced device performance, according to the J.D. Power research. The average monthly LTE-wireless bill is $6 more than the average bill for all smartphone customers surveyed. ($131 [LTE] vs. $125). You will also very likely use more data on LTE than on slower networks so you may see overages and have to upgrade your data plan accordingly, which will also cost you more.
2) Streaming Media
As more and more consumers move their digital media libraries to the cloud, the benefits of LTE will become crystal clear. Streaming high-quality music or HD video files can be a nightmare over HSPA+ or slower networksespecially if you're driving or traveling and dropping in and out of wireless coverage areas. You'll still probably lose your LTE connection occasionally when traveling, but you'll also transfer files and download streaming media quicker, so your playback won't always be affected when the network drops out.
A Boston radio station I've listened to for years (WFNX) recently went off the air and moved to an online-only format, RadioBDC. The station quickly released mobile apps for radio streaming, and I've been using them ever since. The problem: When I use them on an HSPA+ device the music drops in and out somewhat regularly. When I stream RadioBDC over LTE, music is very rarely interrupted.
I'm also a big baseball fan, and I watch games on MLB.tv, a service that lets you stream MLB content to your mobile device using the MLB At Bat mobile apps. Baseball games look great in HD on the Samsung Galaxy S III display when streamed via LTE, and the quality is noticeably worse when I stream over HSPA+.
3) Sharing Your LTE Connection via Mobile Hotspot
I've been using mobile hotspot features on a number of smartphones for a couple years, but I never realized the true value of mobile hotspots until I got an LTE phone. My LTE mobile hotspot is as fast as or faster than the Wi-Fi in my home office. Because I live in an area with widespread LTE coverage, I got Wi-Fi-like speeds in most of the areas I visit in an average day. That means I can bring my laptop and my LTE device and actually work without any interruption or frustration over slow data.
In the past, when I used an HSPA+ device with mobile hotspot to work on the road, posting blog entries and uploading images and video, I'd often have to stop due to insufficient coverage or data speed. Just last week while traveling by train from New York to Boston, the Amtrak Wi-Fi, which was spotty to begin with, got so slow that it was practically useless. I turned on my LTE mobile hotspot and I forgot all about slow Internet connections.
But again, mobile hotspot functionality is an add-on to your data plan, so you'll pay more for the convenience. And you'll also likely use more data when connected to a hotspot, and possibly paying more for data overages.
4) Videoconferencing over LTE
Mobile videoconferencing isn't new; Skype has offered mobile videoconference functionality for years and Apple brought it to the masses of iPhone users with FaceTime.
But LTE makes smartphone videoconferencing actually work. And work well. If you've ever tried to use a videoconferencing client over an HSPA+ or slower network, you know the experience is rarely a smooth one. Either video quality is poor and audio is delayed or video is choppy. Videoconferencing gets old quickly when your network isn't fast enough to offer a seamless audio and video experience.
LTE speeds are fast enough for videoconferencing to work the way it's supposed to. Personally, I don't really use videoconferencing that often, but I can say that experience is much more enjoyable when two people with LTE phones and solid coverage connect than when one or both parties is on a slow wireless network.
Bottom line: If you live in an area where LTE is spotty or nonexistent, you shouldn't rush to upgrade to a compatible device and wireless service plan. But if you live in an urban area like Boston where LTE is alive and well and you want to do more with your smartphone, the future is now.