Terms like “3G Capable” and “EDGE Connectivity” are often employed when describing the data capabilities of smartphones. While wireless retail associates are correct in explaining that one is faster than the other, there are sometimes gaps in the knowledge they impart to customers considering the purchase of a new phone. Understanding the key differences between the two data technologies could save you from buying a phone with features that aren't useful for your area.
GSM-based carriers like T-Mobile and AT&T offer a data service known as 3G in densely populated areas. 3G is short for "third generation." A 3G signal allows you to download data at a top speed of 14.4 Mpbs. While this speed may vary depending on network congestion in your area, this type of connection typically offers connectivity that is fast enough to support media streaming applications like Netflix, Hulu and Pandora. Your phone will indicate that it is using 3G by displaying a “3G” icon near the antenna bars at the top of your screen.
GSM carriers utilize an Enhanced Data GSM Environment – commonly referred to as EDGE – for slower but more widespread data connections. Your phone displays an “E” or “EDGE” icon to indicate that it is currently utilizing this type of data signal. With EDGE, your device can download data at a top speed of 384 Kbps. Compared to 3G, this speed is equivalent to 0.385 Mbps. While it is a much slower connection, EDGE service is typically available in geographic locations where 3G is unavailable.
While many newer smartphones are capable of using both 3G and EDGE, older devices may only offer EDGE and a slower service known as General Packet Radio Service (GPRS). If you are looking to buy a phone – especially if you are considering a used phone from eBay or a friend – take the device’s data capabilities into account. You should also check coverage maps on your wireless provider’s website to ensure 3G and EDGE services are available in your area.
Even if you live in a 3G coverage area and use a 3G phone, you may still see the EDGE icon from time to time. During periods of heavy network congestion or outages, users may be temporarily shunted back to the EDGE network. This may also happen if your 3G reception is very poor while in an area with a very strong EDGE signal.