What Is the Difference Between 3G & 4G?

Representing the third and fourth generations of mobile technology respectively, 3G and 4G networks have many differences. Most notably, their rates of data transfer and signal quality are highly divergent. However, the implementation of 4G networks has faced many hurdles. Unlike 3G, 4G technology is not fully defined by governing bodies in charge of wireless technology.

Hands of man and woman using pda
two cellphones
credit: Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images

Misconceptions

Close-up of person texting on smartphone
screen of cellphone
credit: Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images

4G networks do not have a standard technology, minimizing the value of the label. Different carriers apply the term to three basic technologies; HSPA+ 21/42, WiMAX and LTE. However, the slow speed of some of these technologies make calling them a 4G technology disputable.

Function

Businesswoman holding cell phone
woman holding cellphone
credit: Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images

3G and 4G networks offer divergent levels of data transfer from sources to a device. In general, 3G networks enable 144Kbps minimum for Internet transfer speed. No specific standard exists for 4G networks.

Features

Smiling businesswoman texting
woman texting on cellphone
credit: Jupiterimages/Goodshoot/Getty Images

The basic difference is that -- on the same network -- a 4G network is faster than a 3G network. However, compared across multiple carriers, one carrier's 3G may be significantly faster than another carrier's version of 4G.

Knowing What to Buy

Male office worker at workstation, view over shoulder
man researching on computer
credit: Christopher Robbins/Photodisc/Getty Images

When comparing 3G and 4G, compare data transmission speeds, not the label. AT&T's 3G, for example, is faster than MetroPCS' 4G LTE, according to tests run by PCMag.com.

When to Move to 4G

Blue tone of a electrical tower with power lines against a blue sky.
cell phone tower
credit: Thinkstock/Comstock/Getty Images

Upgrading to 4G requires a new phone. Before you make that upgrade, check the status of the 4G coverage in your area. In some situations, 3G is the best available, with 4G only in planning stages.