The 411: Early days for 4G

Every two weeks in The 411, CNET editor Nicole Lee answers your questions about cell phones and cell phone accessories.

Welcome to The 411, my column answering all your questions about cell phones and cell phone accessories. I receive plenty of questions about these subjects via e-mail, so I figured many of you might have similar queries, too. Occasionally I solicit answers from readers if I'm stumped. Send your questions and comments to me at nicole.lee@cnet.com. If you prefer to remain anonymous, let me know in the e-mail.

With all this talk of 4G, I'm pretty interested to know what my options are. So do all the carriers have 4G? What phone choices do I have? -- Matt, via e-mail

It's true that the carriers have been bombarding our television sets with plenty of commercials touting 4G coverage, so it seems that 4G truly has arrived. But bear in mind that none of it can technically be called 4G right now , at least not according to the official standards body. When carriers like Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile say "4G," they mean speeds that are faster than current 3G networks; they tout speeds of around 3Mbps to 15Mbps download speeds, which are faster then the typical 3G speeds of 800Kbps to 2Mbps. Of course, real world speeds are sure to differ from what the carriers say in the commercials, but we have managed to get pretty good speeds out of purported 4G handsets like the T-Mobile G2 and the HTC Evo 4G.

As for your options, right now Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, and MetroPCS are offering their own versions of a 4G network. Sprint sides with WiMax, Verizon and MetroPCS are on the LTE route, whereas T-Mobile is placing its bets on HSPA+. AT&T insists that it, too, has a widespread HSPA+ network, and has cried foul over T-Mobile's claims that HSPA+ qualifies as 4G since it's based on a 3G technology. Indeed, regardless of what the standards body says, most people in the industry regard LTE and WiMax as 4G, while HSPA+ is seen as an improved 3G network.

However, as T-Mobile's HSPA+ speeds are on par with (and sometimes better than) Sprint and Verizon's supposed 4G networks, HSPA+ shouldn't be overlooked. Also note that AT&T has yet to launch an HSPA+ phone (it currently has only USB modems that tout HSPA+ speeds) but T-Mobile has at least two in the stable, so there aren't many opportunities for comparison. Still, AT&T has promised its own LTE network by next year, so we'll see who comes out ahead then.

But if you can't wait, you do have a few "4G" phones to choose from. Sprint has the HTC Evo 4G and the Samsung Epic 4G; T-Mobile has the T-Mobile G2 and the MyTouch 4G; and MetroPCS has the Samsung Craft. Verizon has yet to offer a LTE-capable phone, though it did say it'll have one by early next year.

Also, don't forget to weigh in the monthly data costs when you decide which phone to get. For T-Mobile, you have to pay $30 a month for unlimited data if you're buying the phone with a voice and messaging plan, or $49.99 a month if you want it to be data only. T-Mobile doesn't differentiate between 3G and 4G/HSPA+ for its pricing. Sprint typically packages in its unlimited data with its voice and text plans and the prices range from $69.99 to $99.99 depending on how many talk minutes you want. However, Sprint charges an additional $10 premium data fee for the privilege of using its 4G network.

You'll probably get the best deal with MetroPCS, which offers a $55 monthly plan for unlimited everything (its non-4G plans are $5 less at $50 a month). You can also opt for the $60 monthly plan if you want to sign up for MetroPCS's 4G Video OnDemand service. Of course, make sure to see if you live in a good coverage area first. You can check out the coverage maps on the carriers' Web sites.

As you can see, it's still early days for 4G. There aren't that many devices, and the speeds are still not fast enough for some people. Just keep all this in mind if you're planning on being a 4G early adopter. For more information on 4G service, feel free to check out our colleague Maggie Reardon's FAQ on the topic .

 

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