LG Nexus 4 vs. Samsung Galaxy S3: Does LTE really matter?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon explains why the Nexus 4's lack of LTE support is a deal-breaker and why Sprint's unlimited-data plan is not.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
9 min read

When choosing a smartphone or a wireless carrier, it's important to know what your deal-breakers are.

There are so many choices today when it comes to picking out a new smartphone or even choosing a service provider. Devices come in different sizes, with different software and even different network support. And wireless carriers, which all have different strengths when it comes to network coverage, offer different packages with different prices for their services. When it comes to choosing a device or a carrier, which of these things is most important to you?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer advice on what I think is most important. Specifically, one reader asks if LTE support is really important when deciding between the LG Nexus 4 and the Samsung Galaxy S3. And in the second question I discuss why Sprint's unlimited-data plan shouldn't be the deciding factor for a world-traveling soldier who wants the new iPhone 5.

Is LTE that important?

Dear Maggie,

I'm a full Android geek and I wanted to get the Samsung Galaxy S3 in December when I can get a good discount with AT&T due to my plan. But now the Nexus 4 has been introduced, which is screwing with my mind. The thing that I love about the Nexus devices is that you get the newer versions of the Android software as soon as Google releases them. That's a huge advantage over the other Android phones. When I had the original Samsung Galaxy S, I had to install a custom ROM in order to get newer updates. But there are a couple of things that are making me hesitate when it comes to the Nexus 4: No LTE and no SD slot.

So my question is: Do I really need LTE with the AT&T service? Is it really worth it?

Thank you, Maggie,

Dear Rodolfo,

The short answer to your question is yes. If you are an AT&T customer, LTE definitely makes a difference. To me going from 3G to 4G wireless service is like going from an old dial-up connection for Internet access in your home to using a broadband connection. You will be amazed at how much faster Web pages load and how quickly your Net-enabled apps work on LTE. At this point, I don't think I could go back.

LG Nexus 4 Josh Miller/CNET

Historically, AT&T hasn't offered specifics about its network performance. And sadly, it's confused the market a bit by calling its HSPA+ network 4G. But since the company has launched LTE, it's been trying to drum up interest for the faster network by talking up the faster LTE speeds.

Last month, the company's head of wireless, Ralph de la Vega, said during AT&T's third-quarter earnings conference call that its LTE service is delivering average download speeds of 12Mbps. This compares with average download speeds of between 2Mbps and 6Mbps for its HSPA+ service, he said. De la Vega also noted that network speeds for Android smartphone customers have increased by 50 percent since last year, when the company was not offering LTE service.

Now, if you've been an AT&T customer as long as I have, this download speed improvement is a much appreciated improvement.

De la Vega also said that the LTE network has helped alleviate congestion on AT&T's older 3G and HSPA+ networks, which has improved the rate of dropped calls and overall performance of the 3G network. This is also good news, since as you know, AT&T hasn't had the best track record when it comes to dropped calls.

So what does this mean for you and your decision? As you correctly noted in your question, the LG Nexus 4 does not support LTE. And the Samsung Galaxy S3 does. But as you also point out, the Nexus 4 has the latest version of Google's Android OS 4.2, aka Jelly Bean. Meanwhile, the Galaxy S3 on AT&T is still supporting the previous version of Android 4.0, aka Ice Cream Sandwich.

Personally, I think that the faster speed of the LTE network, which is supported on the Galaxy S3, trumps the software benefits of having a pure Google phone.This is especially true for AT&T customers such as yourself. As I pointed out above, the LTE speeds really are a marked improvement over AT&T's existing network speeds. What's more, the Galaxy S3 on AT&T is likely to get the upgrade to Jellybean sooner rather than later. Sprint's version of the same device already has gotten the update.

At any rate, I think the faster LTE network is worth the sacrifice of not having the latest Android software. I understand that some people may not like the software called TouchWiz that Samsung adds to its Android devices. There are many who prefer a pure Google Android experience. And I can understand their point. But I don't mind TouchWiz so much.

Still, that is a consideration. If you prefer the pure Google experience, you won't be getting that with the Galaxy S3. But I really do think that for AT&T customers in particular, the lack of 4G LTE on the Nexus 4 is a deal-breaker.

That being said, if you live in an area where AT&T doesn't offer LTE, then my advice might change. But keep in mind that AT&T is adding new markets for its LTE service every quarter. The company plans to have LTE in 100 cities by the end of this year, and it will complete its rollout by the end of 2013. So even if you don't have LTE today, it's likely you will get it before your contract on your next device runs out.

When LTE doesn't matter
If you're a T-Mobile customer or you live anywhere other than the U.S., then I'd probably offer slightly different advice. T-Mobile doesn't yet have an LTE network. It doesn't expect to deploy LTE until next year. This means that when you're deciding between these two devices, LTE isn't much of a factor. Also, T-Mobile's HSPA+ network seems to perform better than AT&T's HSPA+ network. And in some instances, people say T-Mobile's HSPA+ service rivals some LTE networks.

T-Mobile has deployed a faster version of HSPA+ that offers theoretical download speeds of 42Mbps. AT&T's network tops out at a theoretical speed of 21Mbps. The Nexus 4 for T-Mobile supports the HSPA+ up to 42Mbps. So in theory, the Nexus 4 could operate at twice the rate of AT&T's version of the phone wherever T-Mobile supports HSPA+ 42Mbps.

Galaxy S3 owners in the U.S. are now on the list for Android 4.1
Samsung Galaxy S3 Josh Miller/CNET

If you're an international wireless consumer, then LTE is also less relevant, since very few carriers around the world have deployed LTE so far. In that case, the Nexus 4's pure Google Android experience looks very attractive by comparison with the Galaxy S3, which in international versions doesn't support LTE.

Also, as you pointed out in your question, the Nexus 4 lacks a memory expansion slot. By contrast, the Galaxy S3 offers a micro-SD. While this is not a huge deal-breaker for me, if you plan on storing a lot of apps, music, pictures, video, or other media on your device, it's definitely something to consider.

The Nexus 4 comes only with either 8GB or 16GB of internal storage, depending on the model you choose. And because it doesn't have the expansion slot, you can't add additional memory for storage. Meanwhile, the Galaxy S3 comes in three flavors with 16GB or 32GB of internal storage, as well as a 64GB version that is now offered in Europe. Because this device supports micro-SD, the storage can be expanded using 32GB and 64GB cards.

The bottom line for you is that I recommend the Galaxy S3 over the Nexus 4, because I really do think LTE is a differentiator that matters for all AT&T customers. I hope this advice was helpful. And good luck!

First images of Nexus 4 (pictures)

See all photos

Sprint's unlimited data vs. Verizon's benefits for the iPhone 5?

Dear Maggie,

I am currently an AT&T iPhone 4 customer with unlimited data and looking to get an iPhone 5. I am considering leaving AT&T due to the poor quality of service and the treatment of customers with unlimited data.

I am considering moving to either Sprint or Verizon. However, I will be traveling in the U.S. Army overseas very often and for extended periods of time. Mainly, I'll be traveling to Germany, the Middle East, and southwest Asia. I like the sound of Sprint's unlimited-data plan, but I also hear much praise about Verizon from friends and my partner (who works there).

I know Verizon's iPhone 5 is factory unlocked, but what about Sprint's version of the iPhone 5? On average I will use about 3GB of data a month, give or take, and 5GB of data on a very busy month. Cost is not a huge factor unless bills become outrageous. My question is whether I should buy Sprint's iPhone 5 for the unlimited data or should I go with Verizon since it's unlocked and I can put a local SIM card in when I travel overseas?

Thank you, and keep up the amazing work you do.
Army Traveler

Dear Army Traveler,

This is a great question, because it seems like you are stuck a little between a rock and a hard place.

LTE expanding across carriers -- and world

You are correct. Verizon's iPhone 5 is unlocked out of the box. So you should be able to pop out the SIM card and put in a SIM card from a foreign provider once you're overseas. Sprint's iPhone 5 does not come unlocked when you buy it. The company's policy on the iPhone 5 is that the device is locked domestically and internationally. But the international SIM card can be unlocked. The only catch is that you have to be a Sprint subscriber in good standing for at least 90 days before Sprint will unlock the device. (To get the SIM unlocked, call Customer Care at 1-888-211-4727.)

But if you're traveling before the 90-day unlock SIM period, a Sprint representative recommends setting up for an international-rate plan, which will work in most countries. But this option is still pricey. International voice and data charges are on a pay-as-you-go basis, and the fees vary based on which countries you use your phone in. This can be a very costly way to use your phone if you're going to be deployed for a long period of time. So I wouldn't recommend it.

When it comes to price, Verizon and Sprint cost roughly the same. A Verizon Wireless plan, which will give you 4GB of data a month, costs $70 a month plus $40 for a smartphone. That's a total of $110 per month. The 6GB plan, which should cover you even in your heaviest data usage month, is $80 a month plus $40 for a smartphone for a total of $120.

Sprint's unlimited everything plan also costs $110 a month. If you don't need as much voice, it's $80 for 450 minutes, plus unlimited text messaging and data.

While the pricing is roughly comparable, you will have to give up unlimited data if you go with Verizon, since Verizon no longer offers unlimited-data services. But the reality is that you probably don't need unlimited data anyway. For one, you said yourself that at most you use 5GB of data per month. But there will also be months when you're traveling overseas that you will use far less data. (Remember that regardless of the carrier you have in the U.S., your data usage while overseas is not included in your monthly total.)

For the months you will be overseas you can downgrade your plan to the lowest tier of data service offered by Verizon. The cheapest data plan would offer 1GB of data and cost $50 a month plus the $40 for a smartphone for a total of $90 a month.

And when you're back in the U.S. you can bump that service up to an appropriate level. Also, using Wi-Fi and data-compression apps like Onavo can also help you reduce your monthly data usage if you find you're bumping up against your limit every month.

So in short, I think the best option for you is to go with the Verizon iPhone 5 instead of the Sprint iPhone 5. It's unlocked out of the box, which means you can use it with a foreign SIM right away. And even though you'll have to give up an unlimited data plan, I think you may even find ways to save money with Verizon over the long run.

Not to mention the fact that when you're in the U.S., you'll have access to Verizon's LTE network, which has a much wider footprint than Sprint's LTE network.

I hope this advice was helpful. Be safe on your travels overseas. And thank you for your service!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.