Is the new Apple iPhone 4S really a 4G mobile? And how quick will its data speeds be in the UK?

iphone4s-image.jpgSo the jury is out on the Apple iPhone 4S. Those who were expecting a radical redesign are obviously disappointed, but it is clear that this is a sensible evolution from what has (in spite of its antenna problems) been a very well received mobile. That eight mega pixel camera, HD 1080p video recording and smoother processor at least mean that the new iPhone keeps pace with its Android rivals

One of the key enhancements is the speed at which the phone can access data. According to Apple ‘data can now download up to 2x as fast. The theoretical max performance of the iPhone used to be 5.8Mbps up and 7.2Mbps down — it has now been doubled to almost 14.4Mbps down.’

This was illustrated by a slide that highlighted the maximum data speeds of the iPhone and rivals like the Motorola Atrix and HTC Inspire 4G.

So does that mean that the new iPhones run on 4G networks? Well much depends on your definition of 4G.

All sorts of networks and handsets are currently available which purport to offer 4G services. Though none of them really offer 4G as we will understand it in say five years time.

And Apple’s new handset runs on an enhanced 3G format called HSPA+. This is called 4G by AT&T (one of the US networks that has the iPhone) but not by anyone else. Also HSPA+ 14.4 phones typically really only run on real world speeds 1.5 to 2 Mbps. Contrast this with the service offered by Verizon which uses an early form of LTE (Long Term Evolution) 4G technology. It can deliver data speeds five times faster than HSPA+ and sometimes even faster.

The iPhone 4S that will run on Verizon and Sprint won’t even be able to access HSPA+ and will have mobile data speeds akin to standard 3G phones.

So what about the UK? Well Three is committed to rolling out a HSPA+ 14.4 network and hopes to have it across most of the UK by the end of the year. Vodafone has HSPA+ in most of its key urban areas as has 02. So the iPhone 4S should in theory run at improved data speeds on those networks. The other networks are running a little behind but planning to catch up shortly.

So to sum up then in the US the iPhone 4S will be able to compete with handsets like the the Motorola Atrix and HTC Inspire 4G on AT&T’s HSPA+ network, and in theory will be quicker on Three, Vodafone and O2 in the UK. But if you want to see some real smoking 4G action you need to see the Motorola Droid Bionic on Verizon’s 4G LTE network.

Underneath is a quick primer on 4G from earlier this summer.

What is 4G?

You may have been able to figure this bit out from the name alone; 4G represents the fourth generation of cellular communications standards, following on from 3G, and 2G before even that. In theory, 4G should allow for drastically faster cellular data speeds, perhaps as much as 10x as fast, which would allow for far faster download and upload speeds from mobile devices.

4G will deliver speeds of 100 Mbps for mobile applications and 1 Gigabit per second for fixed networks, making regular home broadband look snail-paced in comparison. In an age where downloading films, music and applications on mobiles is becoming increasingly prevalent, with higher-quality file types resulting in ever-growing file sizes, 4G will let streaming and downloading whilst on the go become a smooth, stress-free experience.

Are there different forms of 4G?

Yes there are. Long Term Evolution Advanced (LTEA) and WiMAX Release 2 are the 4G services which the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) have classified as true 4G. In a format war similar to Betamax and VHS, it’s hard to say which of the two 4G forms will be dominant, though LTEA seems to edging ahead at this early stage.

For instance, Verizon and AT&T both agree that; “LTE provides a more natural upgrade for [their] GSM/UMTS/HSPA/CDMA-based networks and subscribers – and GSM is the dominant mobile standard worldwide, with more the 3 billion global customers as of February 2010.”

Can I get a 4G connection yet?

In the UK no, and that’s unlikely to change until 2014/15 at the earliest. OFCOM are still divvying up the 4G spectrum in Blighty.

In the United States, the answer is yes via Verizon’s LTE network. This isn’t fully flavoured 4G as we will come to know it, but it does deliver very quick data download speeds. Even on slow days phones like the Motorola Droid Bionic work at a minimum of 10Mbps that’s at least 10 times faster than 3G handsets.

T-Mobile and Sprint both claim to offer 4G connections in the USA, the truth of the matter is that these are more like 3.5G connections, as they are built upon HSPA+ (not LTEA or WiMAX Release 2) technology. They’ll be upgradeable to true 4G once the network technology becomes available though.

When will the “true 4G” networks be available?

4G is a significant investment for the networks, with a complex array of antennas, towers and other such infrastructure to put in place before we will see the true 4G download speeds of 100 Mbps that the ITU categorise as real 4G. To that end, you’re probably looking at 3 to 4 years, with some less-well-funded networks possibly never offering 4G connectivity.

Is it worth me buying a 4G phone then?

Not if you are in the UK. By the time the true 4G networks arrive, this first wave of 4G-enabled handsets may look quite aged.

Ashley Norris