4G, the near-mythical new standard for mobile data speeds, has finally hit UK shores after a torturous wait. EE, the umbrella company for T-Mobile and Orange, are the first network to launch a 4G service in the UK, and we've spent the last month trying it out on a variety of handsets. Read on for Tech Digest's verdict on the new premium service.
EE quote 8 - 10 Mbps minimum speeds for their 4G network, double that of a standard 3G connection, with the potential to hit staggering highs of 40 Mbps.
While we never got near that 40Mbps high, our top speed when connected to the 4G network was an astounding 22.8 Mbps, with an average of just over 19 Mbps. It's incredible; apps downloaded almost instantaneously, as did web pages. Streaming iPlayer or YouTube videos was a stutter free experience, while downloading full albums took mere seconds. It was similarly great experience using Google's Maps, with directions and even the slower Street View loading incredibly quickly - a particularly useful use of 4G speeds, seeing how frustrating it can feel to be lost while having to wait for maps to update.
We also downloaded the biggest Android app we could think of, and checked how long that took. We grabbed the 3.5 GB The Bard's Tale game in just 31 minutes, 32 seconds. That's incredibly fast for a mobile data connection, and would rival even respectable home broadband speeds. It's the sort of sizable download you wouldn't even dare attempt on a 3G service (and one that would admittedly hammer EE contract data allowances, seeing as none offer unlimited data).
When running at these sort of speeds, it really does feel like the future of mobile internet.
EE 4G's main problem is the consistency of its coverage and speeds. Even in London, it's often patchy at best. While central locations like Oxford Street and Tower Bridge produce blisteringly fast speeds, you wont get consistent download speeds everywhere you go. 4G download speeds will always be high (we never got less than 7 Mbps when connected to 4G, almost double the average of 4.5 Mbps from our personal Three 3G contract), but a chunk lower than the 8 - 10 Mbps quoted on the EE website, and nowhere near the 40 Mbps claimed top speeds. We've not been able to test the network outside of London, but if you're an EE 4G user living in another UK city, we'd love to hear from you
More worrying was how often I couldn't pick up the 4G signal at all. Connecting inside buildings seemed to be a particular struggle for the network, and the area of Streatham that I live in wasn't served by 4G at all. In these cases you wont be left without a signal as the network automatically reverts to slower 3G instead, but it's not the premium service you're paying for. In its defence, EE are very transparent about which areas are receiving good coverage and offer up a clear coverage map on their website. But we'd definitely encourage you to check if the areas you spend the majority of your time in are covered by the network before committing the cash.
EE 4G contracts are 24 months long, and all handsets but the Huawei Ascend P1 LTE require an upfront cost for the hardware itself.
Prices are as follows:
£36 for 500MB a month
£41 for 1GB a month
£46 for 3GB a month
£51 for 5GB a month
£56 for 8GB a month
SIM-only 4G plans (which last only 12 months) are as follows:
£21 for 500MB a month
£26 for 1GB a month
£31 for 3GB a month
£36 for 5GB a month
Lets break it down by handset. The Huawei Ascend P1 LTE then is the only EE 4G phone that you can get for free, but requires that you get on the £41 a month 1GB plan. You can get the Samsung Galaxy S3 for £29.99 on a £46 a month contract that bags you 3GB of data, which isn't too much more than 3G contracts. Similarly, £49.99 for a 16GB iPhone 5 on a £46/3G a month contract isn't far off of 3G prices. Other handsets, such as the Samsung Galaxy Note II and HTC One XL are also available through EE's 4G plans.
Click here for full pricing breakdowns.
Across the range of contracts available, it's roughly £5 to £10 more expensive per month than a comparable 3G data allowance. If you live in an area where coverage is consistent, and you use your mobile for web browsing and downloads a lot, we'd say that's a pretty fair deal, considering the quality of the service when it's at its best.
If you have already pre-purchased a 4G-ready handset from EE's subsidiary networks Orange or T-Mobile, all you'll have to do is pick a new 2-year contract from EE and they'll sort out the details for you to swap over.
Now remember, if you're after a 4G handset, it's likely because you consider yourself a heavy web user, which means you will naturally be going to go for a bigger data allowance. But even if you keep a close eye on your current data allowance and think you'll be able to get by on a modest data allowance, reconsider; using a 4G network will change your usage habits because of the speeds on show. You'll tear through videos and sizeable downloads that you wouldn't even attempt on a 3G network, and your data usage (at least from our experience with the network) will be far higher than usual. To get the most out of 4G, go for as generous a data allowance as your wallet can stretch to.
So far, we've tried the 4G network on three of the 4G-enabled handsets from EE: the Huawei Ascend P1 LTE, the HTC One XL and the Samsung Galaxy S3 (we're going to get our hands on the 4G-enabled iPhone 5 next week, and will update this post accordingly). Here's a quick run down of the main specs of each device:
Huawei Ascend P1 LTE
- 4.3-inch Super AMOLED display, 960x540
- 1.5GHz dual-core processor
- 8MP Camera
- 132.5mm x 65.4mm x 9.9mm, 135g
- 4G built-in storage (supports microSD expansion)
HTC One XL
- 4.7-inch Super IPS LCD2 display, 1280 x 720
- 1.5GHz dual-core processor
- 8MP Camera
- 135mm x 70 mm x 10mm, 129g
- 32GB built-in storage
Samsung Galaxy S3
- 4.8-inch Super AMOLED, 1280 x 720, 133g
- 1.4GHz quad-core processor
- 8MP Camera
- 136.6mm x 70.6mm x 8.6mm
- 16GB built-in storage (supports microSD expansion)
If you're interested in a 4G connection, you're likely the sort who does plenty of web browsing and movie watching, as they're the things that really benefit most from the speedy connection. In that respect, you're going to want a phone with a decent screen, and a decent amount of storage. The Huawei Ascend P1, for instance only has 4GB of onboard storage (expandable with an additional microSD card), which you'll burn through fairly quickly with app, song and movie downloads, whereas the Galaxy S3, with a microSD card, can potentially support an extra 32GB on top of its 16GB of built-in storage. Considering you're going to be able to download sizable, processor-challenging gaming apps, the Galaxy S3's speedy quad core chip and sizable gorgeous display (alongside ample storage) makes it so far our handset of choice for the EE network.
EE's 4G offering, when running to its full potential, is astounding. It's incredibly fast, on a reasonable variety of smartphones covering all the major operating systems and, though its contract price carries a definite premium, it feels fair when the service delivers on its promise.
It is however inconsistent, and you'll want to take a long hard look at the coverage map before committing to the lengthy contracts. It's a service that should improve fairly rapidly however, so check back regularly to see if the network's blackspots have been fixed in the coming weeks and months. EE's 4G network comes highly recommended then, provided your areas are covered. If you've got the opportunity, we'd definitely recommend trying the network out and about if possible, and at the very least keep an eye out on web forums for the views and experiences of other users up and down the country for news on areas we've been unable to test.