Are the new 4G phones any good?
The first 4G phones to launch in the UK were basically just LTE-equipped versions of top-end 3G phones, such as the iPhone 5S, Samsung Galaxy S4, and HTC One, along with a few mid range handsets such as the HTC One Mini and Nokia Lumia 820.
One of the advantages to being late to the 4G party is that we're spared the rubbish "first try" handsets that we suffered back when 3G came out, so don't be shy to try the new 4G phones.
More recently almost every new high end handset, along with a good chunk of the mid range ones and even some low end smartphones are 4G-ready, so even if you have a 3G contract chances are you have a 4G phone.
Speaking of low end ones, it's becoming ever more affordable to get 4G as not only have the contract prices fallen but it's available on cheaper handsets too. Recent additions include the likes of the EE Kestrel which delivers 4G speeds for just £99 and the Moto G 4G which can be picked up SIM free from around £150 and there are other similarly priced 4G phones too.
We expect that in the coming months ever more affordable 4G phones will launch, so price is no longer much of an obstacle to joining the super-fast data club.
Do the 4G versions of the iPad 4, iPad Mini and iPhone 5 work in the UK?
They do! The iPad 4, iPad mini and iPhone 5 all work on the 1800MHz frequency band used by EE and Three. However they aren't compatible with the 800MHz or 2.6GHz bands that O2 and Vodafone use, so you'll only be able to enjoy 4G speeds on the previous generation of iDevices if you get one on EE or Three.
A year ago this was a major issue, but since the iPhone 5S, iPhone 5C, iPad Air and iPad mini 2 arrived it's become far less of a problem, though it's still worth bearing in mind if you're in the market for a last-gen Apple device.
None of the older iPhones or iPads work with 4G on any UK network, so for 4G speeds you'll have to shell out for the more recent of Apple's offerings.
What are the 4G download speeds?
EE boasts speeds typically five times faster than current 3G networks, though on several occasions we found it to be ten or more times faster than a comparable 3G handset in the same area.
In use it just makes everything feel much snappier and ensures tasks like checking image-laden emails and browsing complex web pages is a breeze.
EE claims average download speeds of 12-15Mbps and typical maximum speeds of 40Mbps, with upload speeds averaging around 5-6Mbps with a typical maximum of 15Mbps.
EE has also started rolling out 'double speed' 4G in select locations. So far it's available in 20 cities and, according to EE, average download speeds in those locations are 24-30Mbps, while the maximum speed is 60Mbps. Average upload speeds are said to be 11Mbps.
EE has achieved this by making network improvements which allow customers to use 2 x 20MHz of spectrum, where before they would have been using 2 x 10MHz of spectrum – essentially a bigger (virtual) pipe allowing a faster rush of data to enter your phone.
EE has even started experimenting with 300Mbps LTE-Advanced, though so far that's only available to select companies in London's Tech City.
O2, Three and Vodafone can't come close to that yet, but all three networks standard 4G speeds are similar to EE's, coming in at around five times faster than 3G.
Why is 4G so fast?
4G's impressive speed increase is achieved with the use of OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Divison Multiplexing), a transmission technology used by the likes of ADSL, Wi-Fi, DVB-T, DVB-H and DAB.
Not only does it reduce latency (the amount of time taken to buffer and connect to webpages), but it also minimises interference and is able to cram greater amounts of data into the same slice of radio bandwidth.
Simply put, this enables 4G/LTE phones and tablets to stream video and play online games like never before, largely because 4G has been designed primarily as a data network, rather than a voice one and it uses the same TCP/IP protocols that underpin the internet.
The upshot for you is that the data is 'flatter', as in it's easier for the networks to stream, so should theoretically be cheaper. Whether those cost savings are ever passed on remains to be seen – it's not cheap to roll out 4G, especially at this rate of deployment across the UK, though we're already seeing costs drop down towards 3G levels.
It's possible that further increases in speed could be achieved with MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) technology, which uses multiple antennas on transmitters and receivers like 802.11n Wi-Fi equipment.
Nokia has reportedly achieved 173Mbps from 4G with a 2x2 MIMO configuration (two antennas on both the transmitter and receiver), so a 4x4 arrangement could potentially offer as much as 326.4Mbps, although this isn't something we need to think about right now… although perhaps we'll see these speeds on the iPhone 10?
LTE-A and the future of 4G
The UK may only just be fully embracing 4G but some parts of the world are already looking to the next generation of high speed mobile data. That next step is LTE-A (the 'A' is for 'advanced', fact fans).
Essentially it works by increasing the number of antennas in use as detailed above, alongside 'carrier aggregation' which allows a device to combine multiple 4G signals or even multiple different frequencies, rather than just using one at a time as standard 4G does.
In theory LTE-A can deliver far greater data speeds than the 4G of today. In fact it could potentially reach real world speeds of well over 160 Mbps, which is comparable to a 20MB home broadband connection.
LTE-A won't work on 4G-ready phones as they'll specifically need an LTE-A chip in them, however there are already a few LTE-A compatible handsets out.
For example there's an LTE-A version of the Samsung Galaxy S5 which is available in South Korea, but if you're considering importing it, don't, because other than a very small scale trial by EE none of our networks currently support LTE-A.
The UK will certainly get in on the act one day, in fact EE is talking about making an LTE-A network commercially available across London sometime in early 2015. But the technology is still in its infancy and the networks are still rolling out normal LTE, so we've probably got a while to wait before it's widely available.