A 4G LTE capable smartphone offers you the ability to go online at the fastest available speeds. Here is what you need to know.
The massive rise of the smartphone as an essential part of our daily lives can be directly related to the growth of mobile networks that allow users to connect to the Internet. From Facebook to email and everything in between, having a fast data connection has become more important than the ability to make phone calls for many users.
The current standard in mobile network technology is referred to as 4G LTE. LTE in this case simply stands for Long Term Evolution and is actually the standards-based part of 4G, a term which by itself represents a number of different technologies and speeds. For more on the differences between 4G and 3G in Australia, you can read our comprehensive guide to 3G/4G technologies.
Can my 3G phone handle 4G LTE?
That largely depends on its age. Just about any phone sold in the Australian market can handle basic 4G connectivity these days, but some of the newer 4G technologies, such as the bundle of technologies Telstra sells under its own "4GX" banner, will require a newer handset. The newer the handset and the closer to the premium end of the spectrum it sits, the greater tha chance it'll support newer LTE technologies for faster 4G download speeds.
In reverse, however, any 4G-capable handset sold in Australia will handle the existing 3G networks offered by Telstra, Vodafone and Optus just fine, albeit at the reduced speeds of 3G. Typically, you don't have much control over whether your phone uses 4G or 3G; it'll automatically connect to the fastest of the two available in your location at a particular point in time. Some handsets do let you specifically prevent connections to LTE services entirely, if you so choose. It's also worth keeping in mind that most global roaming SIMs and services don't include 4G connectivity while travelling.
What are the advantages of 4G LTE?
The key advantage of 4G LTE is the speed of its data connectivity, especially for downloads. 4G offers asynchronous data, which is a fancy way of saying that the download speeds you'll typically get are much higher than the upload speeds, although compared to most fixed line broadband services currently offered (excluding FTTP NBN) you will still see higher upload speeds on mobile services.
Speeds on 4G LTE aren't the same for all compatible smartphones, however. Modern smartphones feature a Network Category Speed rating which indicates the maximum speeds they're capable of achieving on an LTE network. Cheaper or older phones are often rated lower, leading to slower speeds on 4G than their premium counterparts. If you'd like to know more, check out our guide to mobile speed categories for a full rundown of what they mean.
All three major telcos now offer Voice Over LTE (VoLTE) services for handsets that support the functionality. Since LTE is typically a data connectivity standard, when you make a traditional phone call most handsets will drop down to 3G to handle communication. A VoLTE capable device and network doesn't need to make that transition and will instead conduct the call over 4G, enabling faster background data processes as well as shorter call set-up times.
What are the disadvantages of 4G LTE?
While higher download speeds are a big plus, they do come with an important caveat. The faster your downloads, the easier it is to burn through your data quota before the month is over. On a prepaid mobile plan, that means recharging more often or having your data capabilities taken away from you, whereas on postpaid contract mobile accounts you'll hit additional data charges when you go over quota. Thankfully, we've seen most mobile providers adopt a standard $10/GB pricing for excess data, but it's still worth keeping in mind when budgeting for your next mobile phone.
Like any wireless technology, 4G LTE is susceptible to interference from a range of sources that can degrade your experience. High demand on the network (as you often see on New Year's Eve or at crowded conventions) can slow speeds to a crawl, while areas with signal-dampening obstructions like thick walls or insulation can also affect the quality of the 4G connection available to you.
4G LTE mobile phones
There's no shortage of modern smartphones with support for 4G LTE. Compare them in the table below: