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5G vs. 4G: How will the next generation improve on the last?

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Mobile network technology continues to evolve and improve all the time. We are currently on the verge of a massive rollout of the fifth generation of cellular networks, known as 5G. But at the moment, most of us are using the fourth generation, 4G. The jump in download speeds was perhaps the biggest benefit 4G offered over its predecessor, and 5G promises another boost.

While faster download speeds are the headline feature, there’s more to 5G. The promise of 5G includes instant movie streaming, cloud gaming, self-driving cars, smarter homes, and more. It also heralds a wave of 5G smartphones that may boast new capabilities. Let’s take a closer look at 5G versus 4G and dig into the differences.

5G vs. 4G: Speed

We’ve looked at how fast 5G is before, but there isn’t a specific speed we can expect. Instead, think of 5G as offering a speed range and the actual speeds you get will depend on what network you’re connecting to, how busy it is, what device you’re using, and a few other factors. This table gives you a rough idea of the maximum speeds of each generation of cell network technology and the average speeds in the real world.

Generation 2G 3G 3G HSPA+ 4G 4G LTE-A 5G
Max speed 0.3Mbps 7.2Mbps 42Mbps 150Mbps 300Mbps-1Gbps 1-10Gbps
Average speed 0.1Mbps 1.5Mbps 5Mbps 10Mbps 15Mbps-50Mbps 50Mbps and up

The topic is complicated by the variety of different technologies that are used in each generation, geographical differences in coverage, and by the fact that the technology continues to evolve and improve over time. For example, 4G has improved significantly over its lifetime with the development of LTE (Long-Term Evolution) and then LTE-A (Long-Term Evolution Advanced). You can theoretically get up to 1Gbps with the latest 4G LTE-A developments, which is the lower end of what 5G hopes to deliver. The average speeds you get in the real world will inevitably be much lower.

To put that speed into some kind of context, 1Gbps (gigabits per second) is 1,000Mbps (megabits per second). Confusingly, megabits are different from megabytes — there are 8 megabits (Mb) in a megabyte (MB). So, 1Gbps translates to 125MB per second. An MP3 file might be 5MB, while a TV episode might be 350MB, and a Blu-Ray movie will be 15GB (15,000MB) or more. If you actually have a 1Gbps connection, you could potentially download a Blu-Ray Full HD quality movie in two minutes.

While 4G is still improving, what you get is realistically generally somewhere between 10Mbps and 50Mbps. If we look at Netflix recommendations for streaming speeds, it recommends 25Mbps for Ultra HD quality. You only need 5Mbps for HD. The aim with 5G is to hit 50Mbps as an average minimum. It’s always nice to have faster speeds, but that’s not really the big attraction with 5G because 4G speeds are already pretty good. What 4G is not good with is latency.

5G vs. 4G: Latency

Latency is the time it takes for data from your device to be uploaded and reach its target. It measures the time it takes for data to go from source to destination in milliseconds (ms). It’s very important for applications like gaming, where response time can have an impact on the outcome. It could also prove vital for self-driving cars if data is being transmitted to the cloud, and quick decisions can trigger a reaction to brake or avoid an obstacle in real time.

With 4G networks, you’re looking at an average latency of around 50ms. That could drop to 1ms with 5G technology. Just to give that some context, it takes at least 10ms for an image seen by the human eye to be processed by the brain. Low latency is vital for real-time reactions in machines or cars and it could also make cloud gaming possible. Gamers could play via their phones on remote hardware, as services like Google’s Stadia are suggesting. 1ms is what you can aspire to, as it’s what’s possible in near-perfect scenarios. The average latency you can expect on 5G will likely be around 10ms.

Improvements in latency could prove to be the real driver of 5G adoption, but there are many challenges ahead.

5G vs. 4G: Coverage

5G vs. 4G: How will the next generation improve on the last?Verizon 5G node. Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

It has taken years for 4G networks to spread across the world and there are still plenty of rural areas relying on 3G networks. Even where there is 4G coverage, the speeds vary quite widely. We can expect 5G networks to take a while to reach everyone and the rollout will follow a similar pattern to 4G with cities the first to benefit. We tried out Verizon’s 5G network in Chicago, but it only covers a handful of spots right now.

Verizon is employing millimeter wave (mmWave) technology, which requires the deployment of lots of 5G nodes because signals have a very short range and are easily blocked by walls. While AT&T is also planning to use mmWave technology, T-Mobile and Sprint are planning to start with low-band spectrum. It has a better range and isn’t so easily blocked, but can’t hit the same high speeds. Regardless of the underlying technology, logistically there’s a lot of work to be done to build 5G networks and it will likely take years.

Other differences between 5G and 4G

5G vs. 4G: How will the next generation improve on the last?Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

For us to take advantage of 5G, we don’t just need carriers to put network equipment in place, we also need to buy devices, like the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, that are capable of supporting 5G. Your current phone will not be able to enjoy 5G speeds. The first batch of 5G smartphones arrives this year. It’s also worth noting that 5G is likely to be much more demanding in terms of power, and so battery life, which is already an issue for many, could be about to get worse.

5G doesn’t mean 4G is done

Many of us still rely on 3G when 4G isn’t available and that’s exactly what will happen with 5G. The idea that 5G is a direct replacement for 4G is erroneous, in fact, it’s a complementary technology. With the two working in concert, we should be able to get good speeds wherever we are.

It’s also important to remember that carriers continue to upgrade 4G networks and that both download speeds and latency can be improved further. Sadly, AT&T decided to label the latest 4G advances as 5GE (5G Evolution). It’s a deliberate attempt to mislead, so don’t be fooled. Many carriers did exactly the same thing with HSPA+, an improved 3G technology which they branded as 4G.

True 5G networks will begin to spread this year starting in major cities and there will be a handful of phones that can take advantage, but most of us are still at least a year or two away from being able to access 5G. In the meantime, 4G will continue to serve us well.

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