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5G vs. 4G: What‘s the Difference? (And Why This Next-Gen Upgrade Matters)

Wireless networks have progressed in leaps and bounds from the early days of 1G and 2G when cell phones were just for calling. Today 4G networks deliver speeds fast enough for streaming HD video and music.

But 5G is poised to take connectivity to the next level.

5G promises massive speed boosts, ultra low lag times, and support for billions of devices to enable innovations like self-driving cars and advanced AI. No wonder it‘s been hyped as the future of mobile tech since the first 5G spec was finalized in 2018.

But is 5G really that much faster than 4G in real-world use today? When can we expect the benefits to impact our everyday lives? And is now the right time for you to upgrade to a 5G device?

This 5G vs 4G comparison will break down the key differences between these two wireless network generations. We‘ll look at how the technologies work, compare speeds and coverage, highlight 5G‘s advantages, and discuss when 4G LTE may still be your best bet.

Let‘s start by examining what sets these two mobile network standards apart.

5G vs. 4G: A Side-by-Side Comparison

5G and 4G networks have some important differences you should understand.

When They Were Introduced

  • 5G launch: 2018
  • 4G launch: 2009

5G is the still the new kid on the block while 4G networks have matured over more than a decade. All major U.S. carriers have deployed nationwide 5G coverage, but it will take years for speeds and reliability to match 4G‘s level of advancement.

Download Speeds

  • 5G peak speed: 20 Gbps
  • 4G peak speed: 100 Mbps

On paper, 5G blows away 4G with maximum download speeds up to 200 times faster! Of course, real-world speeds are lower but 5G is already hitting 100-400 Mbps in early network tests.

To put this in perspective, that means:

  • HD movie download: <10 seconds on 5G vs. 3-5 minutes on 4G
  • 100 MP photo download: <1 second on 5G vs. 10+ seconds on 4G

Latency

  • 5G latency: <10 milliseconds
  • 4G latency: 30-90 milliseconds

Latency refers to the time it takes data to make a round trip from device to network. Slow latency causes lag, jitter, and delays.

5G‘s extremely low latency around 10ms enables real-time apps not possible on 4G like multiplayer cloud gaming, self-driving cars, and remote surgery.

Spectrum Used

  • 5G: mmWave + sub-6GHz
  • 4G: Sub-6GHz only

5G uses new, very high-frequency millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum to deliver ultra-fast speeds. But these signals can‘t travel far and are blocked by obstacles.

That‘s why 5G networks require dense small cell infrastructure deployments in areas needing the fastest speeds.

Coverage Area

  • 5G coverage: Expanding, but limited today
  • 4G coverage: 96% of Americans covered

4G LTE blankets most of the country from major urban centers to rural towns. 5G coverage is still concentrated in denser urban cores, with suburban and rural expansion ongoing.

Verizon‘s CEO Hans Vestberg stated the carrier expects to spend $10 billion over the next few years to rapidly expand its 5G Ultra Wideband network.

Device Availability

  • 5G smartphones: Flagship and some mid-range
  • 4G smartphones: Nearly all modern phones

You‘ll need a compatible device like the latest premium Galaxy or iPhone models to access 5G networks. But virtually any smartphone sold today supports 4G LTE connections.

Now that we‘ve compared the key specs, let‘s dive deeper into how 5G upgrades upon 4G technology.

How 5G Improves Upon 4G Networks

5G offers three major wireless improvements compared to 4G LTE networks:

1. Lightning Fast Download Speeds

We briefly touched on peak download speeds, but real-world 5G speeds are also impressively fast.

Opensignal analyzed 5G speeds in the top global markets and found average download speeds on 5G networks were 138.1 Mbps – over 15x faster than 4G networks.

Ookla‘s analysis of U.S. 5G vs 4G performance showed median download speeds were over 5x faster on 5G – 115 Mbps vs 21 Mbps.

Why does faster speed matter? Here are some examples of what you can do noticeably quicker on 5G networks compared to 4G:

  • Download and start watching a full HD movie in seconds instead of minutes
  • Stream AR/VR content and multiplayer games seamlessly without lag
  • Video conference in crystal clear 4K resolution without freeze-ups
  • Instantly back up 100s of high MP photos to the cloud

Many home broadband connections still don‘t reach the speeds emerging 5G networks offer. 5G has the potential to complement or replace home WiFi for some users when ultra-fast wireless is available in their area.

2. Near-Instant Response Times

That insanely low latency we discussed earlier allows for near real-time communication between a device and network.

While you may not notice the millisecond differences in a mobile web browsing session, some emerging technologies are completely dependent on lightning quick responses unachievable on 4G.

Self-driving vehicles rely on fast data transmission to sense and react to objects and conditions on the road. Research suggests 5G could cut communication lag down to just 1-10 milliseconds enabling autonomous vehicles to respond faster than humanly possible.

Mobile augmented and virtual reality require minimal delay between user input and display output for seamless interaction. 5G enables mobile VR streaming allowing lightweight, wireless headsets instead of bulky wired units.

Cloud gaming services like Xbox Cloud Gaming, Google Stadia and Amazon Luna let you play console-quality games on nearly any device. 5G‘s high bandwidth and low latency provide a smooth experience on par with traditional consoles.

Industrial automation also benefits from 5G‘s responsiveness. Networks of machines and robots can coordinate faster with instant communication.

While average users may not utilize these advanced capabilities today, 5G‘s low latency future-proofs the development of transformative new technologies.

3. Enhanced Network Capacity

Previous cellular generations weren‘t built to handle the massive influx of connected devices expected from the Internet of Things (IoT) revolution.

5G‘s upgraded network architecture and spectrum efficiency supports up to one million device connections per square kilometer.

Use cases that require huge scale device communication include:

  • City infrastructure with densely connected smart sensors
  • Supply chain logistics with packages transmitting location data
  • Healthcare wearables monitoring patient health signals in real-time
  • Expanded agricultural automation on vast fields of crops

Ericsson predicts there will be 5 billion 5G subscriptions globally by the end of 2027, with IoT communications making up a quarter.

While consumer 5G grabs the headlines, enterprises from manufacturing to healthcare are poised to reap big benefits from 5G connectivity.

Now that you understand the performance upgrades 5G brings, when might you still want to stick with reliable ol‘ 4G?

When 4G Beats 5G: Price, Battery Life and Coverage

As great as 5G sounds, it isn‘t a magic bullet solving every wireless woe – yet. Here are three areas where 4G LTE still holds some advantages over 5G for many users:

1. Device and Plan Affordability

The cheapest 5G phones currently start around $300, though many are priced at $700+. In comparison, capable 4G LTE devices are widely available for well under $200.

Most carriers don‘t charge extra monthly fees for 5G access. But you aren‘t missing out on savings or value sticking with an affordable 4G device.

However, opting for a 5G-ready phone ensures you‘ll be able to tap into the faster speeds when you upgrade to one in the future.

2. Longer Battery Life

Early 5G phones have notoriously poor battery life. The power-hungry antennas and modems required to support new 5G bands drain quicker than LTE radios.

Tests of phones like the Galaxy S20 5G found battery life around 20% worse compared to 4G models. Software and hardware improvements will help, but 5G may always consume slightly more vs 4G.

If battery life concerns rank high for you, holding onto a 4G phone means you aren‘t constantly hunting for a charger.

3. Wider Availability

The 5G rollout is charging full steam ahead, but coverage gaps still exist, especially in rural areas. 4G LTE networks cover most Americans coast-to-coast according to Opensignal data.

Verizon and T-Mobile now claim to cover around 200 million people with low and mid-band 5G. But their super fast mmWave 5G only reaches parts of 36 cities for Verizon and 250+ cities on T-Mobile as of mid 2022.

If you already get speedy 4G service, 5G may not offer an enormous improvement based on your location yet. Evaluate 5G coverage maps from carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile to see if it‘s prevalent where you live and work.

Prioritize 5G capability more on your next phone purchase as the networks expand over the coming years.

Let‘s recap some common questions about 5G and 4G networks.

Got Questions? 5G and 4G FAQs Answered

What does 5G mean?

5G stands for 5th generation wireless network technology. The G just indicates it‘s the successor to 4G and 3G networks. But 5G represents a much bigger leap in performance over previous generations.

How much faster is 5G than 4G?

Peak theoretical 5G speeds are about 20 Gbps, versus 100 Mbps for 4G. In real-world testing, 5G is averaging around 5-15x faster than 4G – but exact speeds vary significantly.

Do I need a 5G phone now?

You don‘t need to rush upgrading your 4G phone. But opting for a 5G-capable model ensures you‘ll be ready to tap into the fastest speeds as networks develop in your area. Most new Android and Apple phones support 5G.

Is 5G bad for your health?

There‘s no evidence that 5G networks cause health issues or expose you to harmful radiation levels. Like previous cellular generations, 5G operates well under safety limits set by organizations like the International Commission on Non‐Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP).

When will rural areas get 5G?

5G coverage in rural regions is still limited, with deployments focused on large cities so far. But providers are actively building out towers to expand 5G more nationwide. By 2025, we should see much broader rural availability.

Does 5G have more range than 4G?

Currently no – 5G signals have shorter range, especially at the ultra high frequencies carrying the fastest speeds. Low and mid-band 5G matches or exceeds 4G range, but rural coverage is still spotty. As infrastructure matures, 5G range will improve.

We‘ve covered a ton of ground comparing these two wireless network standards! Let‘s recap the key takeaways.

5G vs 4G: The Bottom Line

There‘s no question 5G represents an exciting leap forward for mobile technology. When coverage is solid in your area, you can expect:

  • Downloads up to 100x faster than typical 4G speeds
  • Super snappy response for gaming, AR/VR and video calls
  • Support for billions of IoT devices like smart sensors

But don‘t feel rushed to upgrade your 4G phone just for 5G‘s sake. Many of us are still well served by 4G‘s respectable 10-50 Mbps speeds.

If you‘re getting ready to upgrade your phone soon, opting for a 5G-capable model ensures you‘ll be ready to unlock the fastest speeds and lowest latency when available in your region.

5G coverage is expanding rapidly, but still has room for improvement before matching 4G‘s near-universal reach. Be sure to evaluate 5G deployments in your specific locations.

Over the next few years, expect exciting new innovations across industrial automation, smart cities, healthcare and more as 5G networks mature from the cutting edge into the new normal.

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