A week with 4G: our verdict

Mobile network EE is pleased as punch to have 4G all to itself for six months, and last week it celebrated that fact by sending out a pile of 4G-enabled handsets to us tech journalists for testing.

You’ve already heard about the high prices, and the rather ridiculous 500MB data cap on the cheapest £36 per month tariff. But what is it like to use, and does it meet all of EE’s speed claims? I've been using a 4G HTC One XL LTE for a week to find out.

Speed

Naturally, the first act on receiving our test handset was to fire it up and download the Speedtest.net app. The first experience was promising: a series of five tests run over the course of a couple of minutes gave an average of 21Mbits/sec for downloads and 10.3Mbits/sec for uploads.

That speed is on a par with my home Virgin Media broadband connection before it was upgraded earlier this year, and it outstrips the “likely” speeds of 8-10Mbits/sec quoted by EE by some distance. I continued to monitor the speed over the remainder of the week, over the weekend and into the following week and found that, generally, speeds kept up that good show.

Uploads hit at astonishing 22.6Mbits/sec at one point, but generally lagged around a third behind download speeds, and in places where the phone showed only one or two bars out of five, download speeds dropped to a still quick 14-15Mbits/sec. Over the whole week of testing, downloads averaged 17Mbits/sec and uploads averaged 11.9Mbits/sec.

That inevitably begs the question of whether it's good enough to replace your home broadband connection. The answer for general web browsing is unquestionably yes. Most web pages, even complex ones, loaded quickly on the phone and via a tethered link to a laptop, and an average latency of 65ms meant everything felt a lot snappier than I’ve typically experienced over 3G. On the phone, meanwhile, I was able to download hefty Android apps in seconds on the road, rather than having to wait until I got home to Wi-Fi

However, heavy users of streaming video services may wish to hold onto their readies for the time being. We attempted to watch HD content on the BBC iPlayer over a tethered connection, and it all started well, with crisp smooth footage and no buffering. However, the service booted us out after a few minutes complaining of a lack of bandwidth, and did so again later in the programme when we'd been watching for another 15 minutes or so.

Coverage

There isn’t much point paying through the nose for a 4G contract, though, if there aren't many places you can connect to the service, and this is the biggest concern we have after our test drive.

In the PC Pro offices, located in central London, I was able to get three out of five bars – a solid connection with which the phone achieved those 20Mbits/sec download speeds. However, when I started to roam around London, I found coverage to be distinctly patchy.

At my house in zone four of north-east London, one bar was the order of the day, and it would frequently switch networks as reception fluctuated. On a bus ride across the suburbs one morning, the 4G connection disappeared entirely until I reached Blackhorse Road tube station where, surprisingly, the connection suddenly zoomed back up to a full five bars.

You can check your coverage here, but suffice it to say if the map indicates “moderate” 4G coverage, it’s possible your connection to the 4G won’t be terribly reliable. Now, this picture will undoubtedly improve over time, but whether it will improve significantly enough before other networks begin to provide competition is a matter for conjecture.

Data consumption

The other major issue, of course, is that of data consumption and EE's rather silly data caps. During the course of my week with 4G (not including the data consumed for those speed tests), I used 555MB of data.

It didn't feel as if I was hammering the data connection too hard, despite downloading several new apps and attempting to watch the odd BBC iPlayer stream, but this does serve to underline the pointlessness of EE's £36 per month tariff with its 500MB data cap. With a data connection this rapid, it's perilously easy to exceed such a low cap - even the £41 per month 1GB limit looks low.

Verdict

It's early days for 4G, but despite the negatives mentioned above, I'm convinced it's the future for mobile data. The speed is superb, and once coverage is improved it could become a possible replacement in many homes and for many people for fixed broadband lines.

For now, though, the high prices and patchy coverage mean I'll be waiting a while before making the switch.

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