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Posted on November 7th, 2012 by Jonathan Bray

A week with 4G: our verdict

EE 4G speed test

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.

4G Speed test

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

HTC One XL LTEThe 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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Posted in: Hardware, Just in

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12 Responses to “ A week with 4G: our verdict ”

  1. JohnAHind Says:
    November 7th, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    Of course the speed was superb – most of the time you were probably the only customer in the cell! Before we get excited about this replacing wired broadband, lets see what it is like in a year or two.

     
  2. wittgenfrog Says:
    November 7th, 2012 at 3:33 pm

    4G \ LTE looks awesome, but as you say the base 500MB allowance on EE negates the whole point of LTE in the first place.

    One concern that should be addressed is contention. At present there are probably fewer than 5,000 LTE users UK-wide, certainly in London.

    How well are those speeds going to hold-up when there are 10,000, 100,000, etc.?

     
  3. wittgenfrog Says:
    November 7th, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    @Meester Hind you hef beaten me to it!

     
  4. BenFuller Says:
    November 8th, 2012 at 1:13 am

    I’m currently using 4G in Australia, and the speed is fantastic. Uploads of 21 and downloads of 26 are average. Only issue is the iPhone5s’ already poor battery life is hit hard whenever LTE is enabled.

     
  5. Matt Says:
    November 8th, 2012 at 1:17 am

    I have been using 4G for my home broadband here in Oz for the last year and I wouldn’t now swap back to a fixed line. It is WiMax based 4G so not as fast as LTE based but i still get over 10Mbps consistently and am able to stream Foxtel on my internet TV in HD fine. I could “upgrade” to an LTE based 4G service, but I am currently paying less than £50 a month for an unlimited/unshaped service where an LTE service is £70 for 15GB.

     
  6. David Wright Says:
    November 8th, 2012 at 5:17 am

    So, not very 4G at the moment – 4G is defined as a minimum of 100mbps by the ITU…

    Looking at my phone and my laptop, using the same connection, the stumbling block seems to be the phone, rather than the speed of the connection. Given the same connection speed (10mbps), the computer loads the page much faster than the phone (iPhone 4S and Galaxy SIII compared to a Core i5 1st generation and Firefox).

     
  7. Jon Says:
    November 8th, 2012 at 10:00 am

    Its all well and good going on about 4G being the savior to all our speed woes but shouldn’t the mobile operators be forced to provide good 3G and 2G coverage all over the country before bringing in the new technology. My 2g connection at home just outside Boston is fine outside but in doors its flakey at best and 3G is non existent. The further the technology goes the further behind rural Britain will get become its the same for Broadband.

     
  8. Mark Thompson Says:
    November 12th, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    @Jon If connection is fine outdoors but not inside then it may be the insulation in your house blocking the phone signal. Ironically most new builds seem to use insulation material that effectively blocks mobile signals.

     
  9. Richard Says:
    November 12th, 2012 at 7:01 pm

    @Mark – Sure I heard that somewhere too! Something to do with the reflective foil covering on the insulation boards. Acts a bit like a Faraday cage for the whole house if I remember correctly.

     
  10. Jon-Paul Says:
    November 15th, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    Ok this is just my 2pennies worth

    Firstly as 25% of the uk population still cant get a 3g network it seems crazy that anyone thinks we are ready for a 4G network. Who is this network aimed at? you the man in the street? i dont think so! this is aimed at power business users and is released to us joe blogs to help subsidise the business users. I would love to just be able to constantly rely on the network that is currently in place but i cant even do that..

    Secondly to EEs pricing stratergy As you should all be aware there is currently a bidding war for 4g bandwith which the government is releasing and although ee has its own 4g bandwith (pinched from its 2g network hence the reduction in voice call capability) it will still need to bid for more bandwith for it future expansion programme who do you think is going to pay for that? Us of course hence the hike in its costing! At the end of the day this new technology needs to be paid for and in such a way that it dosent effect share holders pockets? by getting in early ee will have extra funds by the hike in these cost to use in the bidding process (£10 per month per person soon adds up to a large fund to help with your bidding process)

    I also remember the launch days of three and how bad that network turned out to be (to my detrement) but whilst it took 3+ years to get that network running correctly it did eventually get there. Im sure given enough time the same will hapen with all the 4g networks but i come back to my first point which is i would rather have a 99% slower 3G uk network coverage than a 30% network coverage of the faster 4g.

    It comes down to consumerism and if the promise of 4G sells more products, then 3g networks will vanish and there will be even less mobile broadband coverage than there is now, as these masts will need to be upgraded to facilitate the new technology and as the money will be used to upgrade rather than completing the coverage for the uk the obviouse conclusion is worse customer coverage for us joe blogs

     
  11. Alex Says:
    November 26th, 2012 at 12:54 am

    I can get between 2-17Mbit on EE HSPA+ for £25/month with no hard cap.

    It also cost me at least £125 less for my phone by choosing the 3G version from O2 instead of getting it from T-Mobile/EE on LTE.

    Then there is the fact I live in Sheffield but the coverage checker shows that they only bothered to enable the city centre for 4G, as far as I can tell.

    So what exactly is the point of paying all that money for a 4G contract again?

     
  12. Rueben Says:
    February 20th, 2013 at 2:39 am

    Saved as a favorite, I like your site! by Lyle see my site
    Rueben

     

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