Do You Really Need a 4G Phone Right Now?

4G is here! More Gs means more faster, right? And who doesn't want their phone to be faster? Except—maybe you don't need 4G today.

What are you gonna do with all those Gs?

Today's 4G networks (leaving the semantic niggles of 4G aside) offer real-world downstream speeds that range from 3-6Mbps on Sprint's WiMax, 3-6Mbps on T-Mobile's HSPA+ network, and Verizon's promised 5-12Mbps. That's roughly 2x-6x faster than the 3G speeds we were seeing a year ago; it's closer to DSL-level speeds in lots of cities across the US.

When I peer over people's shoulders to see what they're looking on their smartphone (I'm very nosy) half the time they're looking at Facebook. This is what a typical procession of usage looks like to me: Facebook; email; Twitter; web browser; Twitter (again); maps.

Is 4G going to make that stuff—the majority of what people do on their smartphones—that much faster?

Consider how fast your phone feels on Wi-Fi, which is the kind of experience 4G is promising, compared to how it runs out in the open. The comparatively skimpy CPUs in tablets and phones are as much the bottleneck behind web pages taking longer to load on a phone than they do on your laptop. In the end, with 4G, you're talking about shaving seconds, not radically redefining the experience of posting on somebody's wall. (And we're not the only ones who feel this way.)

The applications that'll really tap 4G powers on phones and tablets are still in their infancy. (Aside from downloading apps.) The most obvious application right now is video, because apps have historically been designed to minimize how much bandwidth you're eating on a mobile device, rather than treat it as freely as it would on your home network. There aren't very many killer high-bandwidth, non-video applications in the pipeline. Audio streaming could sound better, perhaps. So could voice calls, except 4G networks are data-only for now. Torrenting won't fly. The problem with online gaming is latency—and these networks still have a fair amount of it. Multi-megapixel image uploads to Flickr will be faster, though.

So there's video streaming! Netflix, arguably the premiere video streaming service now, is only on a handful of phones. Video chat: Still a messy minefield. Video uploads to services like YouTube. It's good 4G networks are rolling out now, to get developers thinking about how they'll use these 4G networks. But unless you're an aggro-nerd—tethering, watching tons of video over the air and doing who knows what else—you're probably safe waiting out jumping on the 4G bandwagon for another generation of more powerful phones and the really amazing apps that'll come with them, tapping higher power CPUs and that fat, over-the-air pipe.

On the flip side, given that carriers are increasingly moving to payment models where you pay for every byte that you use—Verizon's got a 5GB cap for its LTE network, just as stingy as its 3G data cap—maybe all of those high bandwidth applications still won't look all that attractive. The 2GB and 5GB caps from AT&T and Verizon seem roomy enough now, but what about in a year or two?

Holy coverage, Batman

The thing about new networks is that they take time to roll out. So, coverage is limited or spotty, no matter whose 4G network you're on. Verizon's rolling LTE out to just 38 markets this year. Sprint's is available in just 68 markets—New York just got it, and SF won't see it until Dec. 28. T-Mobile covers 75 cities with its HSPA+ network. And even inside of "covered" cities, coverage is rarely a snuggly blanket of smooth coverage, in our experience, at least compared to established 3G networks. When are you gonna get 4G in your town?

It's a battery killer

Know what happens when you flip the 4G switch on an Evo to start sucking in lots of data? Your battery rapidly sputters to death, like a man swallowing too many McRibs at once. [Delicious citation needed. –Ed.] And that's going to an issue in general: The faster your phone is pulling in data with these modems, the faster your battery's going to die. Of course, if you've ever flipped your phone from 3G to EDGE to save battery life, you already knew that.

So, in the end, 4G sounds shiny and awesome and fast, but it's worth a gut check before you buy a phone just 'cause it has 4G tacked on the end of it: Do you really need all those Gs?

You probably don't.