The evolution of mobile networking technologies is incremental rather than strictly compartmentalised and defined by giant leaps, so identifying the differences between 3G and 4G technology can be problematic if you do not keep a clear head. Here is a quick look at the kind of tech which is currently in use and that which is going to push the market forward over the coming years, all created in the hope that you will gain a greater understanding of this tricky subject.
3G began life over a decade ago and standards vary depending on the region in which you live but in general a 3G network should provide a minimum download speed of around 200Kbps, vastly improving on the legacy networks used for analogue mobile communications. Nowadays many mobiles have 3G connectivity built in and speeds have increased gradually with the introduction of new technologies such as HSDPA, bringing download speeds up to 3.6Mbps and then 7.2Mbps and onwards. HSPA+ is a pseudo-3G networking standard which can achieve a theoretical 56Mbps connection speed, but like all 3G technologies the real life speeds which most attain will be significantly lower.
4G is an even muddier issue, made up of different technologies and networking standards. However, it can generally be said that 4G devices should be able to achieve peak performance of 100Mbps when on the move and 1Gbps when in a stationary position. This will significantly increase the download and upload speeds which typical consumers will be able to enjoy from their mobile phones. The problem is that the roll out of 4G requires a complete restructuring of the existing networks and is thus costly and occurring slowly across the world. Sub-4G technology, which is seen by many as the stepping stone towards full 4G, includes mobile Wi-MAX and LTE, or Long Term Evolution. While the ins and outs of the technical side are not exactly simple, these are basically indicators that 4G is on the way and the investment is being made to ensure it is eventually as much of a household name as 3G.
At the time of writing there are a number of nations in which LTE and Wi-MAX are gradually encroaching upon the larger urban areas, with countries in Europe, Asia and North America starting to adopt 4G technology. At the moment places like the UK are still lagging behind as networks haggle over how the 4G spectrum is going to be allocated to each. The only certain thing is that within the next couple of years most of the best mobile phone deals at the top end of the market will be based on 4G handsets as 3G becomes seen as an entry level technology.