5G vs. 4G: What’s the Difference? (And Why This Upgrade Matters)

5G is better and faster than 4G, but using the new network may mean getting a new phone.
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5G is here, and it’s going to change our lives. The G in 5G stands for generation. So 5G is the fifth generation of mobile network technology.

5G was first introduced in 2018. It started to take off in 2021 with nationwide coverage by major carriers in the United States. 5G theoretically offers speeds as fast as 20 gigabits per second (Gbps), almost 200 times faster than 4G.

5G is exciting for several reasons, but it doesn’t always feel much different than 4G. Do you really need 5G download speeds, and is it worth upgrading your phone? Understanding the similarities and differences between 5G and 4G may help you decide.

In this 5G v. 4G comparison
5G vs. 4G
How does 5G work?
How does 4G work?
What both 5G and 4G excel at
3 important differences between 5G and 4G
Which network should you use?
FAQs about 5G and 4G
Bottom line

5G vs. 4G

Both 5G and 4G provide good internet speeds that should allow you to browse the internet, stream shows, and upload content without dealing with long wait times.

However, moving from 4G to 5G isn’t seamless. The new technology used in 5G requires compatible devices that can operate with its signal. Although many new phones have this functionality, most older phones only support the 4G network.

5G 4G
Introduction 2018 2009
Speed up to 20 Gbps (20,000 Mbps) 100 Mbps
Coverage Nationwide Nationwide
Latency 5 milliseconds 60-98 milliseconds
Device support Many new smartphones support 5G All smartphones sold in the US today support 4G

Latency measures the time it takes to move a unit of data from one location to another.

How does 5G work?

5G is the fifth generation of mobile network technology. As with other networks, it’s broadcast from cell sites, such as towers. What 5G brings to the table is the ability to operate on a much wider range of channels and frequencies than past generations of wireless tech.

Compared with the previous 4G network, 5G technology brings three main benefits: faster speed, increased responsiveness, and improved ability to handle network traffic.

Faster speeds

5G speeds can reach up to 20 Gbps — at least in theory. 5G gets this speed from its ability to use a wider range of radio frequency channels, but wireless carriers have to make those channels available for it to have any impact.

For this reason, 5G might not seem any faster for some customers. However, as carriers build out the infrastructure and turn on new channels, real-world speeds will continue to increase.

Increased responsiveness

5G also offers drastically reduced latency compared with 4G. Latency is the time it takes for data to travel between two points. 5G offers latency under 5 milliseconds, whereas 4G offers between 60 and 98 milliseconds.

Although web browsing may not feel hugely different on 5G versus 4G, it can have a significant impact on applications where response time matters. This can result in a smoother gaming experience and improved real-time control of drones and driverless vehicle communication.

Ability to handle more traffic

5G networks can support many devices at once. This makes them ideal for crowded areas that require more bandwidth like college campuses, stadiums, and even apartment buildings

4G networks often get crippled in these heavy-use areas, but 5G offers a lot more breathing room and won’t slow down under load.

How widespread is 5G coverage?

The faster 5G signals use higher radio frequencies. These radio frequencies are known as ultra-capacity or millimeter-wave (mmWave) channels. The downside of these channels is that they have a very short range, requiring many smaller cell sites. You may notice this in the form of 5G antennas popping up in your city, often on existing utility poles.

Coverage for these mmWave networks remains fairly limited. At the moment, the main benefit most users may see is faster downloads of large files like movies. Video streaming may also be more reliable in 5G coverage areas. However, 5G may not feel noticeably better than 4G for many users.

As more infrastructure gets built by the wireless carriers, these benefits will continue to increase and new applications may emerge.

Overall 5G coverage reached nationwide status for most carriers in 2021. Many new phones over a few hundred dollars offer 5G connectivity, including the past two generations of iPhones.

How does 4G work?

4G is the fourth generation of wireless network technology. Compared with 3G, 4G speeds were dramatically higher, and lead to the explosion of mobile video sharing, thanks to significantly faster speeds.

4G has two types:

  • 4G WiMax: This technology required a new network with theoretical speeds up to 6 Mbps compared with a maximum of 2 Mbps on 3G networks.
  • 4G long-term evolution (LTE): This technology required an upgrade of existing networks (hence the name) and offered theoretical download speeds up to 100 Mbps.

4G LTE is the network most people are familiar with. In the U.S. LTE was embraced by big carriers such as AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon. The only major carrier to use WiMax was Sprint until it stopped in 2015. Sprint merged with T-Mobile in 2018, so if you use 4G in 2022, it’s almost certainly LTE.

The 4G network will not be retired just yet. As the 5G network is still a work in progress, 4G remains the backbone of mobile connectivity.

5G mobile phones in 2022 still rely heavily on 4G networks because the two generations can work together to provide a better signal.

What both 5G and 4G excel at

Speed is the name of the game with both 5G and 4G, as both of them provide good download and upload speeds. The older mobile technology continues to provide excellent speeds for most users — certainly enough for social media and web browsing.

In fact, one of the reasons that 5G phones don’t seem to feel much faster than 4G phones is because many of the applications these phones have don’t require speeds faster than what 4G already offers.

That’s not to say that the potential speeds 5G offers are not beneficial. There are definitely use cases in which faster data speeds are welcome, such as working from home, downloading large files or apps, and acquiring large game updates.

3 important differences between 5G and 4G

5G and 4G share some similarities, but they have three key differences: the technology used, the speed offered, and the areas covered.

1. The technology used

5G is a different standard that utilizes different technology than 4G. This applies to the tech used by service providers to broadcast the network as well as the modems used inside devices to receive the signals.

Mobile devices need a 5G-capable modem to receive the 5G signal. This means that you’ll need a device compatible with 5G to use it.

As of August 2022, many new smartphones over a few hundred dollars are 5G-capable, so if you upgraded your phone within the past year or two, you may already have 5G access. If not, ensure your next upgrade has 5G capabilities to have a phone that offers you today’s best tech.

2. The speed you get

5G is faster than 4G — at least in theory. In reality, not every area with 5G coverage will immediately see a noticeable improvement. As carriers expand their coverage with new 5G frequency bands, the speed should improve.

This is especially true if you live in an area that gets coverage for millimeter-wave frequencies that carry faster 5G signals. These speeds are very fast — topping out well into Gigabit territory, up to 20 Gbps. They also have much higher capacity, so they won’t slow down in crowded environments such as sports arenas or concert venues.

3. The coverage you receive

5G also theoretically offers better coverage than 4G networks, though whether you feel this benefit largely depends on where you live and work. If you already get great 4G coverage, you’re not likely to notice much difference. However, if you don’t, you may see an improvement by switching to 5G. Most major carriers now claim nationwide 5G networks.

That said, you don’t need to worry about having 5G coverage everywhere you go. If you’re not in a 5G coverage area, you can still safely buy and use a 5G phone because they are all backward compatible with 4G networks.

Which network should you use?

At first glance, it may seem that 5G has no disadvantages, so you should always use it when available. There’s one case where you might actually want to stick to 4G, though, and that’s if battery life is a concern.

5G on mobile devices tends to use more juice than 4G. There are a few reasons for this. The main two reasons are:

  • When you don’t have signal coverage, your phone hunts for a connection and uses more power.
  • More data can be used on a faster 5G network, resulting in higher processing power usage and faster battery drainage.

Most phones allow you to use only 4G if you want to save battery. The 5G iPhones, which include iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 generations, only use 5G when faster speeds are required — say, for large downloads — and automatically switch them off the rest of the time.

If you currently have a 4G phone and are wondering whether it’s worth getting a new phone just for 5G — you’re probably better off not upgrading. Assuming your phone works well, you may not find a noticeable performance increase after switching to a 5G phone.

FAQs about 5G and 4G


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What does 5G stand for?

5G stands for fifth generation. It’s the fifth generation of wireless technology, designed to handle the explosion of connected devices and increase the potential internet speed devices can get. 5G uses more radio frequencies than previous generations, which theoretically allows for these higher internet speeds.


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What did 5G replace?

5G replaced 4G, the fourth mobile internet generation. The progress of mobile internet began with 1G in 1979, the first mobile network. 2G, the first mobile network that used digital technology, followed in 1991. Next was 3G in 2002, which made data transfer speeds much faster at three megabits per second (Mbps). This was followed by 4G in 2009, which increased speeds to as much as 100 Mbps. Finally, 5G came in 2018 with theoretical speeds up to 20 Gbps.


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Is 5G or 4G better?

5G is essentially better in every way because it’s faster, has lower latency, and may potentially have more coverage than 4G. However, coverage is still growing, so those benefits aren’t always obvious. Additionally, it can sometimes use more battery power than 4G, so smartphone battery life might be reduced.


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What is the advantage of 5G over 4G?

The main advantages of 5G over 4G are that it offers faster potential speeds, much lower latency, and support for more simultaneous devices. The last two benefits, in particular, may transform how we use the internet by enabling more connected devices.


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Can 5G work on a 4G phone?

No, 5G can’t work on a 4G phone. You’ll need a 5G-compatible phone to access the network. However, 4G works on a 5G phone, which means you don’t have to worry about 5G coverage in your area if you’re buying a 5G phone. Your phone automatically falls back to 4G if that’s the available network.

Bottom line

5G, the fifth generation of wireless mobile networks, is an impressive technology with powerful benefits. Compared with the fourth generation, it offers dramatically fast speeds, low latency, and can handle a larger number of devices at once.

Unfortunately, network upgrades are often a process that may take a while. That’s why 5G can feel as if it’s more hype than substance. On the flip side, it also means that 4G devices remain perfectly usable, so there’s less pressure to upgrade.

Ultimately, 5G may revolutionize the mobile internet. It just might take some more time to get there.

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Author Details
Dave Schafer is a freelance writer with a passion for making technical concepts easy for anyone to understand. He’s been covering the world of gadgets, tech, and the internet for nearly 10 years, and his writing has been featured in a variety of print and digital publications. When he’s not writing, Dave can be found playing guitar or camping with his family and golden retriever, Rosie.