This guide is designed to help you choose the best available 4G enabled smartphone. That might seem as an easy task – and it actually is if you have the money to buy an Apple, Samsung or HTC flagship. However, I intend to take this one step further and omit those obvious 4G smartphone choices from this guide. But before we get to the actual phone picks let’s cover the basics and see which criteria is most relevant for choosing the best 4G smartphone.
What is 4G and LTE?
More often than not we’ll find those two terms next to each other. 4G LTE – looks familiar, doesn’t it? However, the development of this tandem has rather an interesting story.
G stands for generation. So 4G simply means 4th generation cellular networks technology for data transmission. Following the 3G technology, fourth generation by definition brings up to ten times higher data transmission speeds. What’s the most shocking part of this story? No company or cellular network provided has actually reached this level of defined upload/download speeds and other technical requirements of 4G. Now the question is – why do phone manufacturers and marketers still call those phones 4G enables devices? Here’s where LTE steps in.
Long Term Evolution (or LTE) a technology for wireless data communication is not compatible neither with 2G or 3G networks and thus has to be run separately on a different radio wave range. It is a completely different and much-advanced technology, however, it has not reached the described speeds of next-generation network. Regardless, it was clearly better than 3G both on speeds (4-5x the speeds of 3G) and technological solution thus the international bodies have decided to allow LTE to call their service a 4G technology. Shortly after, terms 4G and LTE have become inseparable in smartphone and tablet markets.
Is 4G connectivity available where I live?
Mobile network providers have expanded their coverage greatly over the last 5-6 years. Recent research by OpenSignal.com indicates that in 4G LTE had a 78% coverage in the US market, which truly is impressive. Unless you live in mountains or a very remote area – you will probably be fine and have a green light of buying a 4G enabled smartphone to enjoy those glorious data speeds.
Of course it also depends on a mobile network provider and Verizon appears to be providing the best 4G coverage of all in the US, however T-Mobile and AT&T only fall behind by a couple of percentage points. Refer to the graph from OpenSignal below:
Even though major network providers give similar coverage for mobile users – their offered speeds differ significantly. Average speeds for T-Mobile and Verizon were about 12Mbps, 7.93Mbps for AT&T users and 6.56Mbps for Sprint users. On the other hand, 6Mbps is going to be more than enough for the vast majority of the smartphone users as it still as better than some broadband connections at home.
What other technical requirements to look at?
4G is only one of the several technical specifications that determine whether the smartphone you’re looking at is a good device. Below you will find the specs of non-flagship smartphones to look at in order to get the best smartphone for your money. After all, our goal here is a mobile device which will be more than just an internet browsing machine at 4G speeds.
4G connectivity and quality screen are two very closely related specifications of the best smartphone. Since the whole essence of such device is very fast data interchange it is very often found to be used in browsing, downloading files, video chatting or even streaming. And in order to completely enjoy the next generation speeds you need the best display.
As far as it goes for display technology there are only a couple of good selections available. The two main paths one can go are IPS LCD (also a newly released SuperLCD) and AMOLED displays. They do differ though in their ability to represent true colors and the ability to deflect light.
AMOLED vs LCD
Due to the nature of technology, you will find AMOLED displays representing deeper blacks and more realistic whites thus creating a higher contrast ratio. AMOLED screen also shows very vivid and bright colors, which sometimes might even seem too unrealistic or oversaturated. This is where LCD has an advantage. Even though it might not be able to produce such accurate whites, the overall color gamut looks more realistic and thus LCD displays used more often in imaging and video media industry.
Unlike its rival, LCD display does not have a tendency to degrade with time which makes it longer-lasting altogether. Nonetheless, AMOLED is seen as the future technology and with the costs of production decreasing every day we might see AMOLED being the primary technology used in mobile phone industry.
However right now more important than deciding LCD IPS or AMOLED technology to choose is screen size and actual pixel density. Provided that your 4G smartphone is going to be used for browsing, images and video streaming – larger screen is preferred. 5’’ is just about the right size these days and actually most of those who went for a phablet size (5.5” and above) were very happy with their choice. When choosing the best 4g smartphone – generally larger screen is better.
Pixel density (or PPI) is another metric that tells us about the quality of the display. Simply put PPI represents how many pixels a display contains in a given area both vertically and horizontally. More pixels – clearer and smoother picture. In a 5” and bigger smartphone for 4G usage I would not go below 300ppi. Lower PPI is acceptable, but then you risk not having the same awesome experience and nowadays there are so many good and reasonably priced smartphones that there is simply no reason to accept anything less than very good.
Having covered network capabilities and good quality screens of a 4G smartphone bring us to another key point – battery. Phone battery is very much related to the two items mentioned above. Screen and data connectivity are the main reasons you have to be hooked up to an electric socket at least once a day.
Since we have already decided to go for a bigger and better screen it is crucial to make sure it is paired with a battery powerful enough to light those pixels and make it to the end of the day. Let’s not consider these monster phones with massive 10,000mAh batteries here, a phone lasting for the full day is enough as long as you are not a hiker or camping fan.
However, do not rely on plain numbers. Battery department is full of mysteries. Some smartphones with 1600mAh battery can outlast the ones with 3200mAh battery so capacity is merely an indicator. It is more about how efficiently smartphone’s software can use the energy resources available and how demanding the hardware is. Good indicator here is 3g talk and video playback times which are quoted by most manufacturers. Talk time of ~20h and above generally means that even with moderate use at the end of the day you will have a good portion of your battery charge still in your phone. If you can find video playback and/or web browsing quotes then 7 and more hours indicate well-suited battery for the smartphone. Capacity helps with direction, but always double check with actual numbers. Also keep in mind that li-ion batteries tend to deteriorate and thus will hold charge worse after some time. Thus safe some buffer for yourself and save the hassle of replacing a new battery after 6 months of usage.
What else defines the best 4G smartphone? Enough memory. I found my smartphone suddenly become very not smart when I ran out of gigabytes on it. You will find 16GB not enough in most cases. With cameras making high quality pictures and apps weighing as much as 50-100MB the storage of your smartphone will fill up without even trying to do so. Also, it is important to note that not all quoted storage is available for a user. A good fraction of that is being allocated to software and system files. For example in my 16GB iPhone 6 that I use for work I only have 12GB free while the remaining 4GB is being used by the system. It’s 1/4th of the whole storage – so stay alert and do not get fooled. More is definitely better. 32GB is ok, even better if your 4G smartphone has an extendable memory option via a memory card – this way you can expand it all to your needs.
I have included this section to a “Criteria for the best 4G smartphone” list simply because today phone cameras take up a good portion of images and videos shot overall. It’s become so popular due the fact that smartphone camera is always within your hand’s reach as well as the phone cameras’ ability to make decent quality pictures. Seriously, unless you need professional pictures for your own or commercial use, I see no reason to invest in a DSLR or other proper camera – good camera phone is more than enough for most users.
Most frequently mentioned specification of camera in a phone is megapixels. However the amount of pixels captured in a photograph is NOT a good indicator of picture quality. Almost all of them will do a good job in perfect light conditions (provided it does not have a 3MP potato camera installed), but only the best ones will give you good shots in non-ideal environment. And let’s be real – when it is time to take that shot it rarely happens to be perfect light and conditions. Best advice here is to look at demo pictures and camera tests online such as GSMArena camera test or test by Phonearena.
For a quick recap let me summarize below.
Criteria for the best 4G smartphone:
- 4G LTE technology enabled device
- Quality display (LCD IPS or AMOLED, >300PPI, larger screen preferred)
- Enough battery capacity (>3000mAh or >20h 3g talk time and > 7h video playback)
- Sufficient memory (32GB recommended + SD slot)
- Camera with good low-light performance (optional)
Top picks: best 4G smartphone choices
As mentioned earlier this list of best 4G smartphones will not include top notch flagships such as Samsung Galaxy S7 (Note), iPhone 7 (Plus) or HTC 10. Those are the obvious choices and going for them is always a good choice if you want the most powerful and cutting edge technology at the moment. So let’s dig into this deeper waiver wire.
XIAOMI REDMI NOTE 3
Very impressive Chinese masterpiece for an even more appealing price. Redmi Note 3 has a spacious 4050mAh battery, which will easily last you full day of intense 4G usage plus it is well above the market average.
Extremely sharp 5.5” IPS LCD screen (~400ppi), plenty of storage space paired with 3GB of RAM (32GB high version only), decent camera are only a few benefits of this 4G smartphone to mention. It makes it even more desirable knowing that one can get all that for about 200 bucks. If $200 is your budget ceiling – this Xiaomi is hands down the right choice for you.
HUAWEI HONOR P9
A very close competitor to Redmi note 3, however strengths of this 4G smartphone differ slightly.
Honor P9 boasts dual 12MP camera, which allows to make truly incredible shots. It definitely belongs on the list of Best Camera Smartphones. Battery might not be the most remarkable feature of this phone, but the actual (normal) hours of usage it gives you is one to compete with those of famous flagships. GSMArena has given it 75h rating, which ranks next to top performers on the list.
5.2” IPS-NEO screen won’t leave any doubts as it will perform great in any conditions and again – price tag doesn’t bite at all.
Top-notch specifications – not much to add here. This phone probably should be in the flagship category and not here. Regardless I thought it is worth a mention due to its below 450 dollar price tag.
SONY XPERIA Z5
I always thought that you have to be a Sony fan to buy an Xperia. However I really like the innovation this smartphone brings along with the 4G technology. It is proclaimed to possess the best camera Sony phones ever had. And truly, the pictures made with this device look amazing, especially when viewed on the sharp 5.2” IPS display. + it has an IP68 protection which mean it is dust- and water-proof even though it does qualify as a rugged smartphone.
Downside? Rather small battery which indeed performs significantly weaker than candidates mentioned above. It would still serve a normal user well, but if used heavily might need to be replaced at some point.
LEECO LE 2
You probably have never heard of this phone before. But make no mistake, do not write it off because of its not well known brand. This 4g smartphone comes with a 10-core processor – not only there are a lot of cores, they are crazy powerful too. No smartphone on the list has a chance of comparing to Le 2. And since this phone made it to this list – goes without saying – battery, screen and memory is enough to call this little muscular beast one of the best 4G smartphones available.
What made it to your list of best 4G smartphones out there? Leave your favorites as a comment below. Sharing is caring, right?