I like phones that are smarter than I am, and I like having the Internet at my disposal as close to instantly as possible. So why don't I love 4G smartphones?
Start here: There is no definitive "4G." It was bad enough that third-generation (3G) wireless, which once seemed unimaginably fast, came in two versions with roughly the same speeds, but the fourth generation of mobile broadband offers three choices that vary significantly.
AT&T and T-Mobile have opted for an upgraded version of their 3G that goes by the technical term "HSPA+"; both carriers slapped the 4G label on that technology after earlier using such less ambitious phrases as "faster 3G." Sprint picked a standard called WiMax that let it start selling a 4G service back in 2008. Verizon Wireless, in turn, chose the Long Term Evolution standard that AT&T and T-Mobile still plan to adopt later on.
Fourth generation is not necessarily faster. In my most recent tests, Sprint WiMax downloads averaged 5.5 million bits per second (Mbps), while T-Mobile's HSPA+ trailed at 4.5 Mbps and AT&T's were little faster than 3G, at 1.6 Mbps. Verizon's LTE looked much more impressive, running as fast as 20 Mbps — faster than the 15 Mbps Verizon FIOS fiber-optic line I have at home — and easily averaging 10 Mbps.
Those figures came with good reception; if you leave a major urban area, you'll probably leave 4G behind too, at least for this year.
But let's say you buy the fastest service available; how often will you notice it on the go? A phone's 3- or 4-inch display does not provide much of a canvas for 4G. With high-definition video pointless and most apps and Web pages needing relatively little bandwidth, 4G only becomes crucial for the occasional large file downloaded from a site or attached to an email. (Your 3G phone may look like it's taking its time to download a Web page, but that has more to do with its processor needing time to render the page.)
The velocity of 4G may become more obvious if you "tether" your phone to your computer and its big screen — that is, share its 4G access over Wi-Fi to get around the lack of free Wi-Fi. But you'll pay an extra $15 or $30 per month to do it, and you may quickly run into caps on data you download and upload over shared 4G access.
Verizon only allows 2 gigabytes of tethered use (its math suggests that's good for almost 7,000 Web pages but doesn't note that it's only about half of a high-def movie streamed from Netflix), then bills $20 for another 2 GB. AT&T permits 4 GB and charges $10 for each extra gigabyte. T-Mobile lets you pay for up to 10 GB of 4G, after which it will slow your connection to 3G speeds. Only Sprint has yet to set a cap.
The worst aspect of 4G, however, may be what it can do to a phone's battery. There's no better exhibit than Verizon's first LTE phone, the HTC ThunderBolt: The model I reviewed was down to little more than half a charge after 24 hours of sitting idle on a desk, doing nothing more than checking two email accounts in the background. Some ThunderBolt owners have resorted to disabling LTE on the phone – one friend only turns 4G back on if he wants to tether a laptop or has a hefty file to download.
Other 4G phones don't run down as quickly as the ThunderBolt, but the battery tax is real enough that Apple will apparently hold off on adding 4G to the iPhone.
4G isn't all bad. A Sprint publicist related one concrete advantage of it last summer: At the Rally to Restore Sanity on the Mall, his 4G phone could get online over the uncrowded WiMax airwaves when 3G phones were hopelessly jammed. But by now, there may be enough 4G phones in circulation for that benefit to have faded away.
Images from sites of (left to right) Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint