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What is 3G? How much faster is 3G than EDGE in real-world tests?
Please note that this Q&A specifically refers to 3G as provided by the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS, rather than subsequently released models although it remains quite useful for general information on the 3G standard as well as formal test results.
AT&T Wireless explains that 3G -- which the company markets as "BroadbandConnect" -- is:
Built on the global standard for 3G wireless, BroadbandConnect delivers the high speed and coverage your business needs to keep work flowing when you're on the road. And now this network has been enhanced to double peak download throughput and greatly improve typical upload speeds on the latest 3G devices.
AT&T Wireless further specifies that the 3G standard is capable of "providing typical download speeds of 600 Kbps to 1.4 Mbps and typical upload speeds of 500 to 800 Kbps on compatible devices" and that the service is provided in "more than 280" major US metropolitan areas. 3G coverage is much higher in many countries in Europe and Asia.
AT&T Wireless defines the earlier EDGE standard as:
A third-generation, high-speed, mobile data and Internet access technology. It's fast enough to support a wide range of advanced data services including video and music clips, full picture & video messaging, high-speed color Internet access, and email on the move.
In detail, AT&T notes that EDGE "provides average data speeds between 75-135 Kbps" and is available in "more than 13,000 cities and towns and in areas along 40,000 miles of highways" in the US.
Third-Party Test Results
In my tests, in Washington and New York, I got data speeds mostly ranging between 200 and 500 kilobits per second. By comparison, the original iPhone, tested in the same spots at the same time, mostly got cellular data speeds between 70 and 150 kbps on AT&T’s old EDGE network. The new iPhone typically was between three and five times as fast as the old one.
Some tests are showing speeds up to four times faster than the old EDGE network. Our experience has been mixed. Testing in the Greater Boston metropolitan area, we've seen 3G data speeds as low as 70 Kbit/sec, and as high as 550 Kbit/sec -- about 2.5 times faster than the best speed we have seen on the EDGE network.
An iPhone 3G on AT&T's 3G network downloaded media files and loaded Web pages between two and four times as fast as an original iPhone on AT&T's EDGE network. Of course, not even the 3G cellular network can match up with pure Wi-Fi. For example, downloading a 1 MB MP3 file took 87 seconds on EDGE, 21 seconds on 3G, and only 8 seconds via Wi-Fi.
A follow-up MacWorld piece about the variability of 3G in different cities -- specifically Boston and San Francisco -- is also an interesting read.
3G's lead over EDGE can vary depending on factors like one's market, signal strength, and which way the wind is blowing. Still, in our testing, 3G usually matched Apple's claims of at least twice the speed of EDGE, and even almost a full three times faster in some cases.
If the majority of sites you use on your iPhone are small, text heavy sites, then you honestly won't notice a huge difference between Edge and 3G, and it won't feel like Wi-Fi anywhere to you. However, if you use sites with more images and content to download, 3G will feel more like Wi-Fi and Edge just won't cut it.
iPhone 3G's performance was significantly better in Toronto, Canada than it was in either Orange County, California or Las Vegas, Nevada, and all three of these cities saw much bigger gains than our test location in East Amherst, New York. While the iPhone 3G almost never achieves equivalent 3G speeds to an 802.11g Wi-Fi network, it can get a lot closer than the original iPhone's EDGE.
3G Speed Summary
Ultimately, 3G is at least two to three times faster than the earlier EDGE standard in most real-world scenarios although it can vary dramatically depending on one's location.
To generalize, EDGE is not much faster than a 56k dial up connection, whereas 3G offers broadband speeds, but 3G is not as readily available as EDGE. 3G also uses significantly more power than EDGE and this can have an adverse impact on battery life.