The 4G onslaught begins


4G, 4G, 4G, 4G.


Tired of hearing about 4G yet?

You better not be, because the 4G onslaught has only just begun.

AT&T's first 4G phone, the HTC Inspire, will go on sale on February 13 for $99.99 with the usual two-year contract.

A few days ago, T-Mobile and Samsung teased the Galaxy S 4G, which includes a pre-loaded copy of Inception, and the LG G-Slate, which could be the first 4G tablet with Android 3.0 "Honeycomb" if it beats Motorola's Xoom (pronounced Zoom) into the market.

The HTC Inspire is the first of 20 4G phones AT&T plans to unleash this year. The second will be Motorola's not unjustified self-proclaimed "world's most powerful smartphone," the Atrix, which goes on pre-sale the day Inspire can be bought, February 13, for availability on March 6. The third will be probably the Samsung Infuse 4G, which will boast a 4.5-inch AMOLED and a 1.2 GHz processor.

Next week, Sprint, which beat everyone into the market with a 4G phone last spring, is throwing a shindig at which it likely will reveal new 4G handsets. Whatever the carrier presents, it'll supplement the first-ever 4G phone, the HTC EVO, the Samsung Epic and the EVO Shift.

Within the next few weeks, Verizon is sure to announce availability of one or more of four LTE 4G handsets — the Motorola Bionic, the LG Revolution, an unnamed Samsung (logically a Samsung S 4G LTE), and the HTC Thunderbolt. Also waiting in the wings is the Samsung Galaxy Tab 4G LTE.

So, in case you hadn't noticed, all four major carriers will have 4G handsets for sale before all the current snow and ice melts.

Shared Specs

Not only should you maintain a high 4G tolerance threshold, but get used to hearing certain 4G handset specs repeated ad nauseum:

  • Android 2.2
  • 4 to 4.5-inch screen (usually 4.3-inch)
  • 1 GHz processor (some 1.2 GHz, the Atrix 2 GHz)
  • 5 or 8 MP camera
  • 720p or 1080 high definition video recording
  • Mobile WiFi hotspot
  • At least 8 GB included, either built-in memory, pre-installed microSD card or both
  • Front/rear cameras with QIK video chat capabilities
  • Nearly all other 4G phones announced thus far share most of these listed specs, which seem to comprise the new smartphone normal.

Whether or not the competitive pressures will force Apple to either keep up or surpass at least the 4-plus-inch screen size (as if anyone or anything ever "forced" Apple to do anything) remains to be seen. But iPad 2 is rumored to have a 1.2 GHz chip, so it's hard to imagine this coming summer's iPhone 5 (or iPhone 4G) from AT&T won't pass its 4G competitors in power, at least.

All of which sort of makes the 3G Verizon iPhone 4 look kind of sick.

The Trouble with Some 4G

I've discussed my problems with how certain carriers who shall remain nameless (T-Mobile and AT&T) are slathering around the term "4G" like it really means 4G. Sure, T-Mobile's HSPA-Plus 21 mbps network is way swifter than any extant 3G network, but does it have expandability and longevity?

Think of HSPA-Plus "4G" networks as sort of like the original stock cars racers — modified store-bought street cars. Much faster than your CheveToyoHondaFord, but still just a street car.

LTE 4G, however, is more like a Formula 1 car, a special vehicle built for speed right from the start with a greater potential to get faster.

AT&T's new HSPA-Plus "4G" network is especially troubling for three reasons.

1. Where is 4G?

AT&T has laden its "4G" network with confusing caveats. An asterisk at the top of its 4G page, where it boasts 4G delivers 4 times the speed of its current 3G network, leads you to this tiny print at the bottom of the page: "4G speeds require a 4G device and are delivered when HSPA+ technology is combined with enhanced backhaul."

So how much of AT&T's network is so backhaul combined?

Behind the "Network" tab on the same 4G explanatory page:

AT&T has deployed HSPA+ to virtually 100% of our nation's fastest mobile broadband network, which enables 4G speeds when combined with enhanced backhaul. We are rapidly expanding enhanced backhaul to cell sites throughout the country, adding new cell sites weekly.

If its network is virtually 100% deployed, why the "rapid expansion"? What isn't covered?

The map on the same page offers no help. According to its legend, "4G coverage [is] not depicted" on the map. Does that mean it doesn't depict 4G LTE, due from the carrier this spring? Or does it mean it doesn't depict HSPA-Plus? Don't know.

Confused? Me too.

2. Same Crowded Frequency.

We all know how inconsistent (to say the least) AT&T's network is in major metro areas. Well, its HSPA-Plus network runs on the same 1900 MHz network as its spotty 3G service. Does HSPA-Plus occupy a slightly different slice of that 1900 MHz band, or will the Inspire and Atrix eat away even more at the network's connectivity consistency?

Again, don't know. But I'm not reassured.

3. Which 4G is Which?

As noted, this summer, AT&T will launch its own 4G LTE network, which runs on an empty 700 MHz band recovered from TV stations after the digital transition two years ago. My question: if AT&T is marketing HSPA-Plus as 4G, how will it market LTE 4G without totally confusing consumers about which 4G is which and what the differences are?

Hopefully all these questions will be answered sooner than later. And this is just the beginning of our 2011 4G overdose.

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