What Does 4G Mean for Tablets?

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The Motorola Xoom shipped without 4G, though it will come in the form of a free upgrade, possibly around May. The iPad 2 is coming to Verizon, though not on the carrier’s LTE 4G network. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 4G (Verizon) and BlackBerry 4G PlayBook (Sprint WiMAX), were both announced at CES, but there are no solid release dates.

Dell Streak 7

That leaves the Dell Streak 7 that shipped in February as the only major device available marketed as a 4G tablet. And while the merits of T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network are debatable, there is no doubt that the high-speed networks required to support tablets are now a reality.

What is a 4G?

The “4G” distinction is really a marketing term to refer to a carrier’s fourth-generation data network. Currently, there are three competing 4G technologies:

  • WiMAX (Sprint): Promising average download speeds of three to six megabytes per second (mbps)
  • LTE (Verizon and AT&T in mid-2011): Promising average download speeds of five to 12 mbps
  • HSPA+ (T-Mobile and current AT&T): Promising average download speeds of one to seven mbps

Very technically speaking, the agency that regulates telecom standards, the International Telecommunications Union, claims that true 4G must be capable of at least 100 mbps downloads, which none of the carriers are even close to offering. WiMAX and LTE are believed to have true 4G potential, but HSPA+ is really just a tweak to the older HPSA 3G technology. As such, HSPA+ is sometimes referred to as 3.5G and T-Mobile has caught flak for referring to their network as 4G.

Verizon 4GBut wait! According to an independent third-party study, T-Mobile 4G compared favorably against other networks in the top 100 US markets. In addition, T-Mobile boasts “America’s largest 4G network,” a claim that Verizon and Sprint look to contest as they roll out their 4G networks to more cities and towns.

Complicating matters is the distinction between download speeds and upload speeds. Carriers love to tout download speeds because they are typically higher (Verizon’s uploads top out at two to five mbps), and consumers download content much more than they upload it… think of music and movies.

However, the rise of video chat, especially on tablets, has placed a newfound importance on upload speeds, and the limits of 3G upload speeds are a big reason why carriers relegated video chat to Wi-Fi on last-generation devices.

4G and Tablets

Based on features, tablets are poised to take advantage of 4G speeds. Unlike smartphones, which are communication devices, tablets are consumption devices at their core, with relatively large screens approaching HD resolution. That same larger screen also makes tablets suitable for video conferencing, a feature that has since become standard on every major tablet released since the original iPad.

What’s Next?

Tablet display resolutions are still short of true 1080 HD (1920 x 1080). The Xoom comes close with a 1200 x 800 resolution, but our reviewer noticed some slight pixilation in HD content.

Fortunately, that may change soon. The quad-core Tegra 3 processor rumored to ship in late 2011 might bring Blu-ray quality HD to tablets and other mobile devices. Of course, getting the content onto the device is another matter all together. As of March 2011, the Android Market lacks any serious streaming app.

Tegra Roadmap

Even if you did have Netflix loaded up on a 4G Xoom, you’d want to think twice before streaming HD over the LTE network as a two-hour HD movie could translate to approximately 3GB of data against the carrier-imposed cap.

Verizon currently charges $50 per month for 5GB of data and $80 per month for 10GB on its 4G modem plans, with a $10 per-GB rate for any overages. Sprint charges $50 per month for unlimited 4G, while T-Mobile charges $40 per month for 5GB, but only throttles down network speed when a customer exceeds the GB allotment.

Until carriers offer plans and pricing that reflect 4G potential, it’s probably best to relegate 4G activities to Wi-Fi.

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