A fast service but 4G is still expensive - though the blow is softened for music and sports fans thanks to free extras
For the past year UK customers wanting super-fast smartphone data have had only one choice – EE’s 4G network. That all changed in August, when Vodafone launched its 4G service in London. Now already on its way to Birmingham, Coventry, Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield, we’ve put the network to the test in London to see how it compares to the competition, whether Vodafone’s incentives make it worth your while to take out a contract and what you can expect in terms of speed.
The technical details
Vodafone’s 4G network uses the 800MHz and 2.6GHz frequency bands, which were previously used for digital TV transmissions and military communications before OFCOM auctioned them off in February. A key difference between these and the 1.8GHz band used by EE, is that Vodafone’s bands are incompatible with the Apple iPhone 5 (one of the UK’s best-selling handsets until recently replaced).
You’ll have to upgrade to the newly-announced iPhone 5s or iPhone 5c if you want to use an iOS device on Vodafone’s super-fast service. Thankfully for Android users, there are plenty of handsets that support Vodafone 4G including the Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One and Sony Xperia Z.
At the time of writing, only London’s transmitters had been switched to 4G, with other towns and cities set to follow later in the month and up to 98% coverage across the UK by the end of 2015. That’s a long time to wait if you live in out in the sticks, or even if you’re in a smaller town, so it may be worth checking to see if EE already has you covered rather than wait for Vodafone to switch you over.
Tariffs and prices
Vodafone’s 4G plans are called Red 4G-ready, as not every area is currently 4G-enabled but there’s nothing stopping you from signing up early ready for when your town or city gets the upgrade. There are three tiers: Red 4G-ready, which includes 2GB of data, unlimited minutes and unlimited texts; Red L 4G-ready, which comes with 4GB of data, unlimited minutes and unlimited texts; and Red XL 4G-Ready, which doubles data again to 8GB and includes unlimited minutes and unlimited texts. For a SIM-only, 12-month contract, you’ll be looking at £26 a month for the basic package, £31 for the L bundle and £36 a month for XL. There are currently no 30-day rolling contracts for 4G, so you’ll have to sign up for a minimum of one year to get faster speeds from Vodafone.
If you need a 4G handset as well as a contract, prices begin to increase. A Samsung Galaxy S4 on a two-year basic 4G contract will set you back £38 per month, or an HTC One on the same deal will cost £42 a month.
Although these prices seem high, Vodafone’s time-limited deals could save you some of that money if you’re a big sports or music fan.
Just as EE incentivised customers with data-exempt movie downloads, Vodafone is looking to appeal to music lovers and sports fanatics. When you sign up to a basic 4G package, you get the choice of a six months’ subscription to Sky Sports Mobile TV, or six months’ worth of Spotify premium streaming. Take out the L or XL bundle and that offer doubles up to twelve months’ of free streaming.
Spotify’s premium service includes unlimited music streaming on all your devices, not just your smartphone. You can download songs and playlists for offline playback when you don’t have a signal, and there are no adverts between each track. It would normally cost £10 a month to subscribe to Spotify, so if you use the service anyway you could consider Vodafone’s deal as getting £10 off your contract.
Spotify’s premium service includes offline listening and no ads
Sky’s Mobile TV, meanwhile, includes Sky Sports 1 and 2. This is great for anyone wanting to watch Barclays Premier League or UEFA Champions League matches on the move, but seeing as the service only costs £5 a month you aren’t getting as much for your money if you opt for it instead of Spotify. We would have preferred to see Vodafone including the more expensive £10 monthly bundle, which includes Sky Sports 1, 2, 3 and 4, Sky Sports F1, Sky Sports News and Sky News.
As you’d expect, there was no discernible difference in picture quality between streaming over 4G or Wi-Fi; but either way there’s still an awful lot of artefacting and images never look as clear as BBC iPlayer or Netflix. We calculated that you’ll also eat up around 500MB of data watching one football match, which is worth keeping in mind if you’re on the lowest tariff.
On a Full HD smartphone Sky Sports Mobile TV can hardly be called high quality
Early birds can also get an extra 4GB of data per month for the length of their contract if they sign up before the end of October. That makes the basic £26 a month deal £10 cheaper than EE’s 5GB monthly SIM, with an extra gigabyte of data and six months’ sport or music. It’s a fantastic deal if you’re prepared to sign up now, but keep in mind 4G prices should begin to fall in the next six months as O2 and Three expand their super-fast services and the competition heats up.
How fast and how much
We tested Vodafone 4G in and around London, mostly in the centre of town but also in several boroughs dotted across the city. At our desk we saw speeds of up to 56Mbps, which are more than ten times the 4Mbps average we saw on 3G, although at this early stage of the roll out there are far fewer people on the 4G service – we expect speeds to drop once more people start using it.
An excellent result for Vodafone 4G in central London
4G speeds were a little slower in South London, where signals weren’t as strong
Coverage was excellent for the most part, with our Galaxy S4 test device finding the 4G signal virtually everywhere we went. Even indoors in the depths of South East London, we saw two bars of 4G signal and 26Mbps speeds.
In the first five days of using 4G, we ran up a total of 2GB of data – roughly four times the amount we’d use on our existing 3G contract. This was partly down to testing, as we wouldn’t have streamed nearly as much video over the course of our regular month’s usage, and the majority was due to photo uploads to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, but we also used a fair amount of data watching YouTube videos and streaming podcasts from BBC iPlayer.
There’s an argument that faster speeds will naturally cause us to increase our data usage, and that figure will likely spike once you switch to 4G. Although that’s a little simplistic, there’s every chance that our usage will grow with time as apps begin to make use of the faster speeds. BBC iPlayer is one example – although it’s gone through plenty of updates since we tested it on EE’s 4G network, it still streams low-quality video until you connect to a wireless network. YouTube doesn’t compress its videos quite so severely, although there is still a drop down in quality compared to watching over Wi-Fi.
BBC iPlayer over Wi-Fi…
…versus iPlayer over 4G. Notice a significant decrease in quality
Music streaming is less bandwidth-intensive, assuming you aren’t trying to listen at the highest quality possible, but it becomes more of an issue of maintaining a constant connection rather than the amount of data you use. Depending on the app, we experienced a few cut-outs when on public transport, as the signal dipped in strength or dropped down to 3G.
When it comes to everyday web browsing, you shouldn’t use much more data than you do on 3G simply because it takes a lot longer to read a web page than it does to download it. Picture and video uploads are naturally faster, so you may find yourself posting more snaps to Twitter or Instagram, or uploading a lot more Vine video clips when you don’t have to wait an age for them to hit the internet.
Vodafone’s 4G service definitely has what it takes to compete with EE – although the UK’s first 4G network may be slightly faster, and in more cities, it won’t be long until Vodafone rolls out to other parts of the country. The bonuses for early adopters are a great way to save on the price of a contract, assuming you’re interested in sport or music, and prices compare favourably to the competition.
If you’re out of contract and you’re looking to sign up for two years to get a top-end handset, 4G is definitely worth considering, but only if you’re the kind of person that likes to upload photos or video on the go, or if you want to catch up with Sky Sports or Netflix when on the move. Just be aware there’s still a price premium over 3G, which may not be worth the extra amount if you only browse the web and update Twitter from your phone.