What Is 1G vs. 2G vs. 2.5G vs. 3G vs. 4G vs. 5G?

Differences Between the Major Cell Phone Technologies

A wireless carrier might support 4G or 3G while some phones are built for just one of those. Your location might only let your phone get 2G speeds, or you might see the term 5G thrown around when talking about smartphones.

Since 1G was introduced in the early '80s, a new wireless mobile telecommunications technology has been released around every 10 years. All of them refer to the technology used by the mobile carrier and device itself; they have different speeds and features that improve on the generation prior to it.

While an acronym is sometimes techno babble the layperson needn’t master, others are important for everyday understanding. You might want to know how these technologies differ and how it applies to you when you're buying a phone, getting coverage details, or subscribing to a mobile carrier.

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What is 1G?
Image © Chad Baker, Getty Images

Remember analog “brick phones” and “bag phones” way, way back in the day? Cell phones began with 1G in the 1980s.

1G is an analog technology and the phones generally had poor battery life and voice quality, were large without much security, and would sometimes experience dropped calls.

The max speed of 1G is 2.4 Kbps. More »

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Cell phones received their first major upgrade when they went from 1G to 2G. This leap took place in 1991 on GSM networks first, in Finland, and effectively took cell phones from analog to digital.

The 2G telephone technology introduced call and text encryption, plus data services like SMS, picture messages and MMS.

Although 2G has replaced 1G, and is superseded by the technologies described below, it's still used around the world.

The max speed of 2G with General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) is 50 Kbps, or 1 Mbps with Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution (EDGE). More »

Before making the major leap from 2G to 3G wireless networks, the lesser-known 2.5G and 2.75G was an interim standard that bridged the gap

2.5G introducing a new packet switching technique that was more efficient than what we previously being used.

This led to to 2.75G which provides a theoretical threefold capacity increase. 2.75G with EDGE began in the US with GSM networks (AT&T being the first). More »

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3G networks were introduced in 1998 and stands for the next generation in this series; the third-generation.

3G ushered in faster data-transmission speeds so you could use your cell phone in more data-demanding ways like for video calling and mobile internet.

Like 2G, 3G evolved into 3.5G and 3.75G as more features were introduced in order to bring about 4G.

The max speed of 3G is estimated to be around 2 Mbps for non-moving devices and 384 Kbps in moving vehicles. The theoretical max speed for HSPA+ is 21.6 Mbps. More »

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The fourth generation of networks is called 4G, which was released in 2008. It supports mobile web access like 3G but also gaming services, HD mobile TV, video conferencing, 3D TV and other things that demand higher speeds.

With the implementation of 4G, some 3G features are removed, such as the spread spectrum radio technology; others are added like higher bit rates due to smart antennas.

The max speed of a 4G network when the device is moving is 100 Mbps, or 1 Gbps for low mobility communication like when stationary or walking. More »

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What Is 5G?

5G is a proposed, but not-yet-implemented wireless technology that's intended to improve on 4G. 

Some of the plans for 5G include device-to-device communication, better battery consumption, and improved overall wireless coverage.

The max speed of 5G is aimed at being as fast as 35.46 Gbps, which is over 35 times faster than 4G. However, data rates of tens of Mbps might be expected for thousands of users, and around 100 Mbps for metropolitan areas.