What Phone Specs Mean to You, Pt. 3: Connectivity

So, we’ve talked about specs related to your computer’s brain (the CPU) and to its face (the screen), but what about its eyes and ears?  And, well, its mouth?  After all, what’s a face without eyes, ears, nose and mouth?  And what’s a smartphone without Wi-Fi, a wireless network, and all the other things it uses to gather and dispense information?  Not that smart, that’s for sure.

There are a lot of different kinds of connections a smartphone may make use of, and a lot of different kinds of networks it connects to.  In this installment of What Specs Mean, we give you the lowdown on LTE, NFC (not the National Football Conference, though you can get that on your smartphone, too), GPS, G, and a bunch of other stuff that can make it tough to figure out just how well-connected your phone really is.

Connecting to the world

Term

What it
refers to

What it means to you

GSM
(Global System
for Mobile communications)*
Use of radio frequencies by cell service providers In North America and parts of South America, carriers use the 850MHz and 1900MHz frequencies to transmit calls and text messages. These days, most phones can also operate on the 900 and 1900 bands used in other parts of the world as well.  GSM is one of two primary technologies used to enable phone service on these frequencies.
If you see ‘GSM 850/900/1800/1900’ or ‘quad band’ in a spec list, then, it means you ought to be able to use your phone anywhere in the world, though you will probably need to get a local SIM card (which will only work if your phone is unlocked) in order to connect to a network in another country. If your phone is only dual-band, you will not be able to connect to other frequencies even with a local SIM card. This map tells what frequencies are used where.
CDMA
(Code Division Multiple Access)
Use of radio frequencies by cell service providers CDMA is an alternative to GSM technology that is used by several carriers, including Verizon and Sprint in the U.S.  Though there seems to be no difference in the quality of service (this depends primarily on the network itself), CDMA phones are notably less likely to be unlocked or unlockable from a network.  Many phones support both, but you will want to make sure the phone you buy supports the technology of the carrier you want to use.  Of course, if you buy the phone from the carrier, it will obviously be compatible.
GPRS
(General packet radio service)
Wireless Internet through your cell service provider GPRS allows your phone to access the internet over your phone’s GSM frequencies, even at the slowest speeds.  This is what is happening when your phone says “E” in the bar at the top instead of “4G LTE” and it takes and agonizing 15 seconds to send an email.  We know it’s painfully slow, but it’s not the phone’s fault.  Other phones would just give up at this point. GPRS maxes out at 60 kb/s (we explain kb/s below).
EDGE
(Exchanged Data rates for GSM Evolution)
Wireless Internet through your cell service provider EDGE is similar to GPRS, but can run at up to 473.6 kb/s and can be used for heavier mobile data transmission like receiving email attachments and browsing complex web pages without wanting to chuck your phone off a cliff (which may well be nearby if you’re down to EDGE service).
3G Wireless Internet through your cell service provider The “G” in 3G (and 4G) just stands for ‘generation’ and is indicative of the evolution of broadband service over radio frequencies.  3G provides for faster and more power-efficient web browsing than its predecessors, which we don’t mention here because no one uses them anymore.  It does this by using a broader range of frequencies; a 3G phone is able to send and receive data on these frequencies.  Note: 3G is the slowest connection that will allow you to make video calls.
LTE
(Long Term Evolution)
Wireless Internet through your cell service provider 4G LTE logoThis is the first step towards true 4G technologies, and what the most advanced smartphones are suing at the moment.  It was widely decided that companies could market LTE as “4G LTE” in order to avoid confusion by using some term like 3.5G or 3.9G.  True 4G would have to provide maximum download speeds of 100 Mb/s while moving and 1Gb/s while relatively still (walking counts).  LTE provides maximum speeds around 299.6 Mb/s
Mb/s or Mbps
(Megabit per second)
Data transfer rate In the context of smartphones, this is a measurement of how fast data can download and upload, depending on your device and your network connection.  A megabit is 1,000 kilobits, which is 1,000 bits (mb=1,000,000 bits).  It should be noted that a bit is not equivalent to a Byte, which is represented by a capital B and is what we use to measure file size and data storage capacity (MB, GB, TB, etc.).  10 bits = 1.25 Bytes (1 Byte=8 bits).  So, downloading a 750 MB HD movie at the 100 Mb/s rate of true 4G should theoretically take about 60 seconds.  Of course, this would only be realized if the network performed consistently at top speed, which is generally not the case.
WLAN
(wireless local area network)
Wireless linking between devices  and wireless Internet through wireless router (location specific) This is the wireless connection provided by a wireless router or other wireless distribution method.  It can provide a link between several devices, like a laptop, a Smart TV, a wireless printer, or a tablet, and, if it is connected to a Internet connection, it can provide wireless internet (usually Wi-Fi) service.
Wi-Fi Wireless Internet through wireless router (location specific) Wi Fi logoWi-Fi is just the name of the technology most often used to allow an electronic device to connect to a WLAN.  Most modern phones come with a Wi-Fi antenna built in. Most people take advantage of this option, especially when at home, because data sent or received while connected to Wi-Fi does not come out of their monthly data plan.
Wi-Fi Hotspot Wireless Internet through wireless router (location specific) This is essentially a public Wi-Fi enabled WLAN.  This is what you are using when you use Wi-Fi at the airport, Starbucks, the Library, etc.  Because many people are usually using the same broadband connection at a hotspot, speeds can be a little slower and these connections are notably less secure than home networks.
Wireless Tethering
(personal hotspot)
Wireless Internet through your cell service provider This is a capacity that more and more modern phones have that enable you to share the 3G or 4G LTE Internet service provided by your cell phone carrier with other Wi-Fi enabled devices like your laptop or tablet.  This can be very handy if you are in an area without Wi-Fi or if you prefer not to share a wireless network with strangers.  Be aware, though, that the data used comes out of your monthly cell phone data plan and may incur an added fee, depending on your provider.  It also tends to drain a phone’s battery very quickly, so make sure you can plug in before you fire it up.
GPS
(Global Positioning System)
Satellite positioning Wikipedia provides this concise explanation of GPS, “a space-based satellite navigation system that provides location and time information in all weather conditions, anywhere on or near the Earth where there is an unobstructed line of sight to four or more GPS satellites.”  This is how your map app knows where you are and how to tell you how to get where you’re going.  You can turn the GPS on your phone on and off, though TV would have us believe that it can be activated at will by “the man”.  It also tends to suck up your battery, though not as much as it used to.

 

Connecting to your provider

Term

What it
refers to

What it means to you

SIM
(Subscriber Identity Module)
Connection between phone and service provider A ‘SIM Card’ is essentially a small chip that contains the International mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) and related key that identifies and authenticates your mobile device to your service provider’s system.  It tells them what account to assign charges to, what your number is, etc.
 Locked Connection between phone and service provider If your phone or tablet is “locked” or “network-locked”, which most in the U.S. are, it means that it will only work with a particular network’s SIM card.  Most phones you buy from a particular carrier are locked, unless you request an unlocked device, which will likely cost more and will certainly not be subject to any of the common contract deals. This is usually not a problem unless you travel internationally and wish to use a local SIM card while you are abroad.
Factory unlocked Connection between phone and service provider This means your phone will work with any SIM card and that you can change these cards out as you wish.  You can usually purchase factory unlocked phones from the manufacturer (Apple, Samsung, etc.) or from distributors like Best Buy and Amazon, and they will usually be full MSRP.
Jailbroken
(after-factory unlocked)
Connection between phone and service provider This is a phone that was locked to a particular provider network when it was manufactured, but has been altered to enable use with multiple SIM cards.  Generally, jailbreaking a phone will invalidate its warranty and can be a risky process for the functionality of your phone if not performed by someone who knows what they’re doing.  In some places, including the U.S., it can also incur a hefty fine if done for commercial purposes (i.e. resale) and is technically illegal for anyone.

 

Connecting to other devices

Term

What it
refers to

What it means to you

Bluetooth Wireless linking between devices Bluetooth IconBluetooth is a short-range wireless technology that allows you to securely pair devices like a Bluetooth headset or hands-free car kit with your phone.  You can also use it to easily send small files like pictures or contacts between phones, provided they are compatible.
NFC
(NFC)
Wireless linking between devices NFC iconThis is a kind of radio technology that allows your smartphone, if it has the technology, to communicate over very short distances (around 10cm) to send certain kinds of information: NFC target (acting like a credential), NFC initiator (reading those credentials) and NFC peer to peer (sharing things like photos or contacts between phones).  This is the technology that ApplePay and similar phone-as-wallet services use.
Infrared Wireless communication between devices Many higher-end Android phones have infrared transmitters built in and come with a few apps that take advantage of it.  These days, devices with infrared receivers are mostly limited to TVs, DVD players, and similar devices that use a traditional remote control.
DLNA
(Digital Living Network Alliance)
Wireless linking between devices Most devices made by Sony Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia, LG and Samsung are DLNA Certified, meaning they will work with each other in some capacity.  This is why Android phones and tablets can “talk” to each other, but not to Apple phones.  DLNA cooperation also allows those same phones to stream audio, photos and video to DLNA compatible TV sets or speaker systems.
AirPlay Wireless linking between devices This is Apple’s answer to DNLA.  IT enables you to connect your iPhone and iPad to various other Apple devices like speakers, AppleTV, etc.
Streaming Media Device Wireless linking between devices These are devices like Chromecast, Roku, AppleTV, and Amazon Fire TV.  They plug into the HDMI port on your smart TV and use your home Wi-Fi to connect to your smartphone. Most of these are only for watching things and do not allow for big screen gaming.
USB
(Universal Serial Bus)
Wired connection between devices USB Type AThis is the port on your computer (and possibly your charger) that you use to connect it to your phone with a cord.  Folks primarily use this to upload music and video from their computers onto their phones.
Micro USB Wired connection between devices MicroB USBThis is a universal-except-for-Apple connection that allows you to connect your phone or tablet to other devices or to your charger.  This is what you find at the phone end of your USB cord.
HDMI
(High-Definition Multimedia Interface)
Wired connection between devices HDMI connectorThis allows you to connect your phone directly to an HDTV.  Normally, only phones capable of playing or recording video at 720p or 1080p (remember “p” from screen specs?) have an HDMI connection, and not all of these do. Again, this is for watching video/ displaying pictures, not for gaming.
MHL
(Mobile High-Definition Link)
Wired connection between devices This allows you to stream HD video from your phone even if it doesn’t have an HDMI port.  Many modern smartphones are MHL enabled, which means that there are additional connectors in the micro USB port that can transmit uncompressed HD video.  To use this capability, you will need an MHL to HDMI adapter, which will connect to the HDMI cable you plug into your TV.

Micro USB image By masamic via Wikimedia Commons
HDMI image By D-Kuru via Wikimedia Commons

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