4G vs WiFi – Difference, Speed, Battery Life & Usage

By: Jake Mellor
Updated: October 5, 2021
WiFi Versus 4G

Are you wondering whether you should use your 4G or WiFi connection on your smartphone? The truth is, both will give you what you want: a connection to the Internet. 

But there are some scenarios where your 4G cellular connection will work better than WiFi and vice versa. Want to be in the know? Delve into my analysis below to see which side wins the battle of 4G vs WiFi. 

What is the Difference Between WiFi and 4G?

You’ve probably noticed you can use a mobile device on either WiFi or 4G to send texts, make calls and go online. Cellular subscribers who worry about data caps will often switch to a WiFi connection whenever possible to avoid these caps. 

But in the debate of 4G vs WiFi, there are some key differences between how the two connections work. 

A 4G connection uses a cellular network to send data back and forth. You can connect anywhere your wireless carrier has towers or roaming agreements with other companies.

With WiFi, your internet connection goes through a single router. You have to be within an acceptable physical distance of that router for your device to connect. 

In larger buildings or businesses, you may connect to a guest WiFi network through an access point. These access points are smaller, strategically-placed devices that communicate back to the router. Access points also distribute bandwidth throughout the building. 

Many WiFi networks are secured, meaning you need to know the password to connect. Your carrier authorizes your phone’s SIM card or IMEI number to automatically connect to its towers and partners’ networks. You don’t have to know a password to use the service. 

Is 4G Faster Than WiFi?

Generally speaking, no. In most cases, a WiFi connection is going to be faster than 4G. 

It’s because WiFi can run off wired broadband internet service. Your ISP’s infrastructure has more throughput on a cable or fibre network than a 4G cellular data network. 

You can perform a speed test on your mobile device while connected to 4G and another test while the device is on WiFi. Note the difference in upload and download speeds. 

However, there are some cases where a 4G connection may be closer in speed to WiFi. If you have satellite, fixed wireless internet, or (god forbid) dial-up or DSL, you may not notice much of a difference.

Both WiFi and 4G speeds are subject to network congestion. During peak usage times or when you’re over your data caps, you’ll notice the speeds slow down. 

This isn’t because of your device or the technology behind the service itself, but the overall capacity of the service provider’s network infrastructure. 

How Fast is 4G Compared to WiFi?

Ah, the infamous question in the 4G vs WiFi debate. 

In theory, 4G’s maximum download speeds are above 300Mbps. However, those speeds are more likely to occur in a controlled environment versus your neighbourhood. 

The upper threshold of actual 4G speeds is more like 100Mbps. You can experience lower speeds, depending on the environment, your device’s capacity and overall network activity. 

Typical upload speeds on 4G networks are usually between 5 and 10Mbps. 

Now for WiFi networks. There are some additional considerations that can impact your speeds, such as your router, the internet plan you have, local infrastructure and the physical environment.

Depending on the WiFi standard your router and ISP can handle, your download speeds can be anywhere between 5.5Mbps and 2Gbps. Yes, that’s gigabytes per second.

Whether your equipment and device have dual-band capabilities will also impact speed performance. The 2.4 GHz band is more congested and tends to be slower than the 5 GHz band. 

Battery Life Comparison

While connected to a 4G cellular network versus WiFi, you’ll notice your device’s battery will drain faster. That’s because your phone has to work harder to establish and maintain connections to cellular networks.

Once you’re connected to WiFi, your battery won’t lose as much power as fast. That’s because your mobile device does not have to constantly switch connections. 

Your device connects once to the WiFi router or access point. It stays connected until you shut off the phone or turn off the WiFi feature.

Plus, your mobile phone or tablet isn’t constantly switching back and forth between 4G and 3G. In some areas, 3G technology is still present where 4G coverage does not exist or overlap. 

To make calls or send and receive data, these devices continue to switch between the different network technologies. This is in addition to changing tower connections as the device physically moves. 

Is it Better to Use WiFi or Mobile Data?

The short answer is, it depends. Here are some scenarios where you’ll want to use WiFi instead of a mobile data connection.

  • You don’t have an unlimited data plan 
  • You are travelling outside your coverage area, such as a foreign country
  • The cellular coverage in the area is unstable, weak, or spotty
  • You want to conserve battery life
  • You desire a faster data or internet connection
  • You want to take advantage of WiFi calling features and conserve your plan’s minutes

Some common reasons why you might find it better to use mobile data include:

  • You’re in a location where WiFi is not available
  • You’d rather not use a guest WiFi network because you’re concerned about security
  • You have an unlimited data and calling plan
  • You need to use your phone as a mobile hotspot
  • The available WiFi connection is weaker than the mobile data connection

Is 4G Better Than WiFi?

4G isn’t necessarily better than WiFi and vice versa. Many people use WiFi and 4G interchangeably, alternating back and forth when it’s most convenient.

For instance, some people will use WiFi connections on their mobile devices while they’re at home and work. While travelling or running errands, they’ll switch to a 4G connection. 

However, people who stream a lot of videos, play 4K online games or use multiple applications at once may find that a WiFi connection performs better.