Everything you need to know about WiFi, 3G and 4G

What's the difference between WiFi, 3G and 4G? How do these internet connections work? Which one is best for me? If any of these questions ever cross your mind then read on, as we have the answers.

What exactly is WiFi—is it something that comes with broadband?

WiFi is something that tends to come with broadband—but it is more than that. WiFi (it stands for ‘wireless fidelity’ and is a lame pun on ‘hifi’) is the term for a small wireless network—like the one that you have in your home once you install wireless broadband.

The same networks exist in all kinds of public places—cafés, yes, but also libraries, airports, railway stations, hotels, sports centres, pubs… When you are in these places you can log into their wireless network (usually for free, though you may have to register in some way), and gain access to the internet that way.

The WiFi symbol looks like a kind of fan which is black when the connection is working, or else like a bar graph. It will appear at the top right of your screen if you are on a Mac; at the bottom right if you are on a PC. If some of the bars are grey, that means the signal is not as strong as it could be (which might mean your connection is slow).

If all the bars are grey, that means the device knows you have WiFi, but the connection has been lost temporarily.

 

Can all mobile phones connect to the internet?

All modern smartphones can. To check whether your smartphone or tablet is connected, tap the settings icon—the name of your network should appear next to the option that says WiFi, or it will say ‘No connection’. Tap here, and you should get a list of active WiFi connections in the vicinity. If yours is there, tap it to get connected. If not, then your connection has failed, and you will need to restart the router.

 

What if I’m using my smartphone or tablet on the street—how do I access the internet there?

There are many places where you can get free internet access when you are out—these WiFi hotspots, as they are known, include cafés, libraries and some public transport.

If there is no available WiFi network, a smartphone or tablet can still access the internet through a different system called 3G or (the newer version) 4G, which is part of the mobile phone network (you generally pay for this through a monthly contract).

You may have heard scary stories about people who have run up a huge monthly bill when their phones have accessed the internet while abroad. This is possible, but it happens only when ‘Data Roaming’ is turned on. Go into your Settings menu, and look for Mobile or Mobile Networks to turn it off before you go.

You can still use the internet by connecting to a free WiFi network. And while connected to WiFi you can make free phone calls home using apps such as Skype and Viber.

 

Can I use 3G and 4G with a laptop, or is it just for smartphones and tablets?

Yes you can. You can obtain an internet signal from the mobile-phone network, rather than the WiFi network, by using a dongle. This is a small device about the size of a key ring, which plugs into your laptop. It acts as a kind of aerial that allows you to connect to the internet by picking up the signal from the mobile telephone network.

You can also 'pair' your laptop with your phone and use it as a 'personal hotspot', which means you can use the 4G from your phone to access the internet on your computer. To do this go  into your phone's settings, look for the term 'personal hotspot' and turn it on. 

Then click on your WiFi icon on your laptop and select your phone from the drop-down list. If it asks for a passcode, you will find this in the personal hotspot settings on your phone.

However, this is generally a more expensive way to connect to the internet than through home WiFi, and so is designed for those who need to use the internet a lot when out, such as business users. If you don’t use the internet much when away from home, stick with just your home WiFi and WiFi signals from cafés and the like.

 

Can I use 3G and 4G at home instead of getting WiFi?

This is possible but may work out more expensive and perform less well than a broadband internet (WiFi) connection, depending on the availability of broadband in your area. Another option is mobile broadband. This could be comparable or even cheaper in price, but again the bandwidth is unlikely to be as good.

Mobile broadband, or MiFi, makes use of a mobile wireless router that transmits 3G and 4G signals from the mobile phone network rather than a WiFi broadband connection from your phone or cable line.

MiFi routers are usually a lot smaller than a WiFi router and are portable—so they can be taken out of the home very easily, meaning your network can travel with you. This can mean you use up more bandwidth and so require a more expensive monthly usage limit than with home broadband/WiFi.

One downside to MiFi is that it usually has slower maximum speeds than home broadband with WiFi, but that may well improve in the future.

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