THE BLOG
09/09/2013 10:43 BST | Updated 09/11/2013 05:12 GMT

The 4G Buffet - Who Ate All the Good Stuff?

We've all picked what we thought was the best value restaurant, only to be less impressed by the options once we reach the buffet - and I cannot be the only one suffering the same feeling as we see the 4G tariffs appear.

4G has a lot to offer, and we are constantly reminded that the UK is behind on its roll-out, with the promise that it will eventually be available to more of us than 3G. As things stand, EE has had a head start on the other providers, but Vodafone and O2 have joined the exclusive club with their own new deals.

As well as resembling a disappointing buffet, some of the 4G marketing approaches remind one of the strategies used for selling 'less-than-legal' substances - there seems to be an emphasis on giving people a taste and then upping the price when they need more.

I am referring to the idea that offering an all-you-can-eat data test drive for three months on their 4G tariffs, when at the end of the three months you then return to having a 2GB (GigaByte), 4GB or 8GB allowance. Don't think about using too much free Wi-Fi either, as the Vodafone login only gets you 0.5GB per month over Wi-Fi. It is a clever ploy as those electing for the cheapest (at time of writing, the prices for 2GB are £38/m on a Samsung Galaxy S4, dropping to £34 with a Nokia Lumia 925) will get a taste for watching video content and might feel pressured to opt for a 4GB or 8GB package, which can cost £12 extra per month.

For those who are on a budget and think that going over their usage allowance will not be expensive, think again. It could cost £6 for every 0.25GB over your allowance (and that is when in the UK), so if not properly monitored your bill can quickly get to the point where you will be wishing you never signed up.

If you already have a decent smartphone and 3G plan, then it is likely your data usage may not explode when you upgrade to 4G. Just because the data arrives faster does not mean you will use more of it.

However as phones get more powerful and cloud backup increases for our everyday files like cute cat photos and funny dad dancing at weddings videos, we can easily find our allowance vanishing. To put it another way, if your mobile phone records decent HD video from its camera you might be looking at a file size of 1GB or more for a 15 minute clip. Remember to buy the largest micro-SD card you can for phone if you, like most of us, never delete clips and photos.

The cameras in mobile phones are getting better, and the best currently is the Samsung Galaxy NX, the first phone with an interchangeable lens at the eye watering price of £1200. The phone offers RAW mode, and for anyone who isn't a photography geek, this means avoiding the problem of compression artifacts, leading to a better image for editing later meaning a single picture can be 30MB in size. Of course even the standard camera phone with an eight Mega pixel count can produce 2MB sized pictures. So as we all move away from Polaroid quality (which we then reproduce with filters on Instagram instead) it's easy to get caught out by our data use increasing.

So rather than our addiction to Facebook and Twitter status updates, it might be our love for sharing pictures of our dinner and cats that will be our downfall and lead to painful mobile phone bills.

Now of course if we decide to emulate Kevin Bacon and the other stars of Hollywood in the adverts and annoy people by watching blockbusters on our phones in the street, we will see our usage allowance get eaten up quicker than the petrol gauge drops in a V8 Dodge Charger.

Film and TV catch-up services use vast amounts of data - around 3GB per hour. Of course you can cut back the quality levels in some apps to reduce usage to perhaps 1GB per hour, but if you're happy to watch a pixelated picture, remind me why you bought the latest phone with a screen that is the same resolution on as your 50" TV at home?

There is an answer however. Some of the TV catch-up and music streaming services do help by allowing you to download content to your phones memory card when on the home Wi-Fi. This means the two hour commute to and from work each day does not eat your usage allowance in the first couple of days of the month.

The safest thing to do with your phone when on the move is probably reading news websites, sending tweets and posting updates to Facebook sharing your insight into the philosophy of life. Assuming you avoid the numerous video clips, basic web browsing and mobile app should use less than 0.25GB over the course of intensive usage for an hour.

I look forward to embracing 4G when it appears in my area, but yes I will be sensible and keep an eye on the data counters in my phone. I'll also make sure apps like Dropbox are set to only upload and download when on a Wi-Fi connection. What I cannot envisage though is replacing my fixed line broadband connection, where a single nights TV viewing can mean 6 or 7GB of video streamed over Lovefilm and NOW TV. While we can probably expect this to be commonplace a few years down the line, for now you'd need Kevin Bacon's salary for it to look attractive.