Feb 08, 2012

What is the difference between GSM networks and CDMA networks from a user perspective?

I know that there is a difference in GSM and CDMA, the two types of networks wireless providers use. An earlier question regarding travel raised my curiosity about this, since I have to make sure that I take a GSM phone with me on trips to Europe, or else it won't work (or at least that is what I have been told, though I have not put this to the test). I also know that GSM devices allow switching of SIM cards for greater portability, whereas CDMA devices pretty much lock you into whatever carrier provided the device. Are there differences beyond those that make one superior to the other, or are they more analogous to different flavors of ice cream, where one isn't really better than the next.

Except chocolate. :-]


Besides the fact that GSM phones use SIM cards, the main difference is that CDMA uses a wider spectrum than GSM, which is good in the sense that there is more coverage but worse in terms of quality. Think of it in terms of radio frequencies with CDMA being AM radio and GSM being FM. You can get AM stations pretty much anywhere but you won't get the quality stereo sound of FM.

If you want to stay with a particular company, you are latched to one or the other. AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM, which helps explain the interest in a merger, while Verizon and Sprint use CDMA. Incidentially, although GSM devices do use SIM cards and thus should be portable from carrier to carrier, the reality is that many GSM devices are still locked to one carrier, so that benefit isn't a significant as it should be. As you noted there is a wider global use of GSM technology, which stands for, ahem, Global System for Mobile communication. So if you are traveling internationally, GSM is the way to go.

Other than that, most people won't notice many differences. CDMA phones drop calls a little less often because of differences in the way calls are handed off from tower to tower. The main thing I suggest looking at is coverage where you live and work, and not worry about it unless you intend to take the device with you on international trips.
I don't think it matters too much to the individual user, beyond making sure they have a phone that works in Europe, etc. For the user a phone is a phone is a phone. You use it to make calls, run applications, do work, whatever, etc.

Perhaps the best possible solution is a phone that runs on both kinds of networks. This would make it exceptionally easy for the user if they are traveling. They wouldn't need to really care which network they had access to since their phone could use either kind.

I could swear I read something about Apple doing something like that in the next iPhone, but I cannot remember where I saw it. It may have only been a rumor, but I like anything that makes it easy and simple for the user.
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