Guide: Commonly Used Acronyms In Mobile Tech And Their Meanings

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We hear these terms everyday, we use these terms everyday. But do we know what they mean and stand for? Here’s a helpful list of some of the most commonly used acronyms in mobile tech and what they mean!

1G – 1st Generation

Okay, so this one is actually not so commonly mentioned but we felt it should be here too for the sake of completion. You may have wondered what came before 2G networks? Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, it was 1G.

The reason you may not have heard of the term is that not many people had mobile phones during the time of the first generation of mobile networks. The first generation networks were analogue and were used until they were replaced by 2G networks which were digital.

Before these there were other forms of mobile telephones which have been retroactively named pre-cellular or 0G. These were mainly only used in vehicles and proceed modern cellular mobile telephony technology.

GSM – Global System for Mobile communications

GSM is the communication standard which most mobile networks around the world use. It is a standard created by an industry consortium and was mandated by law in Europe in 1987 which helped it gain mass adoption. In the US this is used by AT&T and T-Mobile with Verizon and Sprint opting instead to use CDMA networks.

CDMA – Code Division Multiple Access

CDMA is a channel access method used by various radio communication technologies. Multiple access is where several transmitters can send information simultaneously over a single communication channel.

In mobile networks there are two CDMA based alternative standards to GSM 2G and 3G networks known as cdmaOne and CDMA2000 respectively. These systems are used by US carriers Verizon and Sprint instead of GSM and are often just referred to as CDMA. CDMA networks also do not use a SIM card but instead identify devices by their transceiver ID.

CDMA technology is also used for GSM 3G with a system known as WCDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access).

2G – 2nd Generation

2G networks were the first digital mobile networks and replaced the old analogue 1G mobile networks. These were primarily designed for basic voice and SMS but could also be used for mobile data with GPRS and later EDGE.

When referring to a 2G data connection on a smartphone, people are usually referring to a GPRS connection as on a smartphone GPRS is only usually used when only a 2G network is available, as by default they would prefer connections to 3G or 4G networks when available in order to utilise faster data speeds.

GPRS – General Packet Radio Service

GPRS is a packet-oriented mobile data system used for 2G and 3G GSM networks. Typically GPRS is only used by very old mobile phones or on 2G networks where no faster data connection system is available. It is the slowest kind of mobile data around and is limited to just 56–114 Kbps.

EDGE – Exchanged Data rates for GSM Evolution

EDGE is the next level of GSM data service after GPRS. It based on GPRS but can operate a fair bit faster, allowing speeds of up to 473.6 Kbps. It requires only a small upgrade to 2G infrastructure which already supports GPRS and these days is supported by almost all GSM phones. It is technically an improvement to 2G network infrastructure but overlaps the minimum speed requirements for early 3G networks. Consequently, it is typically referred to as 2.9G although you may also have seen it advertised as 2.5G.

3G – 3rd Generation

Originally marketed as a way to enable video calls on mobile phones, 3G infrastructure allows for much more efficient use of data over GSM. Initially speeds were similar to EDGE with the standard mandating a minimum downlink speed of 200Kbps. After a while speeds were improved to the order of several megabits, offering speeds anywhere up to 7.2Mbps. 3G networks which have been upgraded to support HSPA or HSPA+ can offer even greater speeds.

HSPA – High Speed Packet Access

HSPA is a data transfer system which sits near the upper limit of what we call 3G technologies and is an upgrade to existing 3G infrastructure which increases speed even further. Some companies choose to brand this as 3.75G,  3G+, or Turbo 3G to distinguish it from older and slower 3G deployments.

HSPA is actually the combination of two technologies for uplink and downlink known as HSUPA and HSDPA respectively. It is faster than regular 3G and the technology could theoretically support maximum download speeds of up to 99.3Mbps but current HSPA networks are designed to offer speeds of up to 14.4Mbps due to the technical constraints of the existing 3G infrastructure.

Evolved HSPA (HSPA+)

This is an evolution of the HSPA standard which allows for even faster speeds. It bridges the gap between what are known as 3G and 4G technologies with some networks in the US in particular actually initially branding it as a 4G technology before they had LTE infrastructure. It was designed to offer a 4G class experience without the need to use new masts and radios.

The maximum theoretical download speed allowed by the latest version of this standard is actually 168.75 Mbps (or 337.5 with MIMO) although in reality networks that support HSPA+ usually are only capable of up to 21.1Mbps because the existing 3G network infrastructure was never designed for such high bandwidth.

Some HSPA+ enabled areas have support for Dual Cell HSDPA (DC-HSPA) which doubles this up to 42.2Mbps by using two carrier frequencies for the downlink to double the bandwidth from 5MHz to 10MHz. It is also now possible to combine DC-HSPA with MIMO to double up again bringing maximum downlink speeds up to 84.4Mbps although this is not commonly used.

LTE – Long Term Evolution

The next generation of mobile network often referred to as 4G or “4G LTE”. LTE is a mobile communication standard which aims to bring much faster data speeds than past 2G/3G networks with theoretical speeds of up to 150Mbps. It also supports much faster uplink and lower latency than 3G based technologies making it far better for syncing files (e.g. through Google+ photo backup) and streaming music and video content.

LTE is still a fairly young standard and while it is seeing increased adoption, coverage in many countries is still quite limited but is improving all the time. Not all phones have support for LTE yet but most high-end smartphones from the past couple of the years do include it and we are now starting to see it filter down into midrange and even some budget handsets.

LTE-A – LTE Advanced

LTE Advanced is a mobile communication standard designed to be an enhancement on standard LTE and is actually the first true 4G standard to be deployed (defined as being able to offer over 100Mbps download speeds while moving), although it is not widely available or supported yet by the networks or phones. Most LTE-A capable devices and networks currently are limited to certain areas in South Korea and Japan although testing has begun the other places including the UK and US.

This improved version of LTE is not an entirely new networking standard, but will use the same frequencies as regular LTE.  LTE-A doubles the maximum speed of standard LTE up to around 300Mbps.

In the real world as you may know you are unlikely to get maximum theoretical speeds, but this is still good news as the typical speeds should actually triple (current typical LTE speeds are around 14Mbps but should be as high as 42 on LTE-A).

This improvement is achieved by using MIMO technology, so where current LTE uses a single connection between the phone and mast, LTE-A will use several and hence higher speeds can be achieved.

WiMAX – Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access

WiMAX is a wireless communications standard originally designed to provide 30-40Mbps data rates, although it was updated in 2011 enabling it to provide up to 1Gbps for fixed stations. It is similar to WiFi but with much longer range and so sits between WiFi and mobile cellular networks in terms of its transmission distance.

WiMAX was originally created back in 2001, mainly for delivering wireless broadband directly to homes over the last mile of transmission. This initial version is now refereed to as “Fixed WiMAX” while a later revision was made which also works when the transmission points are not fixed which is known as “Mobile WiMAX”.

Mobile WiMAX was thought to be a potential candidate to replace cellular phone technologies such as GSM and CDMA for 4G networks but in the end largely lost out to LTE in this area. The first WiMAX 4G phone was from HTC in 2008 and was called the MAX 4G. They also later released the EVO 4G in 2010 which too was capable of using WiMAX. Both of these ran on the US carrier Sprint Nextel (now “Sprint Corporation” and often referred to just as “Sprint”).

However, at CES 2012 Sprint announced that for financial reasons they were abandoning their 4G WiMAX network in favour of LTE.

MIMO – Multiple Input Multiple Output

Pronounced “me-moh”, this technology allows the combining of multiple antennas on both the transmitter (for example 4G masts) and the receiver (for example a smartphone) to multiply the available bandwidth for communication. This is also the same technology as used by WiFi routers in the home with multiple antennas.

In fact, MIMO is widely used in many different networking standards including  IEEE 802.11n (Wi-Fi “N”), IEEE 802.11ac (Wi-Fi “AC”), HSPA+ (3G), WiMAX (4G), and Long Term Evolution (4G).

SMS – Short Message Service

Often simply referred to as “texts”, SMS is a quick and convenient method for sending short messages universally without internet over mobile networks. Nowadays most plans come with unlimited texting which makes them still very popular despite the massive recent uptake of internet based messaging services such as Hangouts, WhatsApp and Telegram.

MMS – Multimedia Messaging Service

This is an old and rather dated method of sending small image files between mobiles over the same infrastructure as regular calls and texts.

It is not really very good method of sending pictures these days as it is usually faster and easier to send images via email or an instant messaging service. They also tend to not be included in mobile contracts or bundles making them very expensive (often around 35p per image). Additionally, they are limited to very low quality compressed images at a resolution which is far below what we have come to expect these days.

However, there are a couple of advantages to sending images with MMS compared to other methods. First is compatibility: they work even with pretty old basic handsets. The other is the fact that MMS does not require an internet connection – just basic cellular coverage.

AT&T – American Telephone and Telegraph

AT&T is an US carrier/mobile network and is the only mainstream American carrier that uses an acronym for a name. Well, now you know what it means.

SIM – Subscriber Identification Module

GSM networks identify you by the SIM card, which can be moved across phones so you can easily switch your plan between devices. This is unlike CDMA based networks which track the phone itself using a whitelist system to approve devices by their unique transmitter ID.

IMEI – International Mobile Equipment Identity

The unique identification number your network/carrier knows your phone by. From an end-user perspective this is often most used when you need to remove a sim-lock from a device.

IP (Address) – Internet Protocol Address

Your unique ID/tracker on a network (Intranet and Internet). Your public IP address on the internet is issued by your ISP and can either be static or dynamic. Most people have the latter. With a dynamic IP your IP address changes periodically but with a static IP it is fixed. A fixed IP is sometimes more useful (for example when you want to host a website on your own server) but for most people it makes little difference.

ISP – Internet Service Provider

This is the company who provides your connection to the internet. It is typically your fibre, cable or ADSL provider in the case of home broadband, but on a mobile device this would be your network/carrier.

MAC – Media Access Control

A MAC address is your local (intranet) identity for your network chip. Every networking device has one and they are unique to the hardware (although they can be “spoofed” in software). This includes the WiFi and Bluetooth radios in your phone for instance which would both have their own unique MAC address.

The MAC addresses are used when negotiating local connections. For example, a WiFi router will assign and associate a local IP addresses to each MAC address on the network. Similarly, Bluetooth devices identify each other by the their unique MAC addresses.

If you press the home button on your PlayStation controller for instance, the controller will search and attempt a connection with the Bluetooth receiver whose MAC address matches the one it has saved in its memory (the one it is “paired” with). This would typically be your PlayStation but it could be your Android device. This is why when you press the button near another Bluetooth device (even another PlayStation) it will not try to connect to it because it has a different MAC address.

It is important to note that MAC addresses are assigned to all networking equipment and that includes wired devices not just wireless ones so your Ethernet adapter in your laptop will have its own MAC address which will differ from the one that the integrated WiFi adapter has.

CPU – Central Processing Unit

This is the main processor in any computer system and without it you would not be reading this now. It is responsible for the majority of the computational work carried out by any computing device and a computer cannot function without one. In a mobile device the CPU is one part of a single chip known as an SoC.

GPU – Graphical Processing Unit

This is another processor which is specifically optimised for graphics operations. To can perform tasks such as decoding video much quicker than the CPU and also frees up load so the CPU can work on other computational tasks. In a mobile device this is also part of the SoC.

RAM – Random Access Memory

Fast temporary memory used by a processor to store data for active processes. This is volatile memory meaning that no data is retained on it once it is powered down.

ROM – Read Only Memory

This is a type of memory which can be flashed once and then only be read from but not written to. This is an area which usually contains device firmware.

However, you may have heard the term ROM to refer to after-market firmware like CyanogenMod using the phrase “Custom ROM”. This is because these are images designed to overwrite firmware stored in the “ROM” of the device. Now I know what you are thinking: but ROM can’t be written to! And you’d be right! Except that it can…sort of!

You see, while on an old phone you could not simply replace the firmware without special equipment, most modern devices actually use rewritable flash memory not true ROM these days and so they are in fact writeable. This is done because it more flexible (it allows for complete firmware updates for instance) and also flash memory is pretty cheap these days. So while the firmware is stored on an area of the device that theoretically the user can’t write to, the reality is that it is actually possible, which is why custom ROMs are able to exist. The name ROM is just a carry over from the days when that particular area of memory was in fact read-only.

SoC – System On Chip

This is an integrated circuit that integrates all components of a computer system into a single chip. This includes things like the CPU and GPU as well as interfaces for memory, sensors and networking, storage etc. Mobile devices tend to use SoCs as they need to be compact and low on power consumption.

One example of a mobile SoC is the Qualcomm Snapdragon 801, which you would find in many high-end Android devices released throughout 2014. This includes many component systems such as a Qualcomm® Krait™ 400 CPU and Adreno™ 330 GPU along with a digital system processor (DSP), an LTE-A modem, and transceivers for Bluetooth 4.0, WiFi 802.11n/ac and GPS along with interfaces for USB2.0/3,0, NFC, LPDDR3 RAM and camera sensors up to 21MP.

OIS – Optical Image Stabilisation

This camera feature moves the sensor (hardware) to stabilise on a single point. Essentially making video less shaky, improving focusing times and making low light performance better. Cameras / camera phones without this sometimes use digital image stabilisation to compensate which while not as effective, can be much better than being having no stabilisation.

USB – Universal Serial Bus

We are pretty sure you know what this one is, but did you know what it stood for? Possibly not. USB is a standard and very widely used data interface which can also deliver power.

There are various connector types as well as different speed classes. Most mobile devices feature USB 2.0 Micro USB connectors today but some Samsung devices you may have noticed feature a wider connector which is a USB 3.0 Micro USB port.

In the future we can expect a transition to USB 3.1 type-C connectors which are more durable and reversible as well as offering faster data transfer rates and supporting higher current levels (which will result in faster device charge times).

AOSP – Android Open Source Project

This the core of Android – the source code of the operating system available free to everyone. This code is the basis of the firmware on every Android device you use. Some companies add a load on top of AOSP and change it quite significantly (like Samsung with TouchWiz) while others ship devices with very few changes to the code in AOSP (like Motorola).

The source from AOSP is also used to as the base for the third-party custom ROMs many of us enjoy such as CyanogenMod. If Android were closed source like iOS or Windows Phone then these would not exist.

ADB – Android Debug Bridge

A command-line toolkit which comes bundled with the Android SDK (although can be obtained separately) which is used for debugging Android applications and interfaces. You will often see this used is discussions based around rooting or hacking Android devices as it is often a useful tool for such processes. There are also some graphical applications build on top of it to make some of its features more accessible to people with little command-line experience.


So, do you feel all smart and informed now? It’s a lot to take in if you were not familiar with many of these terms before but understanding them can really make the whole mobile industry and the technology surrounding it much easier to follow. Feel I’ve missed anything important? Sound off in the comments!

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