Mobile Broadband Shootout: T-Mobile HSPA+ Takes on Sprint and Clear 4G
For reasons we don’t fully understand, Philadelphia has become the mobile broadband mecca of America. A few months ago, Clear and Sprint began selling 4G mobile WiMax service in the larger metro area (promising 3 to 6 Mbps), including nearby areas of New Jersey. And just last week, T-Mobile announced that it will be offering a faster version of 3G called HSPA+ in the city (with a theoretical max of 21Mbps).
This past weekend, we journeyed to the city of brotherly love to exercise our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of high-speed data transfers. Our goal was to see which devices and services offer the highest speeds, widest coverage, and best overall user experience.
Devices and Services Tested
We set out to test the following mobile broadband modems and their associated networks:
- Sprint OverDrive: For $99.99 (with two year contract) and $59.99 a month thereafter, you get a battery powered mobile broadband router (like the MiFi) that lets you connect multiple devices to either 3G or 4G, depending on what’s available in your location. While the 3G service is limited to 5GB a month (5 cents per MB overage charge), the 4G is unlimited. So if you live in a 4G coverage area you really could use this device all the time.
- Clear 4G Mobile USB: You can buy this sleek modem for just $59.99 without a contract and pay just $40 a month for unlimited 4G service. The downside is that, once you go outside of Clear’s WiMax coverage zone, the Mobile USB is a laptop ornament. Clear makes several accessories for the Mobile USB, including the Clear USB Performance dock, which boosts signal strength for added speed. We tried this dock in one of our test locations (see below).
- T-Mobile webConnect Rocket USB: T-Mobile’s new USB device supports 3G everywhere and the higher-speed (but not technically 4G) HSPA+ standard in Philadelphia and other markets in the future. The Rocket runs $99 with a two-year contract or $199 with no contract. The standard data plan is $59.99 for a strict limit of 5GB per month with a punitive fee of $0.20 for every megabyte over the limit. If you buy the modem without a contract, you can pay $49.99 a month instead, which adds up to $140 less in costs over 24 months. Too bad the software can’t tell you whether you’re getting a standard 3G or HSPA+ signal. You can only tell by the speed you are getting.
- Sprint MiFi 2200 (The Control): This 3G-only modem was used in a couple of our locations for comparison purposes only, just to show the difference between a typical 3G signal and the HSPA+ or 4G speeds supported by the other devices. It actually did quite well.
As featured on “Into Tomorrow…with Dave Graveline”, airing Friday, March 19!
How We Tested 3G, 4G, and HSPA+
We tested in four locations in the Philadelphia area: two were near windows, one several hundred feet from a window, and another location underground. In each location, we conducted the following tests using a Lenovo ThinkPad X301 with Windows 7 (64-bit) as our test laptop:
- Speedtest.net: We visited the popular Speedtest.net broadband test site three times and took the average upload and download speed in megabits.
- Web surfing: We visited three popular Web site home pages (nytimes.com,cnn.com, and espn.com) three times each in Firefox 3.6 with caching disabled. We used the popular plug-in Firebug to time these page loads down to the tenth of a second. To determine average page load times shown in the results below, we dropped the slowest of the three visits to each site (to eliminate outliers) and then averaged the remaining results.
- FTP Upload / Download: We uploaded a 5MB file to our FTP server and downloaded a 50MB file from the same server.
- YouTube Video Frame rates: Using the Flash 10.1 plugin, we played two different versions of the Star Trek trailer, one in low res 360p and one in high-definition 720p. Using Flash’s own logging ability, we determined the average frame rate.
Round #1: Liberty Place Food Court (near a window)
We headed into Philadelphia and set up shop in the shops at Liberty Place, a small shopping mall strategically located right in the city center, between the Liberty One and Liberty Two office towers. The food court there is huge, allowing us to test both near a window and several hundred feet away from one. We conducted our first series of tests in front of the window.
|Test||Sprint OverDrive (4G)||Clear 4G Mobile USB||T-Mobile webConnect Rocket (HSPA+)|
|Speedtest.net Upload / Download||0.83 Mbps / 2.3 Mbps||1.05 Mbps / 3.17 Mbps||1.25 Mbps / 4.45 Mbps|
|Web Site Load Time||12.7 seconds||13 seconds||10.1 seconds|
|FTP Upload (5MB) / Download (50MB)||0:51 / 4:14||0:48 / 2:51||0:35 / 1:35|
|YouTube 360p/ 720p||28.9 fps / 9.4 fps||30.4 fps / 11.3 fps||30.4 fps / 23.7 fps|
As you can see, the T-Mobile device clearly dominated here. The HSPA+ speeds were much stronger than those offered by either 4G device. Downloading a 50MB file via FTP in just 1 minute and 35 seconds is pretty amazing. It’s also worth noting that upload speeds were far better with the T-Mobile device. Among the two 4G devices, the Clear 4G Mobile USB Modem was the clear winner in this test.
Round #2: Liberty Place (far from a window)
We moved over 100 feet away from the window and sat deep inside the building to see how being far away from a window affected our connectivity. As you can see below, the change was dramatic and not in a good way.
|Test||Sprint OverDrive (4G)||Clear 4G Mobile USB||T-Mobile webConnect Rocket (HSPA+)|
|Speedtest.net Upload / Download||0.02 Mbps / 1.28 Mbps||0.03 Mbps / 0.57 Mbps||1.25 Mbps / 2.78 Mbps|
|Web Site Load Time||47.5 seconds||41.4 seconds||11.5 seconds|
|FTP Upload (5MB) / Download (50MB)||too slow / 6:47||too slow to measure||0:36 / 6:02|
|YouTube 360p/ 720p||30.34 fps / 21.3 fps||30.6 fps / 9.33 fps||would not play / 20.1 fps|
All of the devices slowed down dramatically when deep inside the building. In this case, though, the 4G devices were hurt the most. The Sprint Overdrive did a little better, but both struggled to upload files, and the Clear modem was so slow in this location conducting our FTP download test that we gave up.
The webConnect Rocket remained fast when downloading Web pages and testing on Speedtest.net, though it was definitely slower than before. For reasons we can only attribute to random YouTube strangeness, we had difficulty playing our 360p clip, but not the 720p Star Trek trailer on the Rocket.
Location #3: 30th Street Station Track 3 (Underground)
On our way home from Philadelphia, we had the opportunity to run an additional series of tests in the train station (thanks to an extensive delay). We were one level underground, which is definitely not optimal for broadband reception, but this allowed us to see which devices and services could handle this extreme, but very common situation and which could not.
|Test||Sprint Mifi (3G)||Sprint OverDrive (3G / 4G)||Clear 4G Mobile USB||T-Mobile webConnect Rocket (HSPA+)|
|Speedtest.net Upload / Download||0.58 Mbps / 1.5 Mbps||0.4 Mbps / 1.45 Mbps||0.03 Mbps / 1.35 Mbps||0.03 Mbps / 0.1 Mbps|
|Web Site Load Time||13.9 seconds||13.4 seconds||too slow||too slow|
|FTP Upload (5MB) / Download (50MB)||1:03 / 6:05||1:18 / 6:14||too slow / 8:40||too slow|
|YouTube 360p/ 720p||30.5 fps / 17.8 fps||30.4 fps / 17.2 fps||30.4 fps / 16.7 fps||too slow|
The sad reality is that we couldn’t get a consistent connection from either the Clear modem or the T-Mobile webConnect Rocket while underground. The webConnect registered just one bar and took several minutes just to complete one run of the Speedtest.net test. As you can see its speed of 0.03 Mbps upload and 0.1 Mbps download are basically unusable.
The Clear 4G Mobile USB modem was highly inconsistent underground. The software showed 2-3 Mbps, but as we tried to conduct our tests, the modem kept dropping its connection and reconnecting itself, making it impossible to complete most tasks. For a few minutes, we were able to connect long enough to complete the download and to start streaming video, but after a while, we were getting kicked off of our connection too rapidly to do anything more.
The clear underground winner was the Sprint OverDrive, because it was able to switch itself into 3G mode and maintain a consistent connection.
Round #4: Cherry Hill, NJ Living Room
Another location was a friend’s living room in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Cherry Hill is located about 15 minutes outside of Philadelphia and falls squarely within the Clear / Sprint 4G WiMax coverage zone. Unfortunately, T-Mobile’s HSPA+ coverage area does not include Cherry Hill, so the webConnect Rocket only connected at standard 3G speeds in this location. Like most living rooms, this one had several windows and we sat just a few feet away from them.
|Test||Sprint MiFi (3G)||Sprint OverDrive (4G)||Clear 4G Mobile USB||Clear 4G Mobile USB w/ Dock||T-Mobile webConnect Rocket|
|Speedtest.net Upload / Download||0.37 Mbps / 0.56 Mbps||0.65 Mbps / 3.35 Mbps||0.85 Mbps / 4.42 Mbps||0.96 Mbps / 5.46 Mbps||0.72 Mbps / 0.8 Mbps|
|Web Site Load Time||17.25||12.1||12.2||12.3||15|
|FTP Upload (5MB) / Download (50MB)||1:15 / 10:22||0:55 / 2:51||0:48 / 2:11||0:48 / 2:15||1:17 / 11:40|
|YouTube 360p/ 720p||30.2 fps / 13.5 fps||30.3 fps / 22.2 fps||30.5 fps / 21.6 fps||30.6 fps / 20.9 fps||30.1 fps / 12.9 fps|
In this first location, the only real competition was between the two WiMax devices, the Sprint OverDrive and the Clear 4G Mobile USB modem. Though they seemed pretty evenly matched in video streaming and web page downloading, the Clear modem got a much higher score on Speedtest.net’s benchmark and did noticeably better on FTP uploading and downloading.
When we attached the Clear modem to its performance-enhancing dock, the Speedtest numbers shot way up but the real-world numbers stayed about the same. Still, if we were doing something even more intensive, we would have appreciated the bandwidth from the dock.
It’s also worth noting that, even at its default 3G speeds, the T-Mobile webConnect Rocket was a lot faster than Sprint’s 3G MiFi. So, under normal 3G conditions, the webConnect is still a solid device.