4G. You hear the term thrown around all the time, but what does it really mean? It’s supposed to mean blazing-fast data, the kind that will let you download an app in the blink of an eye, upload that big presentation in seconds instead of minutes, and stream Netflix on the go without any stuttering. Still, there’s a lot of confusion out there. And for good reason.
Between all of the competing technologies (Mobile WiMax, HSPA+, and LTE) and lofty speed claims by the carriers, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. That’s why we decided to extensively test the four major carriers in five cities nationwide — using phones, USB modems, and mobile hotspots — to tell you which networks truly deliver on the 4G promise.
We conducted 4G testing in Atlanta, Chicago, New York City, Orlando, and San Francisco. In three locations within each city, every product was tested to find out how quickly it loaded websites, and how fast it uploaded and downloaded files (using both real-world and synthetic tests). In each location, all tests for each carrier were performed during one sitting.
Website load times were measured by averaging the time it took for CNN.com, ESPN.com, Laptopmag.com, and NYTimes.com took to load in Chrome browser on the laptop. For the smartphones, we disabled flash and gathered load times for Consumerist.com, HuffingtonPost.com, Laptopmag.com, and Time.com/time.
We used Speedtest.net for our synthetic upload and download tests. We averaged 10 test results for each device in each location. To get real-world benchmarks, we downloaded a 155MB file (OpenOffice.org) from our FTP server. We also uploaded a 6.7MB Handbrake file to the same FTP. If it took more than 7 minutes to perform either of these tasks, it was counted as a failed attempt.
All this data was compiled to create averages for each carrier in each city, and each device for each carrier.
You know AT&T has some catching up to do in the 4G race when its CEO admits that it will take two to three years for its service to be on a par with Verizon Wireless’. At least AT&T is stepping up its 4G deployments, announcing in May that it would begin rolling out LTE technology in five initial markets: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. Ten more markets will follow by the end of the year, reaching a total of 70 million Americans, but even at that point, AT&T will be well behind Verizon’s 147 markets. But is 2011 a bust for the carrier that’s attempting to acquire T-Mobile?
The good news for AT&T subscribers is that the provider isn’t just using LTE to deliver high-speed data. Just like T-Mobile, AT&T also operates an HSPA+ network. Unfortunately, the carrier hasn’t offered true 4G speeds for the “4G” phones it sells. In fact, earlier this year many reported that the 3G AT&T iPhone 4 is faster (especially on the upload) than 4G devices such as the Atrix 4G and HTC Inspire 4G. As it turns out, AT&T didn’t initially have the proper backhaul in place at its cell sites. Now 10 markets have this necessary infrastructure (including Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco), and the provider says nearly two thirds of its mobile broadband traffic will be on expanded backhaul by 2012.
Of all the major carriers, AT&T has the skimpiest selection of 4G gear. As of press time, the provider sold just four 4G phones and one 4G USB modem for a total of five devices. No 4G tablets and no 4G hotspots were available. Things should improve by the end of the year, by which time AT&T plans to add 20 devices to its portfolio, some of which will be LTE-capable.
These are the 4G devices used for our testing:
HTC Inspire 4G: $99
AT&T USBConnectShockwave: Free
Overall, AT&T delivered the slowest speeds across the board, whether we were surfing websites or downloading and uploading large files.
Using Speedtest.net, AT&T’s Inspire 4G and Shockwave USB modem combined to offer 2.2 Mbps downloads and 578 Kbps uploads. Those numbers are well behind Sprint (3.9 Mbps down/814 Kbps up) and T-Mobile (4.7 Mbps/1.4 Mbps), especially on uploads. Verizon’s LTE network delivered download speeds that were 5.5 times faster, and eight times faster uploads. Site-load times were also slow, with AT&T averaging 16 seconds overall. That’s more than 2 seconds slower than Sprint, 4 seconds behind T-Mobile, and more than 6 seconds behind Verizon’s LTE network.
Thinking about downloading or uploading large files? AT&T’s network just wasn’t up to the challenge, delivering an average of just 1.7 Mbps on the downlink when pulling down a copy of OpenOffice from our FTP server and notching 513 Kbps when uploading a 6.7MB file to the same server. Both of these scores brought up the rear. The carrier also had the second-highest number of failed attempts (any upload or download taking more than 7 minutes): 32.
AT&T did perform pretty well in Orlando, notching an average download speed of 3.4 Mbps. However, New York City was a disaster, with the carrier averaging just 632 Kbps.
There’s a reason why AT&T puts an asterisk right next to the names of the 4G phones it sells online. It’s attached to this disclaimer: “4G speeds delivered by HSPA+ with enhanced backhaul. Available in limited areas. Availability increasing with ongoing backhaul deployment.” Based on our testing, AT&T has a long way to go before it can remove that asterisk.
Sprint was first out of the gate with 4G way back in 2008. Now the carrier blankets 71 markets in 4G data with the help of partner Clearwire, including such major cities as Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. That’s behind the 77 markets for Verizon Wireless and 170 for T-Mobile.
Sprint claims to offer 3 to 6 Mbps downloads on average with peak speeds up to 10 Mbps. Upload speeds tend to max out at 1 Mbps. Although Sprint’s 4G speeds are solid, the lackluster momentum of Mobile WiMAX has spurred Sprint to ink a network-sharing agreement with LightSquared, which is rolling out a satellite-based LTE network. But consumers won’t be able to reap the benefits of this deal any time in the near future.
As of this summer, Sprint offers 16 4G devices on its network, including five phones, one tablet, four mobile hotspots/routers, two laptops, and three USB adapters. Sprint also sells a 4G adapter for businesses that converts mobile broadband to Ethernet. The most exciting Sprint 4G gear right now includes the HTC EVO 3D phone (which includes a glasses-free 3D display) and Motorola Photon 4G phone (which has a dual-core CPU).
These are the 4G devices used for our testing:
HTC Shift 4G: $149
Sprint 3G/4G Modem 250U: Discontinued
Novatel MiFi 3G/4G: $79.99
Sprint’s 4G gear performed fairly well, but overall the carrier’s Mobile WiMax network finished third behind T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless. Across the three devices we tested in five cities, Sprint averaged a download rate of 3.9 Mbps and an upload rate of 814 Kbps on Speedtest.net. Both of these numbers beat AT&T, but T-Mobile notched a faster 4.7 Mbps down and 1.4 Mbps up. Sprint wasn’t even close to Verizon’s LTE network.
Sprint trailed T-Mobile in average website load times by a small amount (14 vs. 12.9 seconds) and was neck and neck with T-Mobile when downloading a large file from an FTP server (2.99 vs. 3.04 Mbps). Unfortunately, Sprint led all carriers with the number of times it failed to download or upload large files in a timely fashion with a grand total of 37 instances. This doesn’t speak well to the reliability of Sprint’s WiMax network.
In fact, our Atlanta-area tester often couldn’t connect at 4G speeds unless she was very close to a window. Geographically, Sprint fared best in Chicago and New York, where it averaged 6.8 and 4.7 Mbps downloads and uploads, respectively on Speedtest.net. Orlando proved to be the worst 4G location, with 1.7 Mbps and 700 Kbps downloads and uploads.
The best thing about Sprint is that you get truly unlimited 4G data: No tiers, no overage charges. Sprint also offers a very good selection of 4G phones and other devices. However, you have to be willing to live with speeds that pale in comparison with Verizon’s LTE technology and also trail T-Mobile’s rapidly evolving HSPA+ network. Based on our testing, Sprint 4G also isn’t as reliable as competing carriers the further you go indoors. Overall, though, if you don’t want to watch that data meter, Sprint’s 4G network is a pretty good value.
Although it looks like AT&T will eventually swallow T-Mobile–assuming the FCC approves the acquisition–the carrier continues to offer its own plans. Currently T-Mobile sells three types of 4G devices that support three different theoretical peak download speeds: 14.4 Mbps, 21 Mbps, and now 42 Mbps. Note that we said “theoretical.” Real-word speeds are lower, but overall T-Mobile’s network beat both AT&T’s and Sprint’s. Plus, even if you don’t have a 42 Mbps-capable device, as T-Mobile increases speeds you should see better performance with all 4G phones, tablets, and modems the provider sells.
In terms of coverage, T-Mobile claims to have the nation’s largest 4G network, offering its fastest 42 Mbps speeds in 152 markets. Overall, the carrier’s 4G network is available in 191 markets covering more than 200 million people. As T-Mobile upgrades more of its network to 42 Mbps technology, the provider says it expects to reach over 170 million Americans by the end of the year.
T-Mobile currently sells eight 4G smartphones, ranging in price from $79 to $249. The carrier also offers two tablets, two USB modems, and a 4G mobile hotspot.
We tested the following equipment to gauge the performance of T-Mobile’s network:
Samsung Galaxy S 4G: $149
T-Mobile Jet 2.0: $29.99
T-Mobile 4G Mobile Hotspot: $79.99 after rebate
T-Mobile finished second in our 4G testing because it delivered solid speeds in most of our five locations. Overall, we saw an average download rate of 4.7 Mbps and uploads of 1.4 Mbps on Speedtest.net, much faster than AT&T. T-Mobile also beat Sprint by 600 Kbps on uploads and 800 Kbps on downloads, both considerable deltas.
When it came to downloading websites, T-Mobile was only marginally faster than Sprint (12.6 vs. 14 seconds). The two networks were very close with their average speed when downloading large files (both about 3 Mbps) but T-Mobile offered faster uploads of larger files (997 Kbps vs. 470 Kbps). Geographically, T-Mobile 4G was strongest in Chicago and New York, but the network delivered fairly consistent results overall.
Over the course of our five-city test drive, 28 times T-Mobile’s network took more than 7 minutes to download or upload our large files. That seems like a lot, but T-Mobile was second best in this category, behind Verizon Wireless (24).
Thanks to a large footprint and continuous upgrades, T-Mobile’s 4G network has shown vast improvement over the past six months. The carrier delivered impressive speeds in our multi-city testing. T-Mobile also offers a broad portfolio of 4G-capable devices, even if it’s sometimes difficult to tell which ones deliver the best max speeds without digging into the specs. While Verizon’s LTE network is faster, T-Mobile currently offers solid 4G performance in more places at affordable prices.
Verizon Wireless launched its 4G network in December of 2010, much later than Sprint and T-Mobile, but the speeds were worth the wait. The carrier’s LTE technology enables super-fast 5 to 12 Mbps downloads, nearly doubling the competition on paper. And Verizon’s upload speeds are even more impressive. While the other providers are stuck at about 1 Mbps on the uplink, Verizon Wireless delivers 2 to 5 Mbps. That’s the difference between being able to upload an HD video to the cloud in seconds instead of waiting until you get home. This kind of overall responsiveness also makes streaming high-quality video and multiplayer gaming a breeze.
At last count, Verizon Wireless had 77 markets covered, and the carrier says that number will rise to 147 by the end of the year. Thanks to Verizon’s use of the 700-MHz spectrum, its LTE network is designed to offer strong coverage indoors.
Verizon Wireless currently sells only three 4G phones, and they cost a relatively steep $249 to $299, or at least $50 more than 4G phones on competing networks. As of press time we were still waiting to see the Motorola Bionic hit shelves, the first Android phone to combine a dual-core processor with 4G LTE. Verizon Wireless also offers one 4G tablet (the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1; the Motorola Xoom was pending certification for 4G LTE as of press time), two mobile hotspots, and two USB modems. That’s a total of nine 4G devices.
We tested the following gear:
HTC Thunderbolt: $249
Pantech 4G LTE UML290: $49.99
Samsung 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot SCH-LC11: $49.99
Verizon says its 4G LTE network is up to 10 times faster than 3G. That’s impressive, but we were more blown away by how much speedier this carrier was than the 4G competition. According to Speedtest.net, Verizon’s average download rate for our five test cities (12.3 Mbps) was more than 2.5 times faster than T-Mobile, more than three times faster than Sprint, and 5.5 times faster than AT&T. Verizon’s 4.7 Mbps average upload rate was just as jaw-dropping, once again wiping the floor with T-Mobile (more than three times faster), Sprint (5.8 times faster), and AT&T (eight times faster).
When we put Verizon’s LTE technology to the test downloading a large 155MB file, it trumped the other 4G networks once more, averaging 4.4 Mbps. That’s not as dramatic as our Speedtest.net results, but Sprint and T-Mobile were more than a full Mbps behind. When it came to uploading a 2.7MB file, Verizon Wireless averaged 1.7 Mbps. T-Mobile was the only other carrier that came close, averaging 997 Kbps.
As for downloading websites, Verizon finished in an average of 10.2 seconds across all of the devices we tested, beating both T-Mobile and Sprint (12.6 and 14 seconds, respectively) and more than 6 seconds faster than AT&T.
Verizon Wireless delivered the fastest download speeds in Chicago, averaging a blistering 18.9 Mbps on Speedtest.net, and the best upload speeds in Atlanta, averaging 7.6 Mbps. The carrier fared “worst” in San Francisco, where it offered average download speeds of 9.9 Mbps, which is still well within the carrier’s claimed 5 to 12 Mbps range.
Still, Verizon’s LTE network is far from perfect. Often when using the UML290 USB modem, the device would randomly drop the connection or say it was dormant and refuse to load web pages. Our New York-based tester said that Verizon’s Samsung mobile hotspot device twice lost its 4G connectivity, requiring a restart. Hand-offs between 3G and 4G also took longer than we’d like. Nevertheless, when downloading and uploading large files, Verizon Wireless produced the fewest failures with 24.
Verizon’s LTE network has really raised the bar in terms of pure speed, making it the 4G champ among the big four carriers. No one else even comes close when it comes to Verizon’s download and upload rates, and its expanding selection of 4G devices deliver remarkable performance (even though the phones are on the pricey side). The provider still needs to improve the stability of its devices and network so you can enjoy those speeds longer without interruptions. But overall Verizon Wireless is the one to beat.
There’s a reason why AT&T and (presumably) Sprint are moving to LTE. It’s a superior technology. As a result, Verizon Wireless’ 4G network consistently delivered better speeds than the other big three national carriers in our testing. We’d like to see less dropped connections and smoother 3G-4G hands-offs from Verizon’s devices, but overall the provider offered much faster speeds. Although you’ll pay more for Verizon’s 4G phones versus competing carriers, to us the speed boost is worth the premium.
If you’re looking for a good 4G deal, consider buying a smartphone, connection card, or hotspot from T-Mobile. You’ll pay $20 less per month versus Verizon for a phone, and you’ll get very good speeds in more locations. Sprint’s solid 4G download speeds earned it a third-place finish. While we appreciate the carrier’s unlimited plans, the network wasn’t very reliable. Not suprisingly, AT&T brought up the rear, because the carrier simply doesn’t offer 4G speeds in many markets yet.
As you can see from the above results, Verizon Wireless’ 4G LTE network crushed the competition in the Speedtest.net app, a synthetic test that measures throughput. In our five cities nationwide across three devices Verizon averaged 12.3 Mbps down and 4.7 Mbps. T-Mobile turned in a solid 4.7 Mbps average download, but that’s 2.6X less than Verizon.
Verizon’s lead wasn’t nearly as pronounced in our large file download and upload tests. When pulling down a 155MB file from an FTP server, Verizon averaged 4.4 Mbps. That’s 1.35 Mbps better than second-place T-Mobile. We also uploaded a 6.7 Mbps file to the same server, and Verizon finished 670 Kbps ahead of T-Mobile. Sprint and AT&T weren’t even close.
A few seconds here and there doesn’t sound like a lot, but over the life of your device it definitely adds up. Verizon Wireless once again proved fastest in our Site Load Time test, averaging 10.18 seconds when loading popular sites on a 4G LTE phone and on a laptop connected to a 4G hotspot and with a 4G modem attached. T-Mobile turned in a good 12.59 seconds, followed by Sprint and AT&T.