If you plan on watching movies on the go with your iPhone 4S you’ll want to find out which carrier has the best wireless data performance in your neck of the woods. Streaming movies from popular apps on the iPhone 4S can range from crystal clear to downright unwatchable on different networks at the same location.
We’re in the process of running iPhone 4S speed tests in San Francisco on AT&T’s, Sprint’s and Verizon’s 3G networks. So far, AT&T is the fastest and Sprint is the slowest iPhone 4S data provider in several locations in the city. We’ve seen the iPhone 4S score download speeds in the 2 Mbps to 4 Mbps range pretty consistently on AT&Ts network. However, Sprint’s version of the iPhone 4S scores about 1 Mbps in most locations and we’ve seen it dip to embarrassingly slow speeds of .2 Mbps in some areas in San Francisco.
You can watch an iPhone 4S 3G speed shootout at my local Starbucks here. We’ll be posting a second speedtest results page from the same location as the Netflix tests soon.
iPhone 4S Netflix App Speed Test
But who cares about benchmarks? What really matters is how these networks perform when uploading, downloading and streaming content.
To test things out I fired up the Netflix app on the Sprint and AT&T versions of the iPhone 4S after I finished eating dinner at a restaurant on West Portal in San Francisco. West Portal is home to a popular streetcar line that commuters use to shuttle between the city’s southern neighborhoods and downtown.
I picked a random point in the movie Simone and watched a few minutes of the film on each iPhone 4S.
(For best results, watch the iPhone 4S Netflix comparison video in full screen and select 720p from the bottom right of the YouTube player.)
The AT&T iPhone 4S started playing the movie almost immediately. The picture was crystal clear and the stream was silky smooth. The actors’ faces were sharp and I could see individual strands of hairs, wrinkles and details in the background.
It took a bit longer for the Sprint iPhone 4S to begin playing the movie for the first time. When it did get going, the image quality was noticeably degraded compared to what I saw on the iPhone 4S. The actors’ faces were blurry and some objects were severely pixelated. Netflix automatically adjusted the quality of the video stream to keep the action moving. The app would rather show poorer-quality video that simply grind to a halt. Unfortunately, the lower-quality video stream wasn’t enough for Sprint’s 3G network and the movie simply stopped playing on a couple of occasions.
Above is a screen capture of the movie playing on the AT&T iPhone 4S. Notice how everything is pretty sharp and you can see plenty of detail. Notice how her collar has a smooth curve near and crisp edges. You can see strands of her hair blowing in the wind and other fine lines.
And here is a similar screen capture from the Sprint iPhone 4S. In this image, you can see that Netflix has downgraded the video quality in an attempt to keep the movie streaming. A poorer video stream is generally preferable to a stuttering or stopped one. The edges are jagged and details are muddled together.
This wasn’t just a fluke on a couple of frames either. Here’s another screen capture from the movie from the AT&T iPhone 4S. Notice how you can see the fine wrinkles to the side of the actor’s eyes and individual strands of hair.
And here’s another from the Sprint iPhone 4S. Notice how it’s tough to see detail in the actor’s face and there are blocks of jumbled pixels near his right hand.
If streaming videos over 3G is important to you, then AT&T’s the way to go for iPhone 4S buyers near West Portal and in many other parts of San Francisco. Unfortunately, AT&T’s data plans are limited to either 200MB, 2GB or 4GB per month, none of which will allow for iPhone 4S users to regularly stream high-quality movies. Sprint is the only iPhone 4S carrier in the U.S. to offer unlimited data, a feature that’s included in all of its iPhone plans, which start at $79.99 per month.
If you’re a movie buff and live in an area with solid Sprint 3G download speeds, then Sprint is the way to go. That way you don’t have to worry about expensive data overage fees. I don’t recommend streaming Netflix movies continually on AT&T’s or Verizon’s network unless you’re grandfathered into an unlimited data plans or have deep pockets. Each extra GB of data costs typical Verizon and AT&T customers $10. Streaming apps like Netflix can eat through 2GB data plans by watching just a handful of movies, depending on the video quality. If you want to stream movies during your slow graveyard shifts Sprint is your only viable option these days.
It’s important to research carrier performance where you live and work before you sign up for two-year iPhone 4S contract. Streaming quality and data speed tests will vary from house to house and neighborhood to neighborhood. There are happy iPhone 4S users that swear by each of the three networks and others that loathe them.
While Sprint 3G may provide a smooth Netflix streaming experience in some neighborhoods, it certainly doesn’t do so in mine. AT&T used to be dog slow where I live, but the company’s made drastic improvements in many San Francisco neighborhoods in the past 17 months or so. Yes, many iPhone 4 users still experience an unacceptable number of dropped calls in San Francisco, but things aren’t nearly as bad as they used to be. Part of the reason things are looking brighter for AT&T customers is that AT&T is dotting the city’s telephone poles with mini cell towers, such as the one in this picture. AT&T installed this antenna right outside of my old apartment’s bedroom window in July of 2010 after I reported the area as a trouble spot several times.
We’re still working on testing the iPhone 4S on all three wireless networks in the San Francisco Bay Area. In our initial runs in South of Market area, Sprints network is much faster than what we’re seeing here.
Of course if you really care about mobile data speed, you can always buy a phone with 4G capabilities, such as the Droid Bionic. You can see a comparison between AT&T’s speedy 3G and Verizon’s 4G LTE network here.