We had extensively reviewed Samsung’s hot Galaxy S4 and the HTC One flagship smartphones, and those devices are the ones to beat for 2013 so far. Now, we’re going to examine how the Galaxy S4 and the HTC One will perform, at least in the San Francisco Bay Area, with the leading 4G LTE networks from AT&T Mobility, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile USA, and Verizon Wireless. After all, a modern smartphone is only as good as the network it’s on considering most users are accessing more data on their phones today than ever before with popular tasks such as posting to Facebook, uploading to YouTube, watching Netflix, browsing the web, sharing on Twitter.
As we don’t have a Galaxy S4 from Samsung on all four networks, we’re going to be testing the LTE speeds from the four national carriers in San Jose, California using a number of different devices. On AT&T we will test speeds using the iPhone 5; we’ll be using the Galaxy Note 2 to evaluate network performance on T-Mobile USA; and on Verizon we’ll be looking at speeds using a Motorola Droid RAZR Maxx HD. Finally, on Sprint’s LTE network–which still hasn’t been fully announced or deployed yet in San Jose, but Sprint is still allowing customers early preview access to its 4G network with compatible devices–we’ll be looking at download speeds using the Galaxy S4 flagship.
Galaxy S4 Speedtest on Sprint Nextel:
With a network that hasn’t even gone live yet, where available in the San Francisco Bay Area, I am seeing performance match Sprint’s promise of 6-8 Mbps on the download side and between 1-3 Mbps on the upload. Peak speeds run as high as 20 Mbps download and 10 Mbps unload for me, though I’ve seen users report higher peaks on Sprint’s network. We’ll have to revisit Sprint’s LTE network once the carrier announces that the network has gone live in the Bay Area.
Where Sprint may seemingly lack in speed, it is offering in unlimited consumption. As Sprint re-purposes spectrum from older legacy networks, and continues to upgrade its network, we’ll likely get increased speeds over time.
The Speeds: Let’s Burn Rubber
Motorola Droid RAZR Maxx HD on Verizon Wireless:
With the most mature and broadly built LTE network of all its competitors, Verizon has been an early LTE champion. Over the years, its network has seen some slowdown as it is getting more saturated thanks to the addition of more customers migrating from 3G to 4G smartphones. However, it seems that Verizon is bolstering capacity and speeds are on the rise again. Average download speeds hovered between 20-30 Mbps with uploads over 15 Mbps, making for some impressive performance.
Verizon’s network is the most expansive. You’ll find more LTE coverage than all other carriers in the U.S. so it’s unlikely you’ll dip into 3G coverage.
The downside to these speeds is that you’ll have to surf responsibly. Verizon has ended its unlimited plans, except for early adopters who are grandfathered in, so you’ll be paying for what you use. Moreover, there are still some infrequent outages, I’ve noticed, where users may be stuck for a short while with just 3G coverage.
Samsung Galaxy Note 2 on T-Mobile:
Being one of the earliest devices that’s 4G LTE compatible for T-Mobile, the Galaxy Note 2 serves up some impressive speeds on a newly launched LTE network for the carrier in San Jose, California. Unfortunately, T-Mobile’s LTE footprint is still more limited right now, being the last of the four big carriers to hop onto the LTE bandwagon. Speeds averaged around an impressive 20 Mbps on the download side and a high of 10-15 Mbps on the upload, making streaming, downloading, and uploading videos and photos a breeze.
Fortunately, for Magenta customers, a new unlimited $70 post-paid data plan coupled with HSPA+ speeds with a theoretical 42 Mbps peak (real world usage is close to 7-12 Mbps in my experience on the download) will make the Note 2 or any other HSPA+ compatible smartphone a joy to use even without T-Mobile’s LTE footprint.
Apple iPhone 5 on AT&T:
Having been criticized for its late start to the 4G LTE bandwagon, Apple finally delivered the iPhone 5 that was compatible with LTE networks around the world last fall. As the device is still one of the most popular smartphones in the world and in the U.S., I was able to surf and talk on the iPhone and get download speeds usually between 10-20 Mbps and upload speeds ranged between 5-10 Mbps.
Making Sense of the Numbers: Do These Differences in LTE Speeds Matter?
The Numbers Game. While carriers will try to throw numbers out at you at an attempt to out do each other, beyond a certain threshold the numbers become less important. Sure, moving from 3G to 4G was a radical bump with carriers noting that 4G delivered up to 8-10 times the speeds of 3G, but the differences in LTE speeds are mostly negligible. For most tasks, like checking email or browsing the web, you probably won’t even notice any major differences between these four carriers.
Beyond the Numbers. While we’re seeing a very broad array of LTE speeds numbers across all four national carriers, speeds, like all performance indices, are only one measure of performance. There are other factors as well when we’re looking at networks, and these factors also include:
- Coverage footprint
- Costs for data plans, including any overages
- Network capacity and back haul
- 3G speeds for when LTE isn’t available
So let’s factor in some of those things to see how the networks compare:
Verizon Wireless. If you’re traveling across the country and demand LTE coverage everywhere, Verizon is the way to go, and the carrier is offering some of the hottest phones these days including the Galaxy S4, the iPhone 5, and the Note 2 but not the HTC One. The robust LTE footprint means you’ll be paying for this pleasure to use this with metered data plans. And when you step out of LTE coverage, 3G coverage on Verizon will be slower than 3G UMTS and 4G HSPA/HSPA+ on rivals AT&T Mobility and T-Mobile USA as backups. Verizon has made some improvements to its network, and LTE for the carrier appears to be about on par right now for when the network initially launched. I am impressed.
Sprint Nextel. Sprint’s network is still new, and perhaps is the slowest of the bunch in speed numbers. Sprint is employing a number of different approaches to LTE deployment compared to its competitors, and the carrier has among the largest capacity and spectrum available. Without getting too technical, Sprint will allow any of its bands to be used for any of its network technology, be it 4G, 3G, or 2G, so devices will be able to choose the best band for 4G to reduce congestion. The carrier promises frequent network upgrade and despite switching from the same CDMA/EVDO network as Verizon to LTE, we haven’t seen any outages so far, so Sprint appears to be reliably building out its footprint. In areas where LTE isn’t available, expect slower 3G speeds, like Verizon, but at least you won’t have to pay through the roof if you’re a data hog thanks to an unlimited data plan without overages, caps, or throttling.
AT&T Mobility. AT&T’s LTE network is a distant second to Verizon’s in terms of coverage footprint, but its speeds, where available, is on par. Additionally, you’ll benefit from an HSPA+ coverage footprint that will tie you over nicely where LTE coverage isn’t available, and HSPA+ is much faster than Sprint’s or Verizon’s 3G. Still, with metered plans, expect to pay more to use more, like on Verizon, but you don’t get as expansive an LTE footprint for paying at this time.
T-Mobile USA. Already with an HSPA+ that bests a few of the LTE networks out there, T-Mobile has been aggressively trying to burn rubber. With LTE, those speeds will get better. A more limited footprint is what’s limiting T-Mobile right now, but an impressive unlimited data plan at $70 per month is an attractive offer as well as no-interest financing on the full price of a phone and no contract obligation. It’s really like going prepaid, but with perks if you’ll agree to a credit check for those privileges. T-Mobile will be the carrier to watch this year, and it’s about to add even more spectrum thanks to an acquisition of MetroPCS.