3G vs. 4G "Let the War Begin"
Report from Philly: 3G vs. 4G on Sprint smart phones
Fourth-generation phones may well deliver on their promise of faster data downloads, at least based on our tests of the first 4G phone, HTC's Evo 4G.
The Evo runs on Sprint’s 4G network in Philadelphia, one of only a few dozen cities that currently have 4G service. Our informal testing zone was beautiful Rittenhouse Square Park, in the heart of Philadelphia, where we found strong signals for both 3G and 4G Sprint networks. Since as yet we have only a single advance press sample of the Evo, which launches next week, our control was another HTC phone, the Hero, running on Sprint’s 3G network. To further equalize the test, the Hero, like the Evo, runs on the Android 2.1 operating system.
Here's what we found:
Web pages loaded faster in 4G. We downloaded pages from a variety of Web sites, from well-known news sites like CNN and the New York Times to other popular sites like Facebook and Hulu. Evo was generally faster downloading Web pages. Typically, pages loaded about a third faster, the time difference to load a page was about a second or two in most instances. One exception was the home page of Hulu. Evo seemed to get hung up temporarily on the page's dozen or so video thumbnails, whereas the Hero seemed to download the page much quicker. The reason may have something to do with Evo's Flash Lite support.
Video was smoother and more consistent. I used the phone's onboard YouTube apps to stream a few videos, including those on ConsumerReports.org. Evo's YouTube app is a special HQ version designed to optimize video performance on 4G networks. At first glance, they appeared equally sharp on both phones. However, I soon realized I was able to make out more details, like the text on a sign that may have been in the background, on the Evo. In addition, videos on the Evo appeared consistently smoother than the Hero's, with fewer interruptions. They also seemed to start much quicker.
As expected, battery life appears to be affected. We know from our lab tests that faster networks tend to be harder on battery life. And it seems from my informal experience with the Evo, that may hold true for 4G. We turned on both fully charged phones at 10:20 a.m., as we reached the outskirts of Philadelphia, and immediately began performing a variety of video downloads speed tests for the next 3 hours. By the time we reached the New Jersey border at 2:50 p.m., the Evo's on-screen low-battery-warning-alert tripped on. But the Hero's battery icon indicated I had only used about one-third of the phone's battery life. (Of course, there are many factors beyond network speed that affect battery life, such as display, signal sensitivity, and the capacity of the battery itself. And these are, after all, different phones. We'll just have to wait for the more-conclusive results from our labs.)
The 4G network never reached its maximum potential. Sprint promises a maximum download speed of 5,000 kilobits per second (kbps), but we were never able to record anything faster than 3,500 kbps using two speed tests: the FCC Broadband Test and Ookla's Speed Test (both are available as free downloads from the Android Market). Evo was more on target with upload speeds, sometimes coming within a few kbps of the 1,000 kbps cap placed by Sprint.
The data-speed needle jumped radically as we moved about in our relatively small test zone in the park, sometimes registering as little as 300 kbps for the Evo. But even at its slowest speeds, both download and upload, the 4G network speeds recorded on the Evo often measured higher than the 3G speeds displayed on the Hero. When the Evo dipped to 300 kbps, for example, the Hero was less than a 150 kbps for the HTC Hero. Neither of which is respectable for 3G.
Upshot: Our quick tests suggest Sprint's 4G service is indeed significantly faster as promised, and maybe worth the extra $10 for the heavy data users living in the few cities where it's available. In the meantime, our lab technicians are currently performing a multitude of other tests to get it into our smart phone Ratings (available to subscribers) in the next few weeks.