Since Verizon released its first LTE phone this week -- and since it's a lovely day out -- I decided to spend my morning strolling through Downtown Crossing in Boston and testing out self-proclaimed "4G" smartphones.
Downtown Crossing is a particularly convenient place to play around with smartphones since Verizon, Sprint and AT&T all have retail outlets there within a block of one another. And since Downtown Crossing is one of the main hubs of the city, it's highly likely that carriers have made sure to put their best feet forward to ensure the area has good wireless coverage.
MORE ON SMARTPHONES: 12 tutorials for making the most of iPhones at work
Before I go any further, let me admit that this is in no way a formal, scientific test. This simply involved walking into retail stores in the same area and using the Speed Test Android app multiple times on three different smartphones that all claimed to have "4G" connectivity. Anyone who thinks that one guy walking into a store and fiddling with Android phones constitutes conclusive proof that one network is faster than another really needs to read up on the scientific method.
With that giant caveat out of the way, my Speed Test runs on the new HTC Thunderbolt smartphone showed Verizon's LTE network delivering the goods as far as download speeds go. Over the span of more than 15 separate tests on the device, the download rate never dipped below the 4Mbps range, hovered comfortably in the 6Mbps range and at times burst well over 10Mbps. Simply put, these numbers were superior to anything else I found in the area and were consistent with other reports on the typical speed users can expect from Verizon's LTE network.
Just for fun, I tried running the Speed Test app in the same store on my 3G Motorola Droid X. The result made me want to weep, as my beloved Droid had positively wimpy download speeds in the range of 250Kbps to 500Kbps. This means that anyone buying an LTE phone right now is in for a big drop-off when their device goes out of 4G range and has to switch back to Verizon's 3G EV-DO Rev. A network. Verizon's LTE network is currently live in 38 major markets across the country, with several more slated to go online around the country next month. All the same, anyone expecting to get the same fast LTE coverage in their home in the suburbs that they get in their big-city office is likely to be disappointed for the time being.
So we know that Verizon's LTE network is fast while its EV-DO Rev. A network is not. How did the other carriers fare? For Sprint, I ran multiple speed tests on the HTC EVO Shift 4G and consistently got data rates in the 4Mbps to 6Mbps range. In other words, Sprint's typical speeds matched up well with the low-to-middle range of Verizon's LTE network but did not achieve the high bursts into the 10Mbps range or higher that LTE could hit. The good thing about Sprint's WiMAX network is, for the time being at least, it's available in more locations than Verizon's LTE network, as Sprint and its partners at Clearwire had made WiMAX available in 70 different markets by the end of 2010.
Although AT&T's HSPA+ network was much faster than the 3G services offered by Sprint and Verizon, it simply wasn't in the same class as the LTE and WiMAX networks in my informal test. Running Speed Test multiple times on the Motorola Atrix 4G yielded results that were typically just above the 1Mbps range, occasionally dipping to 700Kbps. It should be noted that these speeds were significantly slower than the speeds that PC World recently found for AT&T HSPA+ networks across the country, which routinely averaged 2Mbps or higher. And it isn't as though AT&T is slacking off in the network upgrade department, as it plans to start offering its own LTE services in limited markets this summer with more expansive launches slated for 2012.
But for the time being, Verizon's LTE network seems to be the fastest game in town. Just don't expect to have access to it wherever you go just yet.
Read more about anti-malware in Network World's Anti-malware section.