Sprint's EVO 4G in 4G Country (Washington State): Not So Fast

Using the new EVO 4G phone (from Sprint) on a 3G network is a bit like confining yourself to the posted speed limit in a Maserati. Naturally, when the phone goes on sale June 4, people who live in 3G-only cities (such as San Francisco) may wonder what they're missing from the experience. (What is 4G?)

So when I got my hands on the phone, my first thought was to see what the device could do in 4G country--cities where Sprint's partner, Clearwire, has had its 4G WiMax network up and running for a good while. So I flew up to the Pacific Northwest with the EVO 4G to try it out in six 4G cities on Clearwire’s WiMax network.

I tested the HTC EVO 4G phone on Clearwire's 4G WiMax network in the Washington cities of Bellingham, Seattle, Snohomish, and Tacoma.

On Day One, last Thursday (May 27), I checked out 4G on the EVO in four northwestern Washington cities: Tacoma, Seattle, Snohomish, and Bellingham. In this article, I’ll give you my impressions of how the phone and the network performed in those cities. On Friday, May 28, I sampled the 4G service in Portland, Oregon, and Salem, Oregon. Tomorrow, in the second part of this story, I’ll discuss the results of those tests.

Day One

Though I was impressed with the general reliability of the 4G service in the four Washington cities I tested--that is, my ability to connect with the network from almost all testing locations--I can’t say the service was fast enough to turn the EVO 4G into a game-changing, eye-opening, revolutionary communications device.

Sprint says the EVO 4G phone will connect with average download speeds of between 3 megabits per second (mbps) and 6 mbps, and adds that EVO 4G users may see speed bursts of up to 10 mbps. In my tests, the EVO usually connected at around 2.5 mbps--nothing special when compared with the speeds of AT&T’s HSPA 7.2 network and T-Mobile’s rapidly spreading HSPA+ 3G network--and I never encountered those 10-mbps bursts of speed that Sprint talks about. In fact, in two days of use, the EVO never broke the 3-mbps mark.

How I Tested

My tests of mobile apps running on 4G were not scientific in any formal sense. I simply tracked the EVO 4G's performance on various 4G networks over two days of driving around, and noted my thoughts about that performance versus some of the other networks and devices I’ve tested in the past. Testing wireless networks is a hit-or-miss proposition to begin with: Performance depends on such factors as buildings and other obstructions in the vicinity, the weather, and the number of other users on the network at the time of the test.

In the smaller cities of Snohomish and Bellingham, I performed a single set of tests at each city's center. In Tacoma, I tested from two locations; and in Seattle, from four locations.

The Apps

At each location I tested a set of mobile apps that I thought might put a strain on the network and highlight the speed advantage of 4G service over 3G service. Incidentally, the three apps I used are the same ones that Sprint is using to hype the capabilities of the EVO 4G phone.

Qik comes preinstalled on the EVO 4G and is designed to facilitate the phone's videoconferencing function. Since I couldn't test videoconferencing with another EVO on the 4G network, I created a live stream with the EVO and then monitored it with my 4G-connected laptop, recording the time the live stream took to show up on the laptop, the time delay between the live recording on the phone and broadcast on the laptop, and the audio and video quality of the stream. In this way I could gauge how quickly the live video was uploading to the Qik server and then downloading for playback on the laptop.

High-quality video on the HTC EVO 4G.
I used a YouTube high-quality Web video to test video downlink performance on the EVO 4G. Using the same HQ movie file for each test, I noted the video’s load time, clarity and sharpness, audio/video synchronization, and pixelation and other artifacts.

Layar is a location-based service that superimposes various kinds of data over the real-world image you seen through the smartphone camera. I usually searched either for nearby eateries or for nearby Twitter tweets during my tests, noting how quickly the app retrieved detailed information about restaurants and tweets nearby.

Tacoma

I parked my car in downtown Tacoma, Washington, and set up shop in a Starbucks in the ground floor of a city office building there. I had a little trouble getting the phone to connect with the 4G network, but after I stepped outside and played with the EVO’s wireless settings a little, the 4G symbol appeared on the screen. Next, I drove down by the water at the Port of Tacoma and parked in a small strip mall across the street from the docks--and picked up 4G immediately, on both the EVO 4G phone and the Sprint Overdrive hotspot that I used to connect my laptop.

City Center, Tacoma, Washington.
In downtown Tacoma, the YouTube HQ video took perhaps 5 seconds to load. When it did the picture contained some rather large, square-shaped artifacting, and the sound and video did not seem to be synced perfectly. At the port, the video looked better: The artifacting was smaller and less widespread, and the syncing issue I noticed downtown seemed to have disappeared. The video still didn’t look like high-quality, high-definition video, but it was certainly watchable.

Testing the Qik app, I initiated a live stream from the EVO and waited for the stream to display at the Qik site running in a browser on my laptop. And waited. After a few minutes I gave up. The stream may have been uploading to the Qik servers from the phone, but it was not making the return trip down through the 4G network to the Sprint Overdrive hotspot. The same thing happened when I tried initiating a stream from across town at the Port of Tacoma. The phone appeared to be shooting and sending a stream, but I couldn't monitor it on the laptop.

When I used the Layar augmented reality app in downtown Tacoma to detect eateries nearby, results populated the screen quickly, but surprisingly few little hamburger-and-French-fries symbols (used to signify restaurants in the area) showed up on the screen.

At the Port of Tacoma, the 4G-connected Layar app quickly detected the two or three restaurants in the small strip mall in back of me. Using the app to detect tweets being sent by people in the area, I didn’t come up with much--evidently, dockworkers and fry cooks don’t tweet much.

So far, I was not very impressed by 4G. On to Seattle.

Seattle

The Space Needle and downtown Seattle, as seen from my testing location on the shore of Lake Union.
I tested my set of three apps at four locations in Seattle: near the Space Needle, in the central business district (tall buildings), at the edge of Lake Union, and at the University of Washington campus. At the Space Needle and Lake Union locations, I had trouble keeping the EVO phone connected to the 4G network consistently. I sometimes succeeded in reconnecting with 4G by manually instructing the phone in its settings menu to reconnect--a trick that seemed to work best outside--but in other cases the phone, after having lapsed into 3G mode, could not reconnect with 4G.

In all Seattle locations, however, I could test the YouTube HQ video in 4G mode. The video continued to look watchable by Internet video standards, but it still contained some pixelation and didn’t move in the fluid way that you see in true high-def video. In my first two testing locations in downtown Seattle, the video showed smaller pixelation and less jitter than it did from my Union Lake and University of Washington locations. The video I watched looked somewhat better at all four of my Seattle locations than it did at either of my Tacoma locations earlier in the day.

I had a hard time with the Qik live video app in all four of my Seattle testing spots. I noted a delay of at least 5 seconds between the initiation of the recording on the phone and the display of the video at the Qik site running in a browser on my laptop. And after the video started playing in the laptop, it often stalled a few seconds later. Once it began running again, the delay between the live stream and what I saw on the laptop was significant--usually 7 to 10 seconds but sometimes as much as 20 seconds. With performance like that, I have to wonder how well videoconferencing among smartphones connected on the 4G network will work.

In this screenshot from the HTC 4G phone, the Layar app detects Twitter users in the area, and displays their pictures and their tweets. The phone did this very quickly in good 4G coverage areas.
The Layar app worked very well in Seattle, immediately detecting and displaying information about numerous food places in my testing areas. I could also detect and display the tweets of nearby Twitter users, but in most locations their profile pictures failed to register and overlay on the horizon (as viewed through the camera of the EVO phone). On the University of Washington campus, however, the Layar app was truly impressive. The app immediately registered perhaps 50 tweets in the general area, and immediately displayed the profile pics of the tweeters superimposed on their locations on campus.

Snohomish

Downtown Snohomish, Washington.
After driving through the countryside north of Seattle for about 40 miles, I arrived in the quiet little burg of Snohomish on the bank of the Snohomish River. After sitting down at a restaurant on First Street (the main drag), I was disappointed to find that I couldn’t establish a 4G connection on the EVO phone. After trying a few times while standing out in the middle of First Street, I managed to get 4G for just long enough to test some apps, but the connection seemed extremely tenuous.

Even when the EVO connected to 4G, the performance of the apps made it seem as though I were connected to a 3G signal--and not a very good one. Watching the YouTube HQ video out in the street, I saw a lot of pixelation and jitter, especially in moments of high motion in the video. The Layar app was able to detect some of the eateries around, but it took some time to display their locations overlaid on the EVO camera’s view.

I had to take the phone back into the restaurant to try out the Qik live video streaming service, so that I could monitor the stream on my laptop. The phone immediately switched back to 3G mode, but my laptop maintained a steady 4G connection via the Sprint Overdrive mobile hotspot. The “live” video stream I shot with the EVO phone showed up (after a few fits and starts) on my laptop about 15 seconds after it was captured. Can you imagine trying to videoconference with someone who sees your mouth move 15 seconds after you've said something?

Bellingham

Another 60 miles farther north in Bellingham, Washington, I drove straight to the Bellingham Public Market in the city center to have a latte and to look for 4G. As in Snohomish an hour before, I found that keeping a solid connection to the 4G network was a bit of a challenge. Inside the market, the phone was stuck in 3G mode and couldn't make a 4G connection automatically or after I tried to connect manually in the phone’s wireless network settings.

Public Market, Bellingham, Washington.
After taking a seat by the window at the front of the market, however, I was able to connect to 4G. Still, the YouTube HQ video contained some large square-shaped artifacting and appeared a little jittery. Using Qik, the live video stream I shot from the phone again took about 15 seconds to display at the Website on my 4G-connected laptop, so the stream could hardly be called “live.”

On the other hand, the Layar application worked well in Bellingham. The app detected and overlaid the locations of both restaurants and a few tweets in the area, after searching for just a few seconds.

Day-One Conclusions

My general impression of 4G service, in the state of Washington at least, is that the service will make the apps you already use run marginally better and faster, but it won’t make possible a whole new class of high-bandwidth mobile apps. Not yet, anyway.

Stay tuned for the rest of my EVO 4G impressions tomorrow.

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