Sprint EVO 4G Sluggish in Northwest

On Day One of my Pacific Northwest EVO 4G Tour last Thursday (May 27), I checked out the performance of Sprint’s new EVO 4G phone running on Clearwire’s 4G WiMax networks in the Washington cities of Bellingham, Seattle, Snohomish, and Tacoma.

The EVO 4G phone is the first phone designed to run on a U.S. 4G network. The phone has been receiving great reviews; but to get a feel for the phone's capabilities, I wanted to see it in action on a 4G connection, which is said to offer data speeds up to ten times faster than those a 3G wireless data service can deliver.

I didn't find this kind of performance in Washington; in fact, I saw only flashes of the EVO’s potential in 4G mode. So on Day Two (Friday, May 28), I sampled the 4G service in two Oregon cities: Portland and Salem. Here are my impressions.

Click here for information on 4G networks.

Click here for descriptions of my testing methodology and of the apps I used.

Day Two

According to its 4G coverage map, Clearwire offers 4G service in Salem, Oregon and Portland, Oregon. Image: Clearwire
My impressions of the 4G-connected EVO 4G in Oregon were broadly consistent with my experience with the phone and the service in Washington. The Clearwire 4G service (now available in 36 U.S. cities) seemed generally available where it was supposed to be (and then some, as discussed in the Salem section), but the service simply isn't fast enough to turn the EVO 4G into the “revolutionary” communications device it's being hyped as. Don’t get me wrong: The EVO is a truly impressive phone even in 3G mode. What prevents it from being a real game-changer is the speed of the Clearwire 4G service.

The speeds I saw in Oregon were marginally better than those I saw in my Washington tests, but still less than the download speeds of between 3 megabits per second and 6 mbps that Sprint and Clearwire advertise. In my Oregon tests, the EVO registered average download speeds of 2.3 mbps. And as in Washington, I never encountered the 10-mbps bursts of speed that Sprint says the Clearwire 4G network is capable of.

Portland

Portland Testing Locations
My testing locations in Portland, Oregon (from left to right): Pioneer Square (city center), Portland State University campus, Grant Park, and Portland International Airport.
I began testing in North Portland (roughly 4 miles north of the city center) and found that I could not get a 4G signal on the EVO 4G or with the Sprint Overdrive mobile hotspot. Driving toward downtown I noted that 4G service became available roughly 2 miles north of the bridge that takes you into downtown Portland.

At the other four locations I tested in Portland, I was able to connect with the 4G network--sometimes immediately, and sometimes after a little tinkering with the phone’s wireless networking settings. At Pioneer Square (city center), for example, I couldn't connect the EVO phone to the 4G network while sitting in the car. But after walking to the center of the square and fiddling with the phone’s wireless settings for a few minutes, I was able to connect.

Meanwhile, back in the car, my Sprint Overdrive hotspot connected with the 4G network straight off, and stayed connected for the duration of my tests at that location. I had the same experience at almost all of the 14 testing locations I visited during my two days in the Northwest.

On the campus of Portland State, the EVO 4G connected with the 4G network immediately and stayed connected at reasonable speeds (approximately 2.4 mbps) as I wandered around campus.

Across the river at Grant Park, however, the 4G signal was noticeably weaker: I had to drive around to the side of the park facing downtown before I could pick up and hold the 4G signal. At the Portland airport later in the day, I had similar troubles. Though the Sprint Overdrive hotspot connected to 4G immediately and at high speed, I had to take the EVO 4G phone outside the car to catch and hold the 4G signal.

Pioneer Square
Pioneer Square at city center in Portland, Oregon.
The YouTube video looked relatively good in my tests in Portland--by 3G standards, at least. In my Pioneer Square and Portland State test locations, the video was enjoyable to watch, though I noticed at least a little bit of artifacting, as well as some mild jitter in moments of high motion. The general quality of the video wasn’t as sharp and fluid as high-quality video should be. Watching the same video on my laptop, with the laptop plugged into a wired broadband connection, I saw true high-quality video with no artifacting or jitter--just smooth, fluid picture and motion.

As I moved away from downtown Portland to Grant Park across the river and then to Portland International Airport, I noticed that the video quality deteriorated slightly. At Grant Park (in a soft rain), the video took about 10 seconds to start running, and showed some visible artifacting and jitter, especially when the action recorded on the video involved lots of quick movement. I noted the same symptoms while watching video at the airport (also in a light rain) later on in the day, though the video did load much faster there.

The Qik live video streaming app continued to give me problems in Portland. At three of of my four testing locations (not counting the fifth location in North Portland, where I couldn't pick up 4G at all), the live video shot by the EVO 4G showed up at the Qik site in a browser running on my laptop after a lag of 5 seconds or more. And after the video finally showed up in the browser, the video often stalled, increasing the delay to between 10 and 15 seconds. Again I marveled at the idea that people might try to use this app to conduct a videoconferencing session between two smartphones connected on the 4G network. If such use is to be practical, the speed simply must improve.

Portland State University
Portland State University campus in Portland, Oregon.
The positive exception was my test at Portland State. There the real-time video that the EVO 4G was shooting showed up on the Qik site within a few seconds of my pushing Record. The delay grew to about 5 seconds after the video displayed in the browser, however.

The Layar app performed well all over Portland. When I instructed it to search for nearby restaurants, numerous “food” symbols popped up on the EVO’s screen. When I searched for tweets nearby, the app seemed to need a little more time to register them. But after a few seconds, blue bubbles showed up over the locations of nearby tweets (with the content of the tweets displaying at the bottom of the screen); and after a few more seconds, the app began displaying the actual profile pictures of the tweeters.

Salem

Oregon State Capital Building
The Oregon State Capital Building in Salem, Oregon.
On Friday afternoon, I drove 45 miles south from Portland to the Oregon state capital, Salem. Leaving Portland I noted that the EVO 4G continued to pick up a strong 4G signal as I moved south toward Salem. I continued checking and found that 4G was available on the freeway for nearly 20 miles outside Portland. In one location, the phone clocked one of the highest 4G speeds of any of my tests (almost 3 mbps). As I drove, I clicked on the high-resolution YouTube video and observed that its quality, while not quite HD, was as good as that of any streamed video I’d seen in the previous two days. I continued to pick up the 4G signal until I was about halfway to Salem.

The Sprint GPS service running on the EVO 4G took me directly to city center, to the Oregon State Capital building, where I parked the car and began testing. I had begun connecting with 4G service shortly after I got off the freeway and headed into town. When I parked the car it was still on, and the Overdrive hotspot established a 4G connection immediately. Unfortunately, the speeds weren’t very impressive. The EVO 4G connected at a download speed of 1.5 mbps--a good speed for 3G, but pedestrian for 4G. The Overdrive didn’t do much better: Its downlink speed was about 1.8 mbps.

Salem Map
My testing locations in Salem, Oregon (from left to right): State Capital Building, Salem Airport, Oregon State Hospital.
Elsewhere in Salem, I had less success connecting the EVO to 4G. First I drove across town to the Oregon State Hospital, but couldn't connect the EVO 4G to the 4G network even after turning 4G off and on in the phone’s settings (this trick had worked before). Oddly, the Overdrive couldn't connect with 4G either. Abandoning that test location, I drove to a Kmart parking lot near the Salem Airport, where I succeeded in connecting the EVO to 4G, but only after walking around the parking lot, turning the phone’s 4G radio on and off. The Overdrive connected immediately at the airport. But again, the download speeds I saw were unimpressive: 970 kbps (not quite 1 mbps) on the EVO, and 1.5 mpbs on the Overdrive.

Predictably, the high-quality YouTube video I watched in Salem wasn’t perfect. Though the video was watchable at both the State Capital and the Airport locations, I noticed some minor artifacting and jitter--not enough to ruin the experience, but lacking the smooth, fluid look of HD video.

Surprisingly, at both of the 4G locations in Salem, the Qik live video app worked better than it did in most of my other Pacific Northwest city test locations. The live video stream (shot from the EVO phone) popped up on the Qik site (on my 4G-connected laptop) after only about 3 or 4 seconds. At the capitol building, the delay after the video began streaming was only about 3 to 4 seconds, which ranked as one of the best performances I saw from the Qik app anywhere in the Northwest. With that short a delay time, I could almost imagine what viable video conferencing might be like in 4G--but it was still a stretch. At the Salem airport, the delay between the live video and its display on the site lengthened to 7 or 8 seconds.

At both Salem locations, the Layar app registered nearby eateries--with directory information--after a few seconds of delay. Searching for nearby tweeters, the app needed a few seconds to detect them (displaying them as blue bubbles on the horizon), and then another few seconds to display their profile pictures.

Day-Two Conclusions

Many people in the media have been waiting for the release of the “first 4G phone.” We were thrilled at the look and feel of the HTC EVO 4G phone when it stole the show at CTIA this year, and we hoped that this powerful phone running on the first available 4G network (Clearwire) would represent a quantum leap forward in mobile computing.

Alas, after two days of using the phone in 4G country in the Northwest, I have the sense that the great phone is still looking for a great network. The Clearwire 4G network is definitely faster than the Sprint 3G network, but my tests suggest that it’s not 10 times as fast, nor as fast as advertised, nor fast enough to usher in a new wave of high-bandwidth mobile apps (such as videoconferencing). At this point anyway, the 4G signal will merely make the apps you already use in 3G run marginally faster. No revolution here yet.

Stay tuned for the final article in this series, which will explore the specific connection speeds I recorded on the EVO during my two days in the Northwest.

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