Sprint's EVO Phone in a 4G Zone: How Fast Is It?

After all the excitement surrounding the release of the “first 4G smartphone”--Sprint’s EVO 4G (by HTC), I was excited to take the phone to a place that had a working 4G network so I could see how it performed in its preferred habitat. The nice people at PCWorld let me jump on a plane and fly up to (Sprint 4G partner) Clearwire’s own backyard in the Pacific Northwest to test the new phone on the fast 4G WiMax network.

I rented a car and visited six cities that have working 4G networks--Portland and Salem in Oregon; and Bellingham, Seattle, Snohomish, and Tacoma in Washington. I tested apps, ran speed tests, ate bad fast food, and heard way more talk radio than I wanted to, as I followed Interstate 5 around the Northwest.

This third and final installment of my story focuses on the connection speeds that I obtained while using the EVO 4G phone. For a play-by-play account of where and how well I connected to the 4G network, and of how well my test apps ran in 4G, please refer to Wednesday’s Washington account and Thursday’s Oregon account.

Reading the Chart

Upload and download speed data recorded for the 4G service networks at fixed locations in six cities in the Pacific Northwest: using a Sprint Evo 4G smartphone with a 4G connection (red columns); using the same Sprint Evo 4G smartphone with a 3G connection (blue columns); and using a laptop connected via a Sprint Overdrive hotspot (purple columns).
Click on the chart thumbnail at left to see the detailed results of my speed testing in the Northwest. The chart lists the 4G cities in the leftmost column. Moving rightward across the chart, you can see the speeds (upload and download) that I recorded with the same phone in each of 14 testing locations--first on a 4G connection (the red-background columns) and then on a 3G connection (the blue-background columns) in the same locations on the Sprint 3G network. Bear in mind that 4G service is supposed to be up to ten times faster than 3G service. For further comparison, on the far right of the chart (the purple-background columns) are the connections speeds achieved in the same locations by the Sprint Overdrive mobile hotspot, using the best network available.

The Tale of the Tests

While I believe that the 4G network is available everywhere in the Pacific Northwest that Sprint and Clearwire say it is, I was a bit disappointed with the speeds I recorded in the six cities I visited. Sprint says that EVO 4G phone users can expect to get download speeds in the range of 3 megabits per second to 6 mbps, with bursts of up to 10 mbps. But in my tests, I never recorded a download speed greater than 3 mbps on the EVO 4G, much less a burst of speed approaching 10 mbps.

My average 4G connection speed on the EVO phone across 14 testing locations in six cities was 1969 kbps--that is, roughly 2 mbps. Meanwhile, the average 4G upload speed on the phone was 586 kbps. These are not impressive speeds in comparison with those achievable on AT&T’s HSPA 7.2 3G network and T-Mobile’s rapidly spreading HSPA+ 3G network.

Portland Speed Averages

Portland test locations; click for full-size image.
My testing locations in Portland, Oregon (from left to right): Pioneer Square (city center), Portland State University campus, Grant Park, and Portland International Airport.
In Portland, with the EVO phone connected to 4G, I recorded an average download speed of 2.53 mpbs (2530 kbps) and an average upload speed of 822 kbps. In two testing locations (see the map at left), download speeds neared the baseline 3-mbps mark that Sprint says 4G users should see: 2.92 mbps at Pioneer Square in the city center, and 2.8 mbps across the river in Grant Park. In contrast, when I connected the phone to the Sprint 3G network, I saw average download speeds of 815 kbps and average upload speeds of 400 kbps.

Sprint was surprised at the low speed numbers I recorded in Portland, but a company executive I talked to had some explanations: “Even though we’ve launched Portland, we’re still in an aggressive build-out mode there,” says Iyad Tarazi, Sprint’s vice president of network development. “More locations will continue to have better capabilities and speeds as we continue to build out.”

On the other hand, when I used the Sprint Overdrive mobile hotspot to connect to the WiMax network in Portland, I saw some 4G speeds that really looked like 4G speeds. The device connected at an average download speed of 4.45 mbps and an average upload speed of almost 800 kbps. That’s more like it--and the improved performance of the YouTube high-quality video I watched on my laptop showed what a difference the higher speeds can make.

This finding, combined with the speeds that I recorded on the EVO 4G, lead me to suspect that Portland has, right now at least, a more robust 4G network than Seattle or any of the other cities I tested. My sense is that the network will continue to get faster.

Seattle Speed Averages

Seattle test locations; click for full-size image.
My Seattle testing locations (from left to right): Space Needle area, Business District (city center), East Lake Union, and University of Washington Campus.
I ran speed tests from four locations in Seattle (see the map at left). In my 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 the 4G network by going to the settings menu and manually instructing the phone to reconnect--a trick that seemed to work best outdoors--but in other cases the phone could not reconnect with 4G after lapsing into 3G mode.

On the 4G network in Seattle, the phone registered an average download speed of 1.9 mbps (1893 kbps to be exact), and an average upload speed of 222 kbps. At my testing location near the Space Needle, however, I couldn't get a 4G signal at all, so only three 4G scores are factored into the average. The best speed I saw in Seattle on the 4G-connected EVO phone came on 12th Street at city center, where I measured a download speed of 2.3 mbps (2320 kbps). When connected to Sprint's 3G network in Seattle, the EVO registered average speeds of 740 kbps for downloads and 465 kbps for uploads.

The Sprint Overdrive showed no speed advantage over the EVO in Seattle, connecting, on average, at 1528 kbps for downloads and 301 kbps for uploads.

The Others

I saw some solid 4G download speeds in Tacoma, Washington. The average download speed across two testing locations was about 2.5 mbps (2490 kbps), while the average upload speed was 710 kbps. In the remaining three cities (Bellingham, Washington; Snohomish, Washington; and Salem, Oregon), the 4G service did not seem to be as fast as the Sprint 3G service in town.

How I Tested

I tested the EVO 4G in six cities--Portland and Salem in Oregon; and Bellingham, Seattle, Snohomish, and Tacoma in Washington. In the smaller cities of Bellingham and Snohomish, I performed one set of tests at each city's center. I tested from two locations in Tacoma, Washington, and Salem, Oregon. In the larger cities of Portland and Seattle, I tested at four locations.

At each testing location, I measured the speed of the EVO 4G phone when connected to the Clearwire 4G network, and then I ran another test to see how fast the phone connected to Sprint’s 3G network in the same location and at the same time. For further comparison, I tested the connection speed on my laptop (running Windows 7) when connected to the best network available (3G or 4G) via the Sprint Overdrive mobile hotspot. In addition, I did some random testing with the EVO 4G to test the limits of the 4G network’s coverage.

I used an FCC-endorsed testing tool (Ookla) to gauge the upload and download speeds on the EVO phone, in both 3G and 4G modes. I used the desktop version of the same Ookla tool to determine the connection speeds on my laptop connected via the Sprint Overdrive mobile hotspot. In every case, I ran three consecutive speed tests, and then selected the best result of the three.

Now, a quick disclaimer. My speed tests are not scientific, and their results can't be taken as definitive. They simply relate the performance of the EVO phone on various 4G networks over two days of driving around, along with my thoughts about that performance versus similar devices and networks I've tested in the past. Testing wireless networks is very hit-or-miss in the first place: Performance depends on a lot of factors, including nearby buildings and other obstructions, the weather, and the number of other users on the network at the time of the test.

Sprint 4G More Talk Than Walk?

In the end I formed some clear impressions about the EVO 4G and the Clearwire 4G network. I love the phone, but I’m disappointed in its network connection.

But before putting all the blame on the Clearwire WiMAX network, it's fair to point out that the Sprint Overdrive hotspot routinely connected to the 4G network more readily, and at higher speeds, than the EVO phone when testing from the same locations and at roughly the same times. Across 14 testing locations, the Overdrive connected at about 2.5 mbps while the EVO averaged about 2 mbps. The performance difference in Portland was marked: the Overdrive hit download speeds averaging about 4.5 mbps, while the EVO phone hit average speeds of around 2.5 mbps. Ken Biba, CTO of the wireless engineering firm Novarum, speculates that the performance variance may be caused by differences in the quality of the WiMax chipsets or antennas inside the two devices. But, he stresses, more testing would be needed to determine the exact cause.

At any rate, Sprint makes much of having the first operational 4G network in the United States--an undeniable achievement--but it also talks about a set of new high-bandwidth applications that will become possible with the higher speeds offered by that network. And that’s the part that I find troubling: I have the impression that the 4G service is faster than 3G, but only marginally faster, and not so much faster as to make possible a new set of “killer apps.” And sadly, the network--and the phone’s connection to it--isn't fast enough to make the EVO into a game-changing, eye-opening, revolutionary communications device. The 4G-connected smartphone, at this point, will simply give the mobile apps that you already use a step up on performance.

“I think we’ve been really transparent about what 4G coverage means today, and the type of experience our customers will see,” says Sprint spokesperson Stephanie Vinge-Walsh.

“Sprint 4G isn’t everywhere and it’s not at its peak of performance yet. But with Sprint and Clearwire’s spectrum assets across the country, we have reason to be more confident than any other carrier in what we will be able to offer in terms of 4G speed, dependability, and overall experience when markets are fully rolled out,” Vinge-Walsh says.

At a Glance
  • The speedy HTC EVO 4G packs in some powerful specs and a variety of multimedia features into a stylish, minimalist design, but not everybody will get to enjoy one of its best features--4G connectivity. Read the full review


    • Superb 8-megapixel camera
    • Gorgeous, responsive display


    • 4G coverage isn't everywhere

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