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