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

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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.

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