With smartphone innovation moving at a breakneck pace, new tablets hitting the market all the time, and an increasing number of people using cellular modems and mobile hotspots to get online on the go, access to speedy data coverage is becoming more essential every day.
But you shouldn't believe the hype: All "4G" is not the same. In a 21-city test across the United States, we found that Verizon's new 4G LTE network is much faster than other mobile Web options, with speeds that often exceed home Internet connections.
There's no question that 4G is spreading across the nation, but there's a lot of confusion over what 4G exactly is. AT&T, MetroPCS, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless aren't just using varied technologies; sometimes they're implementing the same technology very differently. So we sent six drivers on a cross-country road trip in Ford cars with lots of mobile phones and custom software designed by network testing firm Sensorly to see just how fast these 4G Internet connections really are. (See How We Tested for more details.)
Last year we tested with laptops. For our second annual test, we switched to phones, to more accurately reflect how Americans are using the mobile Internet. According to research firm NPD, as of the first quarter of 2011, more than half of all new mobile phones purchased in the U.S. were smartphones, and analysts have projected that will grow.
We didn't test voice quality or dropped calls, which we've already surveyed, as part of our annual Readers' Choice Awards. The tests for this story were all about mobile Internet. We ran more than 140,000 tests in 21 cities. Not all the networks were available in all the cities, as you'll see on the individual city pages. Most notably, cities generally have either Cricket or MetroPCS as a local option.
We didn't test coverage either, but our technology partner Sensorly does. Head over to the company's website, or download the Sensorly app from the Android Market to see crowdsourced coverage maps for all the major U.S. mobile carriers, enhanced with the data from our test drives.
Bear in mind, mobile networks are constantly changing, and almost always for the better. And because speeds vary based on tower location, network load, device used, and even the weather, we can't predict performance in a specific location; rather, we're giving a snapshot of a few days' worth of usage in several locations across a metro area. So without further delay, we give you the winners:
Northeast: Verizon 4G
Verizon's new 4G network covers many of the Northeast's top metro areas, including Boston, the Hartford-New York-Philadelphia corridor, Pittsburgh, and the Baltimore-Washington corridor. We tested in Pittsburgh, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC. In those areas, while T-Mobile's HSPA+ 21 network is also speedy, Verizon's 4G is by far the fastest. Outside the metro areas, AT&T offered the best balance of speed and coverage.
Southeast: Verizon 4G
In the Southeast, we tested in Nashville, Charlotte, Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Miami/Fort Lauderdale. Verizon's 4G network came out the fastest in every city, while outside the cities, AT&T and T-Mobile virtually tied for best results. Pick Verizon for speed and AT&T for coverage.
Central: Verizon 4G
Our Central region included our only city without Verizon 4G, Kansas City. We also tested in Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Oklahoma City and Dallas. Even with a zero score for Kansas City, Verizon 4G was the fastest network for the region. (It also covers a large area around Chicago and in central Oklahoma.) The Central cities were some of the nation's fastest, overall. We saw leading speeds in Chicago, Dallas, and Detroit.
West: Verizon 4G
Verizon's 4G system was the fastest in the West as well. We tested in the states of Arizona, California, and New Mexico, as we couldn't get our drivers as far as the Northwest. Verizon 4G won every city it was in thanks to its stellar download speeds. Outside the cities, AT&T delivered the fastest connections, but Verizon's much slower 3G network was the most reliable.
Rural America: AT&T
For us, "rural America" included everywhere we drove that wasn't in one of our 21 metro areas—not only wide-open spaces in Arizona, but mid-sized cities like Macon, Georgia and Midland, Texas.
The new 4G networks are generally polka dots on the U.S. map, or bubbles around the nation's major cities. In the spaces between them, AT&T won the crown for the best balance of speed and consistency on its 3G, HSPA 7.2 network.
Nationwide: Verizon 4G
Overall, Verizon's LTE system is remarkably faster than the technologies AT&T, MetroPCS, Sprint and T-Mobile are currently using for "4G." Even with one hand tied behind its back—a 20-percent penalty to its speed score for its lack of rural coverage—Verizon's new 4G network trounced the other carriers. In many areas, it was even faster than some DSL or cable connections.
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