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4G shootout: Verizon LTE vs. Sprint WiMax

February 3, 2011 06:00 AM ET

Getting connected

To connect to a 4G network, you'll need either a 4G-capable phone or tablet or a 4G modem for your laptop. For testing the Clear WiMax service, I used a Sierra Wireless AirCard 250U modem, which plugs into a laptop's USB slot. You'll find more details about it in my earlier story, but its high points include its small size and ability to swivel for better reception.

LG VL600 4G USB Modem
LG VL600 4G USB Modem

To get onto Verizon's 4G network, I used another USB modem — the LG VL600, which works with Windows 7, Vista and XP machines. (Verizon also offers a smaller Pantech modem, and several LTE-capable smartphones are coming soon.)

At 1.8 oz. and 3.9 x 1.5 x 0.6 in., the long and narrow VL600 is a tenth of an ounce lighter but much larger than Sprint's 2-inch round Sierra Wireless AirCard, and it sticks out an annoying 3 inches from a laptop.

On the plus side, the VL600 has a handy fold-open cover and an LED that glows different colors to show power and connection status. However, it lacks a nice feature offered by Sprint's Sierra Wireless modem — a jack for connecting an external antenna for a boost in places with a weak signal.

Like the Sierra Wireless modem, Verizon's LG VL600 can connect to both 4G and 3G networks; however, you can't manually switch between 3G and 4G as you can with Sprint's modem. If a Verizon 4G network is present, the VL600 automatically connects to it without letting you opt for 3G. For areas that don't have 4G coverage, the modem works fine in slower 3G mode.

Verizon VZAccess Manager
Verizon's VZAccess Manager

Setting up the LG VL600 modem took about 5 minutes, including getting an online update of Verizon's VZAccess Manager software. The program presents a clear view of the modem's status and the network's activity and can be used to connect to Wi-Fi networks in addition to Verizon's cellular networks.

On the down side, there's a bug in the VZAccess program that tells you that the modem's SIM card is invalid. If you ignore the error message and set the software to automatically connect you, it works fine. Verizon says that it will fix the problem in the next release of the program.

When used continuously, connecting to the Internet with the VL600 modem over Verizon LTE cut the battery life of my ThinkPad W510 test system to 2 hours and 20 minutes. That's 36% less than the 3 hours and 10 minutes I got when using a Wi-Fi connection but 18% better than the measly 1 hour and 59 minutes the Sierra Wireless 250U modem averaged over Sprint's WiMax network. (Next: Speed tests)

How I tested

To see how Verizon's LTE network performs, I repeated the tests I'd done a few weeks earlier with Sprint's WiMax network:

At the same 10 locations in New York and New Jersey, I used an LG VL600 modem to connect my Lenovo ThinkPad W510 laptop to Verizon's LTE-based 4G system. After noting the signal strength of the connection, I used Ookla's utility to measure latency as well as download and upload speeds. Finally, I watched an online HD video and listened to an Internet radio station.

I measured each result three times and returned to each location at three different times of the day over a 10-day period. I also used Verizon's LTE connections on a commuter train and as a passenger in a car.

To see how connecting with the modem over the 4G network affects battery life, I ran some tests back at my lab. To get a baseline measurement, I connected the fully charged ThinkPad W510 to my office's Wi-Fi network, set it to play an Internet radio station continuously and timed how long the system's battery ran for; the screen was set so it wouldn't go blank and the audio level was set to 6 out of 10. I then repeated this test three times with the charged computer connected to the 4G network.

— Brian Nadel

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