4G faceoff: ThunderBolt vs. Galaxy

With 4G smartphones hitting the market in a big way, we decided to test a couple of devices to get an overall sense of how 4G compares with 3G, how specific devices perform and how the underlying networks differ.

T-Mobile's data cap embrace leaves Sprint as lone 'unlimited' 4G carrier 

We got our hands on the Verizon Wireless ThunderBolt and the Samsung Galaxy S from T-Mobile. (Sprint was invited to participate, but was unable to provide a device.) Here's what we learned in general about 4G wireless networks (watch a slideshow version of this story):

A quick guide to 4G phones

1. 4G capability on any device will add significant bandwidth if you're in an area with good 4G coverage. However if you stray beyond the 4G coverage area, you revert back to 3G speeds. So, check carefully with any carrier that claims 4G service to make sure it has coverage where you need it.

2. 4G isn't available in every market served by these companies, and even in markets where it is available, it's not everywhere in that market. I conducted this series of tests in northern Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. I found that locations even a couple of miles apart had significant performance differences depending on where I was in the signal pattern.

In general, you can assume that if you're on or near the edge of a 4G coverage area, your data speeds won't be as fast as they would be in the center of a coverage area.

3. It's also important to know what the limits of these devices are. T-Mobile claims that the top speed of its 4G network is about 21Mbps, theoretically. Verizon Wireless claims about half of that. In actual testing, Verizon consistently delivered test files in about half the time as T-Mobile.

4. It's also worth noting that in spite of the claims by all of the companies, none of these devices, nor their respective networks, is really 4G. The proposed ITU standard for 4G requires a speed of 100Mbps for mobile devices, and that's not available right now to any carrier, anywhere.

5. Both of the 4G smartphones we tested have more in common than they have obvious differences. Both are Android 2.2 devices, they both have most of the standard Android apps pre-loaded, and both feature large screens that are clearly designed for showing video.

Both come with video apps that include a means of downloading and streaming video, and both can use videoconferencing apps so that you can look at whomever you're calling, assuming they have a similar service. Skype's Qik is available for both devices, and they can call each other, most other Android smartphones, as well as iPhones, BlackBerry and Nokia smartphones.

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Here's the head-to-head comparison:

T-Mobile Samsung Galaxy S 4G

The T-Mobile Galaxy S 4G is the next step in T-Mobile's line of Galaxy S smartphones. The company also sells the Samsung Vibrant, which is a similar device that supports 3G speeds. The Galaxy S 4G features a 4-inch AMOLED screen and is powered by a Samsung 1GHz Cortex A8 Hummingbird processor. The device includes two cameras, a 5-megapixel rear camera, and a VGA resolution front camera intended for video chats and little else.

T-Mobile claims in its marketing information that the Galaxy S 4G is theoretically capable of reaching the speed of 21Mbps for downloads. This level of throughput does not seem to be available in the real world, even when we tested the device in a location recommended by T-Mobile as having extremely fast 4G service.

While measuring actual download speeds on mobile devices is fairly meaningless since there are so many variables that can affect any user, on any device at any location at any time, there did not seem to be any indication that the speeds suggested by T-Mobile were actually available.

However, the device does have a full set of other features, including T-Mobile's WiFi calling that allows you to make voice calls using a WiFi hotspot - something can be very useful inside buildings, outside the reach of T-Mobile's network or in countries outside the U.S. where roaming charges can be significant.

The Galaxy S 4G will also work as a mobile WiFi hotspot supporting up to five devices. Using this hotspot capability provided noticeably better throughput than you'd otherwise find in most public hotspots, provided you're in an area with good T-Mobile data coverage.

The T-Mobile Galaxy S 4G is smaller and lighter than many similar Android phones. It weighs a little over 4 ounces, and it's less than a half-inch thick. The Galaxy S 4G comes with a number of bandwidth intensive apps installed as well as a copy of the film "Inception." T-Mobile provides a high definition television service and you can access other video services as well. The phone was easy to use, as you'd expect from a modern Android device. You can show the full set of applications by swiping your finger sideways.

The only significant shortcoming worth mentioning is the lack of a flash for the rear-facing camera. Other versions of the Galaxy S have a flash, but for some reason T-Mobile chose to leave it off of this device. Other than that, the keyboard was easy to type on, considering it's an on-screen keyboard. There seemed to be a delay when you rotated the phone from portrait to landscape mode while typing, and in two tries the rotation of the keyboard caused the phone to exit the application. However the data previously typed wasn't lost when you returned to it.

Besides those relatively minor concerns, there are two other issues that prospective buyers must take into consideration. The first is T-Mobile's relatively scant coverage in the U.S. It's easy to find yourself without coverage even in some fairly urban areas. In addition, T-Mobile's parent company, Deutsche Telekom, has agreed to sell T-Mobile USA to AT&T, which could affect the current 4G service as AT&T changes over to LTE from its existing HSPA+ network.

Verizon's HTC ThunderBolt

The HTC ThunderBolt is the first 4G LTE smartphone from Verizon Wireless. It joins a collection of other 4G devices, including a mobile hotspot and a laptop aircard, which were released several months ago. As long as Verizon's 4G LTE service was available, this smartphone performed well. However it is noticeably larger and bulkier than the Samsung Galaxy S 4G. Part of the reason is certainly the larger 4.3 inch capacitive touch screen.

However, it's worth noting that the ThunderBolt weighs about 5.8 ounces - about 30% more than the T-Mobile Galaxy S 4G. It's also somewhat thicker - slightly over a half inch. The extra heft is unlikely to cause a problem unless you carry the device in a shirt pocket. Part of the reason for the extra thickness is likely due to the "kickstand" that can be swung out from the back of the device. This is primarily intended to allow video viewing without having to hold the device at the correct angle while you watch. However it also proved useful when using the phone while navigating.

Unlike some other CDMA-based phones, notably the Verizon Wireless iPhone 4, you can use voice and data simultaneously with the ThunderBolt as long as you're using LTE. The device has a number of other useful features, including a WiFi mobile hotspot, support for DLNA which allows you to access DLNA-equipped servers on your network, and an 8 megapixel camera on the rear. The front camera runs at 1.3 megapixels.

While Verizon Wireless describes the display as "immense" it's only slightly larger than the display on most other similar Android phones. You can see the difference if you hold the devices next to each other, but short of that the difference is not obvious. The ThunderBolt's more noticeable difference was in screen sensitivity where it was possible to trigger a letter on the keyboard without actually touching the screen. You can open the applications screen by touching an arrow at the bottom of the screen, and then swiping your finger up and down to expose the entire list.

A more significant difference when using the devices side-by-side is the level of performance. I downloaded identical files from Gmail to both devices from a variety of locations that had strong 4G signals. As long as I was in a 4G area for both, the ThunderBolt was consistently faster by a wide margin. Normally the difference was about double - the ThunderBolt was usually twice as fast in downloads, sometimes faster.

While it's unlikely that most people will spend a lot of time in varying locations downloading photos of the Frankfurt, Germany, airport data center as I did, the fact remains that the improved performance made the ThunderBolt able to deliver data-intensive results more quickly and seamlessly. This was obvious during navigation, for example, when the phone had to fetch new information from its cloud-based servers and did so without any obvious delay. Video streaming was smooth and usually without interruption, but the same was also true of the Galaxy S 4G.

One quick note of caution: During the period of this review, the Verizon Wireless LTE network went down nationwide. The ThunderBolt, instead of automatically reverting to 3G, fell back to an earlier version of EVDO, known as 1X.

To get back to 3G, you have to enter the settings menu and tell the phone to use EVDO Rev. A. If you do that, you'll get the standard Verizon 3G network, and most functions will operate normally.

Unfortunately, it's not clear that most users will know how to shift the phone to 3G operation manually, and as a result will be stuck with 1X for data speeds. This works, but it's fairly slow.

The Verizon ThunderBolt shows great promise. While the software should be revised so that the phone automatically reverts to 3G when 4G service is lost, the likelihood is that an event such as the LTE outage will be quite rare. Beyond that, the only quibble is regarding the weight and thickness of the ThunderBolt. It can't be a result of the battery, which is a relatively meager 1400 mAh, compared to the 1650 mAh battery in the Galaxy S 4G.

I found that this device was in need of a charge long before similar devices. Frequently a day's worth of normal use would deplete the battery. Of course, battery life depends on a number of factors, including the type of use, the distance to a cell tower and what services you have turned on. But even taking these into account, the battery life was shorter than I'd normally expect.

Assuming that the Verizon Wireless LTE network returns to reliable operation, there's a lot to be said for the ThunderBolt. The phone comes with a wide variety of features that may be useful, and it comes with software that's not readily available elsewhere. Verizon Wireless has the advantage of being a truly nationwide carrier, meaning that it's much less likely that you'll find an area without service than you will with T-Mobile.

However, it's worth noting that both phones are relatively equivalent other than their respective size. They run the same version of Android, have access to the same app store, and their ease of use is essentially identical. The one you choose will depend on how you plan to use it. Verizon Wireless gives you superior coverage in the U.S. T-Mobile's phones work anywhere in the world.

The other question has to do with the future of these devices. Will Verizon's network regain its reliability? Will T-Mobile remain independent? We don't know the answer to either question.

Rash is a freelance writer living in Virginia. He can be reached at wrash@mindspring.com

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This story, "4G faceoff: ThunderBolt vs. Galaxy" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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