3G vs. 4G: Real-world speed tests

Just how much faster is 4G, anyway? We compare Sprint's 3G and 4G networks.

Mobile workers who need always-on Internet access -- and who don't want to rely on public Wi-Fi hot spots -- often turn to a cellular network for connectivity, using either a 3G-equipped notebook or an external 3G modem. Now carriers are touting faster fourth-generation wireless networks as the next phase of mobile computing. But to make use of the new networks, you have to buy a 4G-capable device or modem and a new, often more-expensive service plan.

Is it worth the hassle and expense of upgrading to 4G? To answer that question, I pitted Sprint's WiMax service -- the first 4G service available in the New York metropolitan area, where I live -- against its 3G network in a series of real-world tests (see "How I tested").

Sprint 4G: What you need

As is the case with any wireless service, you need three things to get access: a network, a device for connecting and a service plan. Available in 62 cities, from Everett, Wash., to Tampa, Fla., Sprint's WiMax wireless service in the U.S. is known as Clear and is operated by Clearwire; it's based on the IEEE 802.16e specification. The network provides adequate coverage on the coasts (see map), but it's hit or miss in the middle of the country, and there are 12 states with no Sprint 4G service at all.

When you can't get a 4G connection, the fallback is to use Sprint's 3G network, which is based on EV-DO (Evolution Data Optimized) technology. It's available in all 50 states, although -- as is the case with other 3G networks -- there are huge holes in the upper Midwest. Sprint says that over the next two years, it will fill out a national 4G network.

In contrast, T-Mobile currently offers an upgraded High Speed Packet Access (HSPA+) 3G network. AT&T is also busy rolling out HSPA+ and is testing LTE (Long Term Evolution) technology for a planned commercial 4G rollout over the next two years.

Meanwhile, Verizon has just launched its own LTE network on a trial basis with limited coverage in 38 cities and 60 airports. The company says the network will be complete nationwide in 2013. Although it's not available in my suburb, Verizon LTE has been rolled out to some parts of the New York metro area, and I hope to test it in multiple locations soon.

Sierra Wireless 250U USB modem
Sierra Wireless 250U USB modem

The second part of the 4G puzzle is the connection device. The Sierra Wireless AirCard 250U modem that I used for testing weighs just 1.9 oz., connects to a laptop via a USB port, and can be folded up to less than an inch thick when not in use. The disk-shaped receiver, which measures about 2 in. across, can rotate and swivel up and down to get better reception. The device has a list price of $250, but it's free with a two-year Sprint contract.

The 250U works with systems running Windows 7, Vista or XP, or Mac OS X 10.5 or 10.6. Setting up the 250U on my Lenovo ThinkPad W510 with Windows 7 took about 10 minutes; it connected to the network on the first try.

Next: Software, service plan and speed tests

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