Review: Which 3G network is the best?

All 3G wireless broadband services are not created equal. We tested the top three from AT&T, Sprint and Verizon.

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Conclusions

All the cellular data networks are reasonably fast (although AT&T pretty much swept the field). In the course of my tests, I was able to click, connect and get online, on average, in about 4 seconds; download data at 614Kbit/sec.; and upload at 337Kbit/sec. That's more than enough for most basic on-the-road business applications such as e-mail, connecting to most Web sites and even watching online movies.

There are some things you should know, however, before you invest in cellular data. For one thing, using this technology can be a bit like being on a roller coaster. I found that I could be screaming along at 1.1Mbit/sec. only to have speeds slow to a crawl at 20Kbit/sec. a moment later. That's because, as with all cellular service, speed and reliability depend on a variety of conditions, such as how far you are from a cell tower, how many other users are connected in your vicinity and how much data they're moving.

In addition, while 3G service is undeniably convenient and reasonably fast, those benefits come at a price. Expect the cellular data modem to drain the notebook's battery. In my tests, the modems lowered battery life by an average of 40 minutes per charge. Plus, 3G service is not inexpensive. It costs about $60 for the plans that provide 5GB per month (or, in the case of Sprint, "unlimited" service -- to a point).

You should also be aware that, even though the service providers say they use the latest technology, their coverage is a mix of old and new. For example, on several occasions while testing on Sprint and Verizon, rather than connecting via the current-generation EV-DO 3G technology, I could see in the user interface that I was connected via 1xRTT, an older and slower technology. All three networks are currently building out their newest-generation networks, so it's a work in progress.

A final issue you should be aware of when considering 3G service is coverage. Although some sort of cellular data coverage is available in most midsize and larger cities, the top-of-the-line technology coverage may not necessarily be available as widely. And certain areas of the nation, such as the Great Plains, are virtually ignored by the three carriers when it comes to 3G. As a result, you'll need to scan each carrier's Web site to learn which technology is available in your particular area.

3G Networks -- Test Results

AT&T LaptopConnect Sprint Mobile Broadband Verizon BroadBandAccess
Peak download speed* 1.6Mbit/sec. 1.2Mbit/sec. 1.3Mbit/sec.
Average download speed* 755Kbit/sec. 494Kbit/sec. 592Kbit/sec.
Average upload speed* 484Kbit/sec. 294Kbit/sec. 232Kbit/sec.
Connection time** 3.0 seconds 3.7 seconds 5.6 seconds
Time to load Web page** .228 seconds .224 seconds .230 seconds
Battery life lowered by** 40 minutes 1 hour 20 minutes
*Higher is better. **Shorter is better.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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