"AT&T is lying about 4G. Shamelessly," PCMag.com's Sascha Segan writes, after AT&T's 4G phones prove slower than its 3G phones in tests.
"If I see another press release from T-Mobile with the words 'theoretical peak download speeds,' I think I might jump out the nearest window," Laptop Magazine's Mark Spoonauer declares as he ruthlessly brands each carrier's mobile broadband efforts with a letter grade (T-Mobile gets a C+). "Consumers could care less about how fast something is theoretically. You should tell them the speeds they should expect in the real world."
Mobile broadband promises an ideal: Blazing-fast Internet (like the kind you might enjoy at home -- hence the "broadband" tag) that you can tap into wherever you can get a cell phone signal. But real-life speeds don't always live up to the promise, we found in our latest report on mobile broadband.
For example, when PC World tests the four major mobile broadband networks in 13 cities nationwide, speeds are all over the map, seesawing from a relatively sluggish 1 Mbps to a sprightly 6 Mbps. Depending on where you live and what device you use, your mobile broadband could fly -- or crawl, we found:
4G beats 3G -- usually. All of the major carriers offer what they call 4G (fourth-generation) mobile broadband. But not all 4G is created equal. Verizon's LTE (Long-Term Evolution) 4G network proves fastest in tests, trailed by Sprint and Clearwire's shared WiMAX network and AT&T and T-Mobile's HSPA+ technology.
How fast is fast? Here are some real-life average download speeds reported by PC World, Wired, MSNBC.com and Computerworld in the most recent 2011 tests, using both smartphones and laptops (laptop speeds tend to be faster) in a range of 3G and 4G locations nationwide:
AT&T: 1.1 to 2.5 Mbps
Clearwire Clear: 2.2 Mbps
Sprint: 1.5 to 4.4 Mbps
T-Mobile: 2.3 to 8.9 Mbps
Verizon: 1 to 17 Mbps
Of all these providers, Verizon usually gets the nod as the fastest and most reliable mobile broadband. In a Seattle smartphone test, "Verizon's 4G download speeds were greater than 10 Mbps about 90 percent of the time," Wired reports. Uploads always take longer, but Verizon always manages between 5 and 10 Mbps in the test -- "faster than every other carrier's average download speeds by 37 percent."
To get a feel for how fast this is, compare the numbers to your own home broadband. (You can check your speed at SpeedTest.net.) The average home wired broadband download speed in the U.S. is 3 Mbps, according to the most recent 2010 study by SpeedMatters.org, although about half of wired customers get speeds of 4 to 25 Mbps.
So what's mobile broadband good for? If you can get 3G, experts say that will typically suffice for routine web browsing. You'll also be able to download songs, do video conferencing and stream some videos, say experts at ConsumerReports.org and About.com -- although Netflix movies lack the crisp resolution of a DVD version in ConsumerReports.org's test of the 3G iPad, and YouTube videos look blocky. (Note: ConsumerSearch is owned by About.com, but the two don't share an editorial affiliation.)
4G's trickier, as some carriers run so much slower than others. Reviews do find Verizon Mobile Broadband often as fast as (or faster than) a wired home connection, both upstream and downstream. In other words, fast enough to do pretty much whatever you want -- until you hit your wireless carrier's data cap, that is. Before you cut the cord and rely solely on your mobile broadband, check out our blog post about the pitfalls that can spoil that plan.