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Network World - 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.
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):
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.
Here's the head-to-head comparison:
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.