4G phone vacation shootout

March 18, 2011: 12:45 PM ET

I'm currently on vacation in Florida (or at least my wife keeps telling me I am) but I couldn't help but put together a 4G phone comparison.

As of yesterday, the release of the Verizon (VZ) Thunderbolt meant that all four major US networks have phones that purport to be 4G.  I happen to have brought a device (or two) from each network and over the past week, I have been using phones exclusively to get online around the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale area.

Clockwise from top left: Dell Streak, Samsung Epic 4G, Motorola Atrix 4G, Galaxy S, Verizon Thunderbolt and EVO

The devices I have are Sprint's (S) EVO 4G and Epic 4G, T-Mobile's Galaxy S and Dell Streak tablet, AT&T's ATRIX and a Verizon Thunderbolt.

At my parents' inland condo, only AT&T (T) and T-Mobile phones claim to have 4G.  Their version of 4G is of course a slightly faster version of the 3G HSPA called HSPA+.  For some reason, the Dell (DELL) Streak 7 can pick up 4G but won't tether - it has been relegated to car GPS duties because of this.  That means the ATRIX and the Galaxy S are my 4G home tethering device choices.

The results aren't even close.  AT&T's 4G on the ATRIX can't hold a candle to T-Mobile's 4G speed, especially when it comes to upload speed.  I get about double the speed 6Mb vs 3Mb in this particular area, but in upload speed, I am at 1Mb for T-Mobile vs. 200K on AT&T.  That's where it really hurts – especially for submitting work (like this post).  PC Mag has a pretty stinging piece on why that is.  The short is that AT&T's 4G isn't any better than its 3G, and often it is worse.

So for the past week, the family has been tethering on the T-Mobile Galaxy S with some pretty impressive results. Unbeknown to me, my son was watching Netflix on the iPad without issue as my wife and I were working and browsing the web at the same time.  We can also watch Hulu at night as well as full screen YouTube videos without any noticeable delays or sputtering.  Obviously, if you aren't on unlimited data plans, you'll want to watch your data usage.  Sprint and T-Mobile both offer unlimited so head there if this is what you are after.

Sprint and Verizon's 4G works when you get near the coast and it is much faster than anything I've found on AT&T.  Amazingly, when we were at the (Hollywood) beach yesterday, I fired up the Thunderbolt and got some head-scratching upload scores including a few over 40Mb.  To put that into perspective, that's faster than just about any commercially available wired ISP service.

At the beach, upload speeds ranged from 25Mb-40Mb on Verizon's LTE

Sprint's WiMAX 4G also fares well where it is available.  Before I had this Thunderbolt unit, I've relied on Sprint's 4G EVO service for tethering needs in New York.  It is easily faster than T-Mobile's and AT&T's in the city.  Outside the city however, AT&T 3G is usually my fastest option.

Plopping down at a beachfront cafe to catch up on some email, I was able to get a faster connection on my Verizon Thunderbolt than I was on the Sprint EVO 4G.  Both, however, were faster than the cafe's advertised Wifi.  AT&T and T-Mobile were both slower.

At dinner in Miami, I had a similar experience.  EVO (1st) and Thunderbolt were much faster than AT&T and T-Mobile.

As for the phones themselves, I'll have more on the Thunderbolt and its Verizon VCAST App Store soon (Spoiler: It is a Verizon EVO).  I've been using the T-Mobile Galaxy S for a few weeks and it is mostly a clone of the Vibrant (review), with a front facing camera, DoubleTwist Media manager, and of course the 4 Gs.  I reviewed the ATRIX here, the Epic 4G here, EVO here and the Dell Streak here.  They are all solid Android devices, with the possible exception of the latter - though the Streak did make for a great (overpriced) dedicated GPS for the week.

So overall, I'd say this – if you are planning to use your phone as your Internet connection when on vacation in South Florida (or elsewhere):

1. It can easily be done with a 4G phone as long as there is good coverage in the area, consult your carrier maps to make sure.  In fact, a 3G phone should be enough for most users, unless your kid likes to fire up Netflix on the iPad.

2. In my experience, Sprint and Verizon's 4G speed (where available) absolutely blow away anything from AT&T.  T-Mobile's 4G is good because it is available in more places in the area, however.  I even saw T-Mobile 4G on our trip to the Everglades (with patches of EDGE).  I didn't check the speed so I can't verify how fast it was.

3. Consult coverage maps.  Carrier services vary widely by area.  Even then, coverage inside structures often varies widely.

The takeaway for me was that our family no longer has to pay for wired Internet service (or Cable TV service!) in our vacation spots.  Our 4G phone now can compensate and in some cases is actually faster than a dedicated wired network (though latency may make connections seem slower).  Since both my wife and I have Internet phones on different carriers, we've got some redundancy and better chances of getting good service. With tethering plans starting at $20-$30, going to 4G over paying a wired plan is a no brainer.

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About This Author
Seth Weintraub
Seth Weintraub

Google went from searching the Web to worming its way into nearly every facet of business and government. Seth Weintraub unveils where the company is going, who it's competing with, who it's about to compete with and how market forces push the company to veer or adhere to its Don't Be Evil motto. For 15 years, Weintraub was a global IT director for a number of companies before becoming a blogger.

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