HTC Inspire for AT&T (left) HTC Thunderbolt for Verizon (right)

4G is 4G. Except when it’s not.

Earlier today I conducted a very off the cuff speed test of the HTC Thunderbolt, Verizon’s first 4G LTE smartphone. I did the test during my unboxing video of the device, using SpeedTest.net’s Android app. The test yielded some pretty wild results, including upload speeds in excess of 25 Mbps. If it smells like a fish, it’s usually a fish: Turns out the app simply can’t deal with Thunderbolt’s speed, and as I thought, the results were useless.

So here I am in a cafe near my office in Oakland, CA, where I pitted Thunderbolt against one of AT&T’s first 4G smartphones, the HTC Inspire 4G. These phones are very similar in terms of design and functionality, both featuring Android 2.2 with HTC’s Sense UI, Qualcomm processors, and 4G connectivity. The major difference between the two lies in the networks they operate on: Inspire uses AT&T’s HSPA+ network for “4G”, while Thunderbolt uses Verizon’s LTE network for its version of “4G.”

Since both 4G services are up and running here in my part of the East Bay, I decided to put them to a head-to-head test. For the sake of simplicity, I stuck with SpeedTest.net’s service for now, setting both devices to use a test server in nearby San Francisco. The only hitch was since Thunderbolt borked SpeedNet’s Android app, I had to test it in WiFi Hotspot mode using my Macbook Air’s browser. So I ran the Hotspot test using both Thunderbolt and Inspire, from the very same table in the very same cafe in the very same town. Then I ran the SpeedTestapp on Inspire just for fun. Here’s what I found out:

AT&T 4G

Verizon 4G

  • My median speed on Verizon’s LTE network was 8.85 Mbps down / 3.68 up / 54ms Latency (WiFi Hotspot mode)
  • My median speed on AT&T’s HSPA+ network was 2.16 Mbps down / 0.16 up / 171ms Latency (WiFi Hotspot mode)
  • For what it’s worth, I also got slightly different speeds using the SpeedTest.net app directly on AT&T’s network via Inspire: 1.79 Mbps down /  0.36 up / 249ms Latency
  • For what it’s worth, I also got noticably faster speeds using Verizon’s network via the Pantech USB modem: 11.82 Mbps down / 4.41 up / 42 ms latency.

So What Does It Mean?

Verizon 4G on Thunderbolt kicks AT&T 4G on Inspire up and down the block. It’s not even close. VZW’s LTE was roughly 4-5 times faster than AT&T’s HSPA+ in my very unscientific testing. I ran each test three times and took the median score. Then I ran each test a few more times to make sure my results were relatively consistent. They were, with the one exception of an extra-fast Verizon test run that broke 13 Mbps down using Thunderbolt as a hotspot.

I’m not getting the outlandish speeds on Thunderbolt today that I got on a Verizon Pantech 4G USB modem two weeks ago, nor am I getting those same speeds via the Pantech itself. But I’m not in the exact same location, either, so I’m going to withhold panic for now. Though I am concerned that even Big Red’s mighty network will slow under the increased load of a growing 4G user base.

Still, today’s tests fall well within the speeds advertised on Verizon’s 4G microsite (5-12 down / 2-5 up) and paint a pretty clear picture. 4G isn’t the same on every network and it isn’t available everywhere, so take this for what it’s worth, but for me sitting right here in Oakland, CA on a Wednesday afternoon in March, 2011, Verizon’s 4G network kicks AT&T’s 4G network up and down the block.

Can’t wait to throw Sprint and T-Mobile into the mix next (Jon already did an AT&T vs T-Mo showdown). I don’t have an active 4G device from either carrier right now, but Jon does and he’s going to be in town in a few days. 4G Speed Test, Round Two, here we come!