The iPhone 4S is here. One of new, not-so-visible features? A re-spiffed antenna, and stuffed inside the AT&T 4S, new guts that (should) mean faster data speeds. But theoretical max speeds are not real world experiences. So which iPhone is the fastest: AT&T, Sprint or Verizon? And how does the 4S stack up against the most jacked Android phones?
We tested the iPhone 4S on AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon; the iPhone 4 on Verizon and AT&T; the Samsung Galaxy S II on Sprint and T-Mobile; the Motorola Droid Bionic on Verizon, and the HTC Amaze on Sprint.
None of the iPhones proclaim to run at "4G" speeds, although AT&T has billed phones with the same potential data speed as the 4S as "4G." What you consider 4G may differ from what somebody else calls 4G, and sure enough, every Android phone we tested is a 4G phone, according to their respective carriers.
Let's talk speed limits, theoretically. Verizon and Sprint's iPhones use CDMA EV-DO Rev A, which has a theoretical max download speed of 3.1Mbps. The old AT&T iPhone 4 was technically capable of hitting 7.2Mbps downstream. AT&T's iPhone 4S uses a version of HSPA+ with a max speed of 14.4Mbps downstream. For the non-iPhones, the Amaze 4G and Galaxy S II on T-Mobile also run on HSPA+, but a version that theoretically allows a peak downstream speed of 42Mbps. The Galaxy S II on Sprint uses WiMax for 4G speeds, while Verizon's Droid Bionic runs on its LTE network, which claims speeds of up to 12Mbps (though we've seen them go well above 20Mbps). Obviously, theoretical max speeds are not real world speeds. Which is what we wanted to check. (Is this alphabet soup of network standards confusing? Read this.)
This is just a spot test, from our roof in our downtown NYC offices. We have pretty strong signalage from every carrier (every phone showed max bars, and though bars can be slightly misleading as a measure, they're ballpark). Of course, some networks are stronger than others in certain areas, which is why we've got more comprehensive, diverse network testing on the way, in lotsa different locations. (For something a little wider reaching, check out—and participate in!—the great national network test.)
Method: We ran at least five speed tests for each to make sure we were getting good data, and then averaged the results.
(BTW, click on the charts to embiggen.)
Most important, to most of you anyway, are download speeds. No surprise, perhaps, the 4G phones massacred the iPhones, beating them by nearly 1000 percent. AT&T's faster theoretical speeds with its iPhone 4S are indeed faster in real life, beating Verizon and Sprint on the iPhone 4S. And yes, the 4S was definitely faster than 4 on AT&T. No real gain for Verizon—our theory is that Verizon iPhone 4 already had a tweaked antenna design, so it had less to gain.
Upload speeds on phones have gotten more and more important, considering how many of us are now syncing our high-res photos and HD videos back to the cloud. The Droid Bionic's crazyquickness is way beyond anything else, which is why we love us some LTE. The iPhone 4Ses' speeds make us sad though, particularly AT&T's. (We re-ran the tests many, many times to see if they weren't a fluke. Perhaps there was a problem with the tower near us.) Sprint's iPhone 4S had the best upload speed of those we tested, at 0.89Mbps.
Again, these are preliminary tests, but so far Sprint seems to average out the best of the iPhone 4Ses, with the second fastest downloads and fastest upload. Plus you get unlimited data. If all you care about is downstream and you've got good AT&T service, that's going to be your best bet. Of course, the bigger take away? iPhones are officially slowwwww when it comes to raw data speeds. Next year, right?