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Telstra's 4G Vs 3G: Is It Worthwhile?

4G is fast, or so the traditional orthodoxy goes. But how fast is it, and is the jump over 3G on the same network actually noticeable? There was only one way for me to find that out.

Elly’s review of the HTC Velocity 4G got me thinking about data speeds. There’s little doubt that 2012 will be the year of 4G — whether it’s real 4G or not — with Telstra’s service already up and running, Optus due to trial through to April and Vodafone… well, Vodafone was originally intending to launch by the end of 2011 and then didn’t. They’ve been rather quiet since the start of the year, but presumably Vodafone-branded 4G services will emerge at some point in 2012.

For now, though, if you want 4G (or at least Telstra’s LTE variant thereof, an argument I’ll address another day), then Telstra is your only bet. But what if you’re already on a Telstra 3G product? Is the difference enough in the real world to make the upgrade worthwhile?

Testing a 4G USB modem (as I’ve done in the past) or a 4G phone (as Elly did) in isolation is one thing, but what I was interested in seeing was the level to which actual 4G coverage makes a data difference on the same network, and with the existing devices on the market. So I gathered up a Velocity 4G, Telstra 4G USB Modem and two 3G smartphones running on Telstra’s network and got to checking out some real world speeds.

The Test Kit

1x Telstra 4G USB Modem (connecting to a Macbook Air)
1x HTC Velocity 4G Smartphone
1x Samsung Galaxy S II
1x Apple iPhone 4S

The key thing here is that all four devices were running from Telstra SIMs on Telstra’s own network, with the latter two smartphones obviously being 3G only. I tested in three locations. The first two were within Telstra’s 4G coverage zone. Firstly, Gizmodo’s Circular Quay office, where typically the reception speeds are average to poor. Secondly, outdoors at Sydney’s Martin Place to minimise the amount of building interference with the signal.

Telstra’s 4G implementation drops to 3G (and in the case of the HTC Velocity 4G, dual channel HSPA+) outside of its stated 4G zones; it’s fair to presume that the other carriers will follow the same drop-down-to-3G strategy, but what does that do to speeds?

To ensure that tests would use 3G only, my final tests were conducted north of the Harbour Bridge in Hornsby, well outside Telstra’s claimed 4G coverage area.

Tests were run using Speedtest.net connecting to the same Sydney-based server. For the USB modem, Speedtest was run on Safari, while the iOS and Android apps were used for the smartphones.

As a side note: Every time I do this, somebody comments that they don’t trust Speedtest.net’s figures. In this case, it’s not just the figures that I’m interested in; it’s the difference in scale, and for that, using the same tool is a vital testing component. Likewise, the test 3G phones were used not to prove a point between them, but because they were what I happened to have at the time of testing.

Each test was run three times to get an average ping, download and upload speed. As with any mobile test, there’s an amount of variability at play that I can’t entirely accommodate for; at the same time, these are real world recorded speeds.

The Results

Firstly, the results from within Gizmodo’s own walls, where mobile signal is (to put it politely) not always the best.

Device Average Ping (ms) Average Download (Mbps) Average Upload (Mbps)
HTC Velocity 4G 89 11.73 5.84
Telstra 4G USB Modem 37.66 12.84 10.74
Samsung Galaxy S II 685 0.57 0.09
Apple iPhone 4S 159.33 1.1 0.383

Then the results from Martin Place, where the outdoor setting should deliver optimal results.

Device Average Ping (ms) Average Download (Mbps) Average Upload (Mbps)
HTC Velocity 4G 55 11.9 10.89
Telstra 4G USB Modem 33 11.56 13.41
Samsung Galaxy S II 101 2.43 2.41
Apple iPhone 4S 71 2.91 0.51

And finally the ’3G-only’ Hornsby scores.

Device Average Ping (ms) Average Download (Mbps) Average Upload (Mbps)
HTC Velocity 4G 80.33 7.959 2.44
Telstra 4G USB Modem 35.66 8.29 2.4
Samsung Galaxy S II 96 2.17 0.86
Apple iPhone 4S 96 5.14 1.84

The Conclusion

Once again, just to be clear: As with any wireless test, conditions and results can vary, as can congestion on the network. This is particularly true of 4G, where fewer devices will be filling up the network compared to 3G.

The 4G scores are, indeed, faster and better than their 3G counterparts; there’s no great shock there, although it is worth noting that if it’s just speed and not smartphone ability you’re after, the USB connection was not only faster, but consistently so; the single fastest download speed was achieved in the Gizmodo offices at 18.78Mbps, whereas there was more variance when using the Velocity 4G.

Switching over to 3G still shows a decent level of differentiation; while as Elly noted there are new 4G phones on the horizon, if you’re in need of a little extra speed, whether it’s on a smartphone, USB or tethered, Telstra’s current 4G solutions do appear to offer value for now.


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