Sprint was first out of the gate with 4G way back in 2008. Now the carrier blankets 71 markets in 4G data with the help of partner Clearwire, including such major cities as Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. That's behind the 77 markets for Verizon Wireless and 170 for T-Mobile.
Sprint claims to offer 3 to 6 Mbps downloads on average with peak speeds up to 10 Mbps. Upload speeds tend to max out at 1 Mbps. Although Sprint's 4G speeds are solid, the lackluster momentum of Mobile WiMAX has spurred Sprint to ink a network-sharing agreement with LightSquared, which is rolling out a satellite-based LTE network. But consumers won't be able to reap the benefits of this deal any time in the near future.
As of this summer, Sprint offers 16 4G devices on its network, including five phones, one tablet, four mobile hotspots/routers, two laptops, and three USB adapters. Sprint also sells a 4G adapter for businesses that converts mobile broadband to Ethernet. The most exciting Sprint 4G gear right now includes the HTC EVO 3D phone (which includes a glasses-free 3D display) and Motorola Photon 4G phone (which has a dual-core CPU).
These are the 4G devices used for our testing:
HTC Shift 4G: $149
Sprint 3G/4G Modem 250U: Discontinued
Novatel MiFi 3G/4G: $79.99
Sprint's 4G gear performed fairly well, but overall the carrier's Mobile WiMax network finished third behind T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless. Across the three devices we tested in five cities, Sprint averaged a download rate of 3.9 Mbps and an upload rate of 814 Kbps on Speedtest.net. Both of these numbers beat AT&T, but T-Mobile notched a faster 4.7 Mbps down and 1.4 Mbps up. Sprint wasn't even close to Verizon's LTE network.
Sprint trailed T-Mobile in average website load times by a small amount (14 vs. 12.9 seconds) and was neck and neck with T-Mobile when downloading a large file from an FTP server (2.99 vs. 3.04 Mbps). Unfortunately, Sprint led all carriers with the number of times it failed to download or upload large files in a timely fashion with a grand total of 37 instances. This doesn't speak well to the reliability of Sprint's WiMax network.
In fact, our Atlanta-area tester often couldn't connect at 4G speeds unless she was very close to a window. Geographically, Sprint fared best in Chicago and New York, where it averaged 6.8 and 4.7 Mbps downloads and uploads, respectively on Speedtest.net. Orlando proved to be the worst 4G location, with 1.7 Mbps and 700 Kbps downloads and uploads.
The best thing about Sprint is that you get truly unlimited 4G data: No tiers, no overage charges. Sprint also offers a very good selection of 4G phones and other devices. However, you have to be willing to live with speeds that pale in comparison with Verizon's LTE technology and also trail T-Mobile's rapidly evolving HSPA+ network. Based on our testing, Sprint 4G also isn't as reliable as competing carriers the further you go indoors. Overall, though, if you don't want to watch that data meter, Sprint's 4G network is a pretty good value.