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Nationwide 4G Showdown

Which network offers the fastest speeds in America? The results are in.


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Although it looks like AT&T will eventually swallow T-Mobile--assuming the FCC approves the acquisition--the carrier continues to offer its own plans. Currently T-Mobile sells three types of 4G devices that support three different theoretical peak download speeds: 14.4 Mbps, 21 Mbps, and now 42 Mbps. Note that we said "theoretical." Real-word speeds are lower, but overall T-Mobile's network beat both AT&T's and Sprint's. Plus, even if you don't have a 42 Mbps-capable device, as T-Mobile increases speeds you should see better performance with all 4G phones, tablets, and modems the provider sells.

In terms of coverage, T-Mobile claims to have the nation's largest 4G network, offering its fastest 42 Mbps speeds in 152 markets. Overall, the carrier's 4G network is available in 191 markets covering more than 200 million people. As T-Mobile upgrades more of its network to 42 Mbps technology, the provider says it expects to reach over 170 million Americans by the end of the year.

4G Device Selection/ What We Tested

T-Mobile currently sells eight 4G smartphones, ranging in price from $79 to $249. The carrier also offers two tablets, two USB modems, and a 4G mobile hotspot.

We tested the following equipment to gauge the performance of T-Mobile's network:

Samsung Galaxy S 4G: $149

T-Mobile Jet 2.0: $29.99

T-Mobile 4G Mobile Hotspot: $79.99 after rebate

Performance

T-Mobile finished second in our 4G testing because it delivered solid speeds in most of our five locations. Overall, we saw an average download rate of 4.7 Mbps and uploads of 1.4 Mbps on Speedtest.net, much faster than AT&T. T-Mobile also beat Sprint by 600 Kbps on uploads and 800 Kbps on downloads, both considerable deltas.

When it came to downloading websites, T-Mobile was only marginally faster than Sprint (12.6 vs. 14 seconds). The two networks were very close with their average speed when downloading large files (both about 3 Mbps) but T-Mobile offered faster uploads of larger files (997 Kbps vs. 470 Kbps). Geographically, T-Mobile 4G was strongest in Chicago and New York, but the network delivered fairly consistent results overall.

Over the course of our five-city test drive, 28 times T-Mobile's network took more than 7 minutes to download or upload our large files. That seems like a lot, but T-Mobile was second best in this category, behind Verizon Wireless (24).

Verdict

Thanks to a large footprint and continuous upgrades, T-Mobile's 4G network has shown vast improvement over the past six months. The carrier delivered impressive speeds in our multi-city testing. T-Mobile also offers a broad portfolio of 4G-capable devices, even if it's sometimes difficult to tell which ones deliver the best max speeds without digging into the specs. While Verizon's LTE network is faster, T-Mobile currently offers solid 4G performance in more places at affordable prices.

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