There's 4G. And then there's 4G LTE. Available in 38 metro areas and 60 commercial airports at launch, Verizon's new network raises the bar for mobile broadband with speeds that approach or beat some home Internet connections. And the first device that taps into this record-breaking goodness is the LG VL600 ($99 after rebate on a two-year contract). Although Verizon expects data rates to drop once more people jump onto its network, we were amazed with the performance of this device. In our tests, the VL600 blew the doors off of Sprint's Mobile WiMax and T-Mobile's HSPA+ networks. However, we don't love everything about the experience--or the pricing plans Verizon offers. Is this speedster really a good deal?
Design and Compatibility
Measuring 3.9 x 1.5 x 0.6 inches and weighing 1.8 ounces, the LG VL600 is pretty bulky for a USB modem. We like the sturdy flip cover and four-color LED service indicator, but the device protruded a fair amount from our ThinkPad. We actually found ourselves shifting our notebook so as not to hit a fellow bus passenger's lap. Verizon also includes a handy clip and USB extension cable so you can attach this device to your monitor. The extension cord can also come in handy if the USB ports on your laptop are fairly close together.
We wanted to try the VL600 in a MacBook Air, but for now the device supports only Windows machines, and Verizon couldn't give us a firm date as to when it will fix this issue. That's a pretty big oversight given that Apple is now the third biggest seller of PCs in the U.S.
Coverage and Pricing
At launch Verizon Wireless says its 4G LTE network will cover 110 million people. You can get top speeds on the VL600 in 38 major metropolitan areas (including Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco) and 60 commercial airports. Sprint offers Mobile WiMax 4G in 68 markets, covering 103 million people now and 120 million expected by the end of the year. T-Mobile says its 4G HSPA+ network is available in 80 markets, and that it will cover 200 million people by the end of the year. So while Verizon is off to a good start, it has some catching up to do when it comes to offering a broad footprint.
Verizon takes a different tack than Sprint and T-Mobile when it comes to pricing its 4G service. It costs $50 per month for 5GB and $80 per month for 10GB. Overage charges are $10 per GB. The entry-level plan is actually $10 cheaper than what Verizon charges for its 3G-only modems, so these new plans seem like a good deal.
However, Sprint's $59 3G/4G plan for modems and mobile hotspots offers unlimited 4G and a 5GB cap that applies only to 3G data. Clear charges $55 per month for 3G/4G with unlimited 4G, too, or you can get 4G only for $45 per month. T-Mobile's 5GB plan for 4G modems costs only $39.99 per month right now (it's normally $49.99 but the carrier is running a promotion). You also don't get hit with overages should you go over; T-Mobile will just throttle your speed.
How We Tested
We tested the VL600 with a ThinkPad T410s in three different locations around Manhattan. First, we used Speedtest.net to measure upload and download speeds (chart below). Then we downloaded the large OpenOffice.org file (147 MB). We also downloaded three popular websites (NYTimes, CNN, ESPN) in each location and averaged the speed in seconds, remembering to clear the cache each time. We also uploaded a 6.5 MB file to our FTP server.
On Speedtest.net, the LG VL600 ran circles around both Sprint's and T-Mobile's modems. We saw download throughput range from 7 Mbps all the way up to 18.6 Mbps. However, once more consumers start using its 4G LTE network, Verizon expects download throughput to drop to 5 to 12 Mbps, and upload speeds to drop to 2 to 5 Mbps. Still awesome.
Sprint's USB modem couldn't latch onto a 4G signal in our first New York location, and in other locations we saw throughput only get as high as 4 Mbps. (However, we've seen better results in other cities.) T-Mobile's webConnect rocket delivered uneven results, ranging between 1.6 and 6.4 Mbps, but it was consistently faster than Sprint in our second location.
The LG VL600 on Verizon's LTE network also wiped the floor with Sprint's and T-Mobile's modems when it came to upload speeds. Data rates ranged between 5.1 and 6.6 Mbps, which is pretty amazing. Meanwhile, Sprint's and T-Mobile's modems registered around 1 Mbps and between 1.2 and 1.7 Mbps, respectively.
Real-World Downloads and Uploads
When we downloaded the large 147 MB OpenOffice.org file, the VL600 took 1 minute and 56 seconds to accomplish the task in one location and an even faster 1:33 in the other location. So we're talking about sustained speeds of 10.1 to 12.72 Mbps, which is faster than many home broadband connections using DSL or cable. The T-Mobile webConnect Rocket took an average of 4.7 minutes, and Sprint's modem averaged over 8 minutes.
On our upload test, the VL600 took a mere 7 seconds to upload a 6.5 MB file in the Union Square area of New York city, while T-Mobile's webConnect Rocket took 43 seconds and Sprint's 3G/4G modem took 53 seconds. To really put 4G LTE to the test we uploaded a 5-minute MPEG-4 video; it took less than 3 minutes, which comes out to a spectacular 5.5 Mbps.
Because of this blistering throughput, 4G LTE doesn't have nearly as much latency as competing 4G technologies, so you should be able to play multiplayer games without a hiccup. (We'll update this review with more test results.)
As we expected, the LG VL600 also downloaded web pages at a quicker pace than the competition, but it's edge wasn't as dramatic here as in our other tests. Pages downloaded in an average of 6.2 seconds to T-Mobile's 8.8 seconds, and 10.9 for Sprint. This delta might not sound that significant, but when you click on multiple links during a given surfing session, 4G LTE's speed advantage starts to add up. Also keep in mind that apps like TweetDeck and Pandora that hog resources over 3G will continue to run buttery smooth in the background on 4G LTE.
Given that there is a widely held perception that LTE technology does better than Mobile WiMax the deeper you get inside of a building, we decided to pit the VL600 against Sprint's 3G/4G USB modem in different locations inside our office. (Unfortunately, T-Mobile's modem got stuck on EDGE so we disqualified it.) First, we sat near our front desk in the lobby, which is at least 20 feet away from the nearest window. In this spot, the LG VL600 got 16.9 Mbps down and 5.2 Mbps. In this same location, the Sprint modem notched 2.4 Mbps down and .95 Mbps up. However, as we walked back toward our bathroom near the freight elevator--where wireless signals are always weak--the Spint 4G modem held strong on the download. It got 2 Mbps down, compared to 1.3 Mbps for Verizon's VL600. Still, the LTE modem delivered a much better upload rate in this location: 1.3 Mpbs vs. 130 Kbps. And as we noted above, Sprint's modem couldn't hold onto a 4G signal in another location where we were indoors and near a window.
Because the LG VL600 integrates two separate technologies on the same SIM chip--EV-DO Rev A and LTE--roaming between 3G and 4G can be tricky. When we left New York city on a bus ride to New Jersey during our first round of testing, the modem successfully stepped down to 3G data without losing the connection, even as we went through the Lincoln Tunnel. However, the connection manager software still said we had a 4G signal well into central New Jersey, which was an error. The following evening, we didn't encounter the same issue.
Going from 3G to 4G is much hairier. Not only do you need to stop the connection and close the software, you also must detach and re-attach the modem. Most users won't know to do this, and it's pretty annoying. Verizon Wireless says it feels our pain and will be issuing a firmware update to address this issue (though it couldn't provide a timetable).
We also encountered a bug in our testing, which may be related just to our unit. Sometimes when connecting, the VZ Access software would tell us that the SIM card failed and to contact our service provider, even though the modem was working fine.
Since you get faster speeds with 4G LTE than with competing 4G networks, the presumption is that you'll use more data. And you can easily hit that cap in a hurry, depending on what you're doing. For example, if all you did was watch Hulu, you'd exceed the 5GB limit in 16.5 hours. If you were watching Netflix, you'd blow through 5GB in just 7.5 hours. And that's on standard definition. The higher bitrate of HD video would have you paying an extra 10 bucks per gig in about 3 hours. In other words, if you were thinking of using the LG VL600 as your Internet connection for home and on the road, you'll want to think twice. Even if you step up to the 10GB plan, you'll want to watch your data usage, which the VZAccess Manager software makes pretty easy.
Verizon's speed advantage with 4G LTE is so great, this network is practically in its own league. In fact, the LG VL600's data rates are so blazing that when you drop down to 3G it feels like dialup. This kind of throughput isn't about just downloading web pages faster--though the LG VL600 does that. It's about being able to pull down huge files in a fraction of the time of Sprint's and T-Mobile's 4G networks. You can also upload documents, photos, and videos much faster. Assuming you're in an area with 4G coverage, users simply won't need to bother with flaky Wi-Fi connections, whether they're in a hotel, coffee shop, convention center, or airport.
All of these benefits could make Verizon's 5GB and 10GB plans a turn-off for heavy data users. Yes, you're paying $10 less per month than what the carrier charges for 3G-only modems, but you'll have to think about what you're downloading or streaming more because you'll want to use the 4G LTE network more. Having to unplug the modem when roaming from 3G to 4G areas is also frustrating, though Verizon says it is aggressively working to address this issue, along with adding Mac compatibility. Despite these complaints, the LG VL600 delivers fantastic speeds that put everyone else to shame, making it an excellent accessory for mobile professionals that will become more valuable as Verizon's 4G network grows.