Mobile Man

Heavily JPG compressed for your mobile-viewing pleasure!

So, what with all this mobile spam and iPhone 3G talk, I spur-of-the-day decided last week to check out Sprint and AT+T’s current wireless data offerings.

Well, mostly spur-of-the-day. It was also because my current laptop is starting to die (just like my last three VAIOs, something comes loose somewhere deep inside its soul, and it begins to just randomly turn off), dammit. So, since I’m pretty sure my next laptop is not going to have a PCMCIA slot to fit my current Verizon EVDO modem, I need to get a USB dongle one anyway.

I also kinda wanted to check out how the coverage and speed was on AT+T’s 3G network, just in case I need to switch over to it come July 11th. I’m sorry T-Mobile, it’s been great, but you still ain’t got no high-speed Internets!

While at Radio Shack I also decided to get the USB modem Sprint makes and try it out. Despite the 2-year contract you need to sign to get $60/month (for only 5GB of transfer now!) and the $150 off the devices, both providers have a trial period so I figured might as well. And, Sprint has their new “Compass 597″ USB modem which is not only itty-bitty, but has a microSD card slot AND GPS.

It may not be branded, but oh yes, it's SPRINT alright!

A few things I noticed right at the store: Sprint’s rebate (at least at Radio Shack) was mail-in and left the price of the modem at $50, whereas AT+T’s was instant and made the modem free. But, as if to make up for that, AT+T did a sleazy thing where they automatically add one month of “free” roadside assistance to your account. You cannot opt out of it, and if you don’t call to cancel they’ll start charging you $3 a month for something probably all your credit cards already provide you for free. Boo!

The Tests

To test each card, I first did a bunch of pings to google.com, and recorded the dropped packets, minimum, maximum, and average ping times. Then, to measure the download speed I downloaded iTunes (56MB) from apple.com, and to measure the upload speed I then uploaded it right back to a DreamHost server via FTP…

At Home

At home, I have pretty close to perfect coverage for Verizon, Sprint, and AT+T. Under these ideal conditions I found:

Carrier % Loss, Min/Avg/Max Ping Down/Upload
Verizon 0% Loss, 141/175/363 ms 45/20 KBs
Sprint 0% Loss, 106/137/236 ms 110/16 KBs
AT+T 0% Loss, 154/161/198 ms 230/35 KBs
TW Cable 0% Loss, 101/148/128 ms 700/100 KBs
DreamHost 0% Loss, 76/77/78 ms 9000/9000 KBs

Wow.. DreamHost is the bandwidth king! Ha!

Ha, well, I just threw in my home cable modem connection and DreamHost’s data center for comparison purposes… AT+T seems to be the current wireless bandwidth king! Sprint looks a bit better in the latency department, but only by a hair, and all three were fast enough to not even notice a lag in a remote shell window.

My old stand by, in miniature.

The Road

For my next test, I rode the bus to work like I do, down the 10 freeway in Los Angeles. Along the way, all three have great coverage; except actually Verizon’s EVDO Rev. A (“Broadband Access”) drops down to 1xRTT (“National Access”) a couple of times. 1xRTT, like everybody’s “2G” technologies, is slowwwwwwwww and suuuuuuuuuuucks. And, annoyingly Verizon’s “VZAccess Manager” software seems (at least for me) to never be able to jump back up to EVDO once it’s dropped down to 1XRTT without manually disconnecting and reconnecting.

At 60 MPH, both Sprint and AT+T’s download speeds were cut in about half, to 60 KB/s and 130 KB/s, respectively. Good scientist that I am, I, um, forgot to do the upload test (or test Verizon), but even if Verizon performed exactly the same as it did at home, it would have still been slower!

Ping times more or less stayed constant.

2G is like a wireless one of these.

The Office

Our new office is way up there, and cell phone coverage of all kinds is a bit spotty. What I learned at the office was you do not want to use any of these in a location where they drop back to their “2G” speeds.

At 700 feet, all three of them are in the 10-30% packet loss with 400 ms ping times range… along with download speeds around 10 KB/s and upload speeds around 5 KB/s! I did learn that it seems like both Sprint and AT+T are better at automatically noticing when they can switch back to EVDO/HSDPA than Verizon was, and it’s nice not having to re-connect things yourself.

Now THAR's some software!

The Software

Something nobody seems to ever mention in reviews of these wireless data services is what the client software you have to install is like. Well, nobody bar me!

Sprint’s is garbage, Verizon’s is fine, AT+T’s seems good.

Sprint’s software took the longest to start each time (AT+T was a little slower than Verizon, but both were still twice as fast as Sprint), couldn’t minimize to the system tray, and, worst of all, doesn’t work with a VPN! At least not mine! If you connect to the VPN while connected to Sprint, about three seconds later you’re disconnected. Then, if you tried to re-connect, the Sprint software gives an error about being connected to another network device! DEAL BREAKER!

Also, the MicroSD slot is useless for me, and the built-in GPS I guess is interesting but I couldn’t figure out how to make it do anything besides give me my current latitude and longitude.. in degrees! Are you supposed to cut and paste it into google maps or something? Anyway, if I’ve got an Internet connection, I generally don’t need GPS.

As for Verizon’s software, the one thing I always wish they added was a signal-strength meter in the system tray when minimized. AT+T’s software does this, yay! Other than that, both are pretty much fine. They’re simple, don’t get in the way, and work with my VPN. (Er, I think.. I think I need to do a little more testing with AT+T…)

The Device

It’s true, Sprint’s modem is the smallest. However, it also sticks out the furthest from your laptop, like a USB stick. The AT+T one is about as big as one of those old Nokia brick phones, but at least it has a hinge so it is aligned veritcally. The Verizon one actually has the smallest form factor outside the laptop, just because the PCMCIA part is so big. But, my next laptop probably isn’t going to have a PCMCIA port, dammit!

Skywalker had it all wrong.

ATT BFF

So, I guess it’s probable pretty clear by now, I’m going to go ahead and stick with the AT+T 3G device. It does have the biggest physical footprint, but I’ve already devised a plan to deal with that! Stay tuned for how that turns out…

I guess I’m sort of glad my laptop started dying, dammit.

(My mobile broadband is now four times faster!)