Cell test: T-Mobile rules, AT&T is better than you think, Verizon is overhyped

PCWorld field tests show T-Mobile does more than make commercials, Sprint does almost nothing

Everyone knows about cell phone carriers. Not directly, of course. Vendor lock-in is so tight it's too difficult or expensive for most people to even try any service but the one that owns the two-year contract on their soul.

So we all know the carriers mainly by their advertising and reputations:

  • Verizon is the biggest, has the best network, most restrictions on cool smartphone functions and highest percentage of customers who hate it but won't switch because other cell networks must be worse.
  • AT&T was the place to be when it was the only one with the iPhone, but its network dropped a lot of calls, its prices were high and it lost its mojo to Verizon along with the iPhone monopoly.
  • Sprint is the only one that still offers unlimited data, but its phones are so boring it's impossible to look directly at displays of them and no one ever talks about its network.
  • T-Mobile…? T-Mobile runs a lot of TV ads with that model in the pink- striped dress. Some people love the model and (or) the dress; some people hate both. No one knows anything else about T-Mobile.

Not surprisingly, some of those perceptions are inaccurate. (T-Mobile offers a cell-phone service in addition to a series of annoying TV ads, for example.)

PCWorld took down one set of those misperceptions this week with comparative tests that show, judging the companies according to data-download speeds in various cities.

The results don't clear up any of the questions about customer-repulsing customer service or cool-feature prevention.

They do bust a lot of myths about the speed (if not the quality or geographic coverage) of carrier networks, which is a good start.

The result? During 2011, using data reflecting average download speeds for 3G and 4G networks in 160 locations, PCWorld found that AT&T and T-Mobile sucked less than Sprint and Verizon, the two leading cell-phone carriers.

In fact, comparing results from the 2011 PC World cell-phone speed test to this year's, T-Mobile was both most-improved player and overall winner(PCW results).

AT&T(PCW results), which both adopted the LTE 4G network technology touted by Verizon and had to share the iPhone spotlight with Verizon afterward, turns out to have a faster LTE network than Verizon in all but four of the cities tested.

Verizon (PCW results), offered 4G in more locations than anyone else, and offered the fastest upload speeds. Even in 4G, though, its download speed (vastly more important to mobile users than upload speed) lagged AT&T's download speeds, which are also improving faster than Verizon's.

Sprint, (PCW results), which bet big on WiMax before realizing LTE would be the networking protocol of the future, was the slowest in both 3G and 4G. "The company seems to have virtually stopped developing its existing 3G and 4G networks while looking for a way to make the transition from its outdated WiMax 4G technology to LTE," PCW reviewer Mark Sullivan wrote.

The results won't help any individual consumers or companies caught in the middle of a long-term contract unless they're willing to pay a usurious early-cancellation penalty.

They are a lot more accurate than the hearsay and TV-commercial-based mental image most consumers rely on for their preferences, and give corporate telecom managers some real-world test results to help tell which carriers are good at schmoozing, sales and presentation and which actually deliver good service in the field.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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