Now that the new iPads are available, one of the most frequent questions we are asked by readers is which model they should buy to take advantage of the best 4G LTE coverage and speeds. To help you out with your decision making, we decided to do a little informal testing of our own around the Dallas area. Using the new iPad, on both networks and across a variety of locations, we checked to see which network provided the best in terms of coverage, speed and pricing.
One of the most important things to consider before jumping on the LTE bandwagon is whether your city has 4G coverage. Both Verizon and AT&T are busy building out their network infrastructure, but are far from giving the same ubiquitous 4G coverage that you’re likely used to with 3G. Both carriers cover most major cities but Verizon is the clear winner in nationwide coverage.
Verizon’s one year head start gives it almost four times the number of cities covered as AT&T. Verizon currently shows they cover 203 cities and 120 major airports with their LTE network and plan to cover two-thirds of the US population by mid-2012. The company plans to have 100% LTE parity with its 3G network by the end of 2013.
While AT&T does cover several major cities, its 28 city coverage pales in comparison to what is currently available from Verizon. The company began its LTE rollout almost a year behind Verizon and unless you’re in a major metropolitan city, you will probably be stuck on the carrier’s slower 3G (now renamed 4G) network. AT&T says they currently cover 74 million Americans with their LTE network but provide no timeline on when there will be coverage parity between their 3G / 4G network and their LTE network.
Business travelers may prefer going with Verizon thanks to the bigger footprint but AT&T customers aren’t completely out of luck if they’re not in an LTE market. AT&T’s widespread 3G network is available across the country and performed considerably better than Verizon’s in our speed tests. This extra safety net will be welcomed by most frequent fliers.
Nationwide Coverage Winner: Verizon
To give a representative view of performance, we tested the iPad (both AT&T and Verizon 4G LTE versions) in variety of locations you would normally expect to see people using their tablets. We ran multiple tests on each model in an indoors suburban residential area, indoors at a local mall, indoors at a local restaurant/bar and outdoors at a strip mall. We averaged the results from each test to achieve our score. Each iPad was configured identically and had no apps running in the background to ensure we didn’t have any external apps sapping bandwidth.
Across the board we experienced better results on the newer 4G LTE network of both carriers compared to their 3G networks. Both carriers’ LTE networks averaged at least four times the performance compared to the same test run on a 3G network. This was true even when the signal strength of the LTE network was one or two bars lower than what we were able to get in the same location on 3G.
Verizon’s network produced the fastest single download speed result in our tests and topped out at 26.26 Mbps. AT&T had the best upload speed result at a whopping 12.38 Mbps in our residential speed test. Latency on the LTE network was on average almost 50% better than 3G on either of the carriers’ networks.
In our four location tests, AT&T came out on top and consistently beat Verizon for latency, download speeds and upload speeds. This was the case both for the newer 4G LTE network but also for their 3G networks. Overall, AT&T’s 4g LTE network averaged almost 10% faster download speeds (16.5 Mbps average) and 80% faster upload speeds (9.5 Mbps) compared to Verizon. Latency for both carriers was roughly the same and showed a 40-60% improvement over their older 3G networks.
In terms of reception, we were surprised to see both iPads show the identical number of bars for each test location. For LTE both Verizon and AT&T averaged a signal strength of 3 out of 5 bars compared to 4 out of 5 bars for their 3G networks.
4G LTE and 3G Network Speed Winner: AT&T
Green field indicates best test result
4G LTE Data Pricing
While we’ve covered this in the past, pricing for the new 4G LTE plans is an important factor when deciding which network to choose.
Verizon’s data plans for the new iPad is the same for all of their LTE tablets, ranging from 1GB of data for $20 to 10GB for $80. Here’s the complete list:
1 GB – $20
2 GB – $30
5 GB – $50
10 GB – $80
AT&T’s pricing remains the same, with no changes. Here’s the price list:
250 MB – $14.99
3 GB – $30
5 GB – $50
Most importantly, those of you with grandfathered unlimited plans will be able to hold onto those plans for the exact same price. Here’s what the AT&T rep had to say “If you had an unlimited plan on an earlier iPad, you can keep it if you want to.”
Each carrier also offers up added features as part of their iPad data plans. AT&T’s plans come with free access to their over 29,000 nationwide WiFi Hot Spots while Verizon’s data plans allow you to turn your iPad into a mobile WiFI Hot Spot allowing you to share with you laptop, smartphone or other WiFi enabled device.
If you’re new to the 4G LTE iPads, it looks like AT&T is currently offering the better deals, since its 3GB plan is the same price as Verizon’s 2GB plan. However, if you’re a heavy data user you might want to pickup Verizon’s cheaper 10GB plan. Overage rates for both carriers are $10 per GB.
4G LTE Data Pricing Winner: Tie
While there are a number of variables that will impact an iPad’s performance on either carrier’s network, we’ve attempted to give you a representative view of how both LTE networks stacked up. We tested the iPads in multiple locations throughout the Dallas area, which is one of the original LTE cities for both AT&T and Verizon.
Testing a wireless network is never an exact science as there are dozens of variables that can impact performance such as distance from the radio head, RF propagation in your specific environment, weather, usage loads and the constant tweaking of a new network by the operator. We don’t claim that these results will be identical across the country, or even within Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex, but they do give you an idea of the type of performance you can expect with 4G LTE in a variety of settings.
The good news for consumers is regardless of which iPad and network you choose, you’ll see a significant improvement over 3G in terms of speed and latency. Best of all, you won’t pay a dime more for the added speed than what you may already be paying for standard 3G coverage.