When it comes to wireless data networks, besides knowing the difference between 3G and 4G, there's another question: Which flavor of 4G do you need? Sprint was the first major wireless carrier in the U.S. with 4G, but is now upgrading its networks from WiMAX to LTE. Virgin and Boost, meanwhile, are just getting WiMAX. Which one should you pick? We've been covering WiMAX vs. LTE and testing devices since the day each technology first launched, so we can give you the full scoop.
WiMAX vs. LTE: History
The "4G" moniker is officially meaningless, but WiMAX was the first technology to call itself 4G when Sprint announced it back in 2006. WiMAX descends from Wi-Fi rather than from cellular technologies, although it has some aspects in common with LTE, most notably by using a technology called OFDM as a way of packing multiple transmissions into one radio band.
The WiMAX story actually began with home connections instead of phones. WiMAX started out as a way to deliver wireless broadband to homes and businesses. In many parts of the country, "wireless ISPs" still deliver home broadband via WiMAX. The Lab here at PCMag has a fixed WiMAX link from Clearwire as one of our network connections. WiMAX helps ISPs deliver Internet connections without running expensive cables to every home, and speeds often run between 5-10Mbps, or about the same as DSL. In that context, at least, WiMAX isn't going away.
But you're probably wondering about "mobile WiMAX," which Sprint announced in August 2006 and finally launched in September 2008. At the time, 3G networks ran at about one megabit per second, and Sprint's XOHM WiMAX promised to be at least twice as fast. Sprint took the WiMAX bet in part because at the time it was backed by Intel, which promised to put WiMAX into dozens of laptops and help make WiMAX the worldwide standard. It was also backed by Nokia, which was, at the time, the world's number-one cell phone company.
Unfortunately, Sprint squandered its lead by building its network very slowly. In 2006, WiMAX would have been a revelation, but the first city didn't go live until 2008. And by January 2010, it covered just 30 million people in 27 cities. This wasn't about any flaw in the WiMAX technology—just haplessness on the part of Sprint and its partner Clearwire. Outside of the U.S., WiMAX saw some success in Russia, Mongolia, and Pakistan, but was largely shunned in western Europe.
While Sprint dithered, the whole cell phone industry turned away from WiMAX (and Intel) to LTE, which came from the same folks who brought us GSM and promised much better compatibility with existing cell phone equipment. The LTE standard was approved in December 2008, with America's first LTE network coming from MetroPCS in October 2010.
Now both Sprint and Clearwire are building LTE networks, and Sprint has said there won't be any new WiMAX build-out, although the network will stay turned on through 2015.
WiMAX vs. LTE: Performance
The version of WiMAX Sprint uses should deliver 30-40Mbps download speeds, and LTE can deliver up to 100Mbps. In the real world, though, they achieve nothing like those speeds. That's because a network's performance depends much more on how it's built than on the specs of the underlying technology.
Our Fastest Mobile Networks results tell the tale. In our tests across the country, Sprint's WiMAX averaged about 3Mbps down, and it's currently capped to 1.5Mbps up. That's slower than most home broadband. Verizon's LTE network tripled that download speed to 9.46Mbps average, although uploads averaged about 1.35Mbps. That's roughly as fast as many home broadband packages.
But look at MetroPCS's LTE. This is the same LTE technology as Verizon uses, but in much narrower channels, with a focus on low cost rather than performance. MetroPCS averaged only 1.62Mbps down in our tests. That said, we expect Sprint's LTE to be faster than its WiMAX. Otherwise the millions of existing Sprint 4G customers will be disappointed.
LTE has another key performance advantage: It's better integrated with other cellular technologies, making for smoother transitions between 3G and 4G. WiMAX phones tend to have problems finding 4G again once they drop into a 3G area. LTE phones have less of an issue with that.
WiMAX vs. LTE: Coverage
Sprint will eventually be able to get better coverage with LTE than it did with WiMAX. Sprint's WiMAX system was always challenged by being on the very high-frequency 2.6GHz band. That band can support a lot of users, but it has trouble with distance and wall penetration. LTE will be on 1900MHz, the same as Sprint's existing CDMA network. It'll use the same towers, too. So eventually, Sprint's LTE coverage should look a lot like its 3G coverage.
Sprint is at a disadvantage against AT&T and Verizon, though. Both of those carriers use 700MHz, which covers a lot more area per tower. In suburban and rural areas, Sprint will have to install more LTE towers per square mile than the other carriers. For rural coverage, Sprint will also be relying a lot on roaming with small carriers who never adopted WiMAX, but who are jumping on the global LTE bandwagon.
That said, Sprint WiMAX coverage will still be better than LTE coverage for at least a year. Sprint currently covers a third of the nation with WiMAX, and it'll take until 2013 to get to that point with LTE. Sprint has so far only announced six LTE cities: Kansas City, Baltimore, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Atlanta. The company steadfastly refuses to say when other cities will get LTE, although it has shown a map promising nationwide coverage by 2014.
WiMAX vs. LTE: Phones
Sprint has said it isn't planning to release any new WiMAX phones. It currently carries five: the Samsung Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch, the Samsung Epic 4G, the Motorola Photon 4G, the HTC EVO Design 4G, and the Samsung Conquer 4G.
The carrier has three LTE phones: the HTC EVO 4G LTE, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and the LG Viper 4G LTE. But you should expect to see many more Android-powered LTE phones this year, and the next iPhone is rumored to have LTE.
Virgin and Boost, Sprint's prepaid brands, will get two WiMAX phones soon: the HTC EVO Design 4G on Boost, and the HTC EVO 3D (renamed the EVO V 4G) on Virgin. We aren't likely to see many new WiMAX phones in the U.S.; the models Virgin and Boost come out with will be retreads.
Should You Buy WiMAX vs. LTE?
That leaves the question: which one should you buy?
If you're in a current WiMAX coverage area and are okay with getting a new phone in another two years, WiMAX is still a safe bet. It won't expand, but it won't start contracting until 2015.
Sprint will take until at least the end of 2012 to match its current WiMAX coverage with LTE, and even that might not be in the same cities. You won't be able to rely on nationwide Sprint LTE until the end of 2013.
That said, LTE is almost certainly going to be faster and the network will have cooler phones. And as we get towards the end of 2012, the buying balance will shift: We'll hear about more LTE cities and the clock on WiMAX will start running down.
I'd say if you hear about your city being on the near horizon for LTE, go for the newer technology. Otherwise, WiMAX will still serve you for a while, though it won't be as fast as the competition.
This article is in partnership with PCMag.com.