iPhone vs. iPhone: Which network can meet speed needs?

PCWorld speed tests of Verizon and AT&T's wireless networks.

Thinking about getting a Verizon iPhone now that AT&T has lost its U.S. exclusivity arrangement with Apple? Well, not so fast. Verizon might have the reputation for being the more reliable network, but judging by PCWorld's most recent 3G speed tests AT&T has the better 3G network speeds. In fact, nationwide AT&T was 67 per cent faster on average than Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile.

So before you make plans to pre-order your CDMA-based iPhone in early February, let's take a look at some numbers comparing Verizon's speeds to AT&T's. But first a disclaimer. Until PCWorld re-tested the iPhone on AT&T and Verizon's networks everything that follows should be taken with a grain of salt.

How PCWorld Tests

PCWorld and its testing partner, Novarum used two types of tests in 13 cities across the country. The tests included "51,000 separate tests covering 850 square miles of wireless cell coverage servicing 7 million wireless subscribers."

To test 3G speeds, PCWorld "connected to the 3G network [in each city] via both laptops and smartphones. The laptop tests accurately measured the capacity and performance potential of a given network, while the smartphone tests approximated the real-world connection speeds users of these popular devices might experience."

For our purposes, we'll only consider what the smartphone results were since they are more likely to be closer to what you'll experience with an iPhone in your pocket.

Where AT&T Won

AT&T was the clear speed champion across the country in nine of the thirteen cities PCWorld tested including Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose and Seattle.

In fact, AT&T didn't just beat Verizon in those cities more often than not it trounced its network rival. Among AT&T's fastest cities, its lowest network download speed was in San Diego where the company rated an average of 1075 kilobits per second. AT&T's the fastest city was Seattle at 1751 kbps. In fact only two cities of AT&T's top 9 -- San Diego and San Francisco -- had average download speeds lower than 1200 kbps.

New York was the only city among AT&T's victories where Verizon came even close to measuring up to AT&T speeds. AT&T in New York scored an average download speed of 1233 kbps, while Verizon's average was 1227 kbps.

AT&T in PCWorld's tests also beat out Verizon in terms of reliability defined as the percentage of 1-minute tests during which network service maintained an uninterrupted connection at a reasonable speed.

Verizon did not score above 90 per cent reliability in any of PCWorld's test cities, while AT&T's average reliability was above 90 per cent in 10 out of 13 urban centers.

Where Verizon Won

But it wasn't all bad news for Verizon the carrier claimed a few wins too. Verizon was top dog in terms of average speeds in Denver, New Orleans and Orlando. Verizon was also more reliable than AT&T in San Francisco, but neither carrier reached 70 per cent reliability during 3G network tests in the city by the bay.

What about Sprint?

There's also a rumor going around that Sprint might announce it has the iPhone at a press event on February 7. If you're curious about Sprint's 3G results then you'll be happy to know that Sprint had a few victories in PCWorld's smartphone 3G speed tests. The nation's second largest CDMA carrier had the fastest upload speed in San Francisco at 147 kbps. Sprint also came out with the best percentages for reliable service in Portland (tied with AT&T), San Diego (tied with T-Mobile), San Francisco, San Jose and Seattle.

So there you have it: on average AT&T's network was faster than Verizon in many urban centers across the country during PCWorld's tests. But these tests were published almost a year ago, so it's possible Verizon's (or Sprint's) speeds have improved over the last 12 months in your area. But then again, Verizon spent 2010 building up its so-called 4G LTE network, so who knows if the company had time to boost 3G speeds across the country at the same time. I guess we'll have to wait for another round of PCWorld tests to know for sure.

Has anybody out there recently used smartphones from both AT&T and Verizon in the same city? What's been your experience?

Connect with Ian Paul (@ianpaul) and Today@PCWorld on Twitter for the latest tech news and analysis.

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Ian Paul

PC World (US online)
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