Thursday, March 8, 2012

Apple, That iPad Will Never Get the Network Speed You Claim

new-ipad-150.pngWhen Apple executives rolled out the new iPad yesterday, there was a lot of hyperbole and cheerleading on stage. Hey, these things happen, it is a launch event for one of the year's biggest products, after all. Yet, those with a critical eye noted something peculiar with Apple's announcement of its 3G and 4G LTE announcement: the speed numbers that executives touted are nowhere near what consumers will find in the real world.

Yes, Long Term Evolution (LTE) is faster than HSPA+ and other 3G technologies. But the numbers that Apple put on screen yesterday are misleading. What Apple used was the theoretical maximum speed of the networks, in reality, LTE speeds are no where near those levels.

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Apple's bi-yearly events for the iPad and iPhone are essentially overblown press releases. They tend to be better than Samsung, Microsoft of Nokia launch events that often fall into the category of absurd circuses with dancers and lights, but Apple still has some theatrics of its own.

For instance, look at this chart that Apple put up when describing its new connectivity options for the iPad.

apple_ipad_lte_speeds.jpg

Image: gdgt live blog of Apple's iPad event.

What Apple was saying is that these are the max possible speeds that can be found using these networks. LTE theoretically can reach 72 Mb/s on the down channel and HSPA+ (that both AT&T and T-Mobile have been calling "4G" for a year) can reach 42 Mb/s.

In the real world, there are limiting factors to those speeds and users will be fortunate if they ever experience such rates. Network congestion, distance from the cell tower, what application you are using, network optimization are all limiting real world factors.

A study of AT&T's LTE network done last September in Houston showed an average of 23.6 Mb/s downlink with peak rates of 61.1 Mb/s. The network reached 40 Mb/s about 8.6% of the time. The researchers used about 90 GB over data on the network over a three-day period using a Sierra Wireless USBConnect Momentum 4G dongle. It should be noted at the time that there were relatively few people on the LTE network in Houston and that speeds will go down as more people start using LTE on a regular basis. Both the peak rate and average rate were higher than what researchers expected.

sierra_usbconnect_4G.jpgIt also should be noted that the Sierra Wireless USBConnect Momentum 4G connects to a computer through a USB slot and is not an actual mobile device. It is specifically tuned to pick up LTE and should be more efficient than a smartphone or a tablet with LTE receivers. Essentially, the research on the Houston AT&T LTE network was done with optimal conditions that are unlikely to be replicated by a real world user. Even those readings though were lower than what Apple was touting during its event yesterday.

The average LTE user on the street is going to see real world conditions of about 14 Mb/s down and about half of that or less on the uplink. For HSPA, the average speed for a real world user will be about 7 Mb/s though depending on conditions can average speeds in the low to middle teens.

The bands that Apple uses in the iPad are impressive. It is the first tablet with both 3G/4G technology and can handle almost any GSM/CDMA protocol. Essentially, it can be used nearly anywhere in the world. But before diving headfirst into any purchase decision based off connection speed know that what Apple tells you and what reality are often differ. That is good advice for any mobile device you are purchasing. Do you research before you go to the store and ask AT&T or Verizon representatives what kind of speed you are likely to see on your network.

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