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Fastest wireless in town — for what it’s worth

Sprint’s new network may not live up to hype, but it shows a lot of promise

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / September 2, 2010

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At last, 4G has come to Boston, and I feel like a man who’s gotten a shirt for Christmas. I’m grateful, of course, but I was expecting something a bit more exciting.

The 4G name is the generic label for high-speed data networks being built by the nation’s cellphone companies. We’ve learned to love the current 3G system, with its ability to let us watch video snippets and read news headlines on our phones. But 4G is designed to handle data two to three times faster, making it possible to look at higher-quality video streams or play demanding multiplayer video games.

This week, Sprint Nextel Corp. launched 4G in Boston. Is the new network faster than standard 3G? Sort of. I tried it on a pair of 4G-compatible phones, and on a nifty little mobile hotspot, a device that lets multiple gadgets share a single 4G connection. According to the online testing service Ookla, I got some amazing bursts of speed — as high as 10 million bits per second, dramatically faster than the usual 1.5 million bits 3G delivers. But in a more mundane challenge — downloading a really big file — the 4G network was something of a letdown.

But even if Sprint 4G isn’t as hot as advertised, it’s still a step beyond 3G. And this speed upgrade is wrapped in some pretty attractive hardware.

I’m already a fan of the EVO 4G, a touch screen-only handset from the Taiwanese company HTC Corp. But Sprint now offers a second 4G phone with a snap-out keyboard. The Epic 4G is made by Samsung Group of Korea, as part of its Galaxy S phone series, and even without 4G, it would be marvelous.

Like the other Galaxy phones, it features a video screen that uses organic light-emitting diodes to generate brilliant colors, and it runs Google Inc.’s Android operating system. The Epic also features a front-facing camera for videoconferencing and a rear five-megapixel camera with flash and the ability to shoot 720p high-definition video.

Throw in 4G, and you get a phone that displays Web pages with exceptional speed and adds depth and clarity to streaming videos. And for an extra $30 a month, you can add a feature that allows up to five Wi-Fi devices to connect to the phone and share its 4G data service. It’s just the thing when direct Wi-Fi to the Internet is unavailable.

Sprint sells the Epic 4G for $249 after rebates and with a two-year service contract, but save your money. Buy it online at Amazon.com, and you’ll pay $199.99, no rebate necessary. Service plans for the phone cost at least $79.99 a month, including unlimited 4G data access.

Another stylish new 4G device isn’t a phone at all. Sprint’s 4G network was built by Clearwire Corp., which sells access to the network under the brand name Clear, and which offers the Clear Spot 4G+ Personal Hotspot. This sleek, black unit costs $224.99, or can be leased for $5.99 a month with a two-year contract. Expect to pay at least $55 a month in service charges.

The Clear Spot resembles an oversize beer coaster. Turn it on, and your Wi-Fi devices will see it as just another router. Punch in a password, which appears on the Clear Spot’s tiny viewscreen, and you’re on the air.

But at what speed? My Ookla online tests were impressive, but offered an unrealistic view of real-world conditions. So I rented an old Clint Eastwood movie through Amazon.com and downloaded it to a late-model Dell laptop. For the first few minutes, the download blazed along at around 5 megabits. But it soon dropped to 2.5 megabits, less than the 3 megabits Sprint had promised. It took about 2 1/2 hours to download the whole film.

Sprint’s rival in the wireless wars, T-Mobile USA Inc. just introduced its HSPA+ service to Boston. This upgraded 3G is supposed to match Sprint’s 4G speed, but not quite. I got download speeds of about 2.1 megabits from the T-Mobile service; better than standard 3G, but not by much.

In theory, both 4G and HSPA+ could offer competition to our current home broadband services, but not until they pick up some more speed. Still, both deliver on their promise of faster wireless downloads, and the companies say they’ll quicken the pace with future upgrades.

So thanks for the new shirt. How about something cooler next year?

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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