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Pricey tablet makes most of AT&T’s new 4G

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Columnist / November 3, 2011

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You’ll be glad to know that AT&T Inc. is about to launch its new, high-speed, 4G wireless data service in Boston.

But wait. Doesn’t AT&T already offer 4G service? That’s what the TV ads say.

Actually, AT&T’s current 4G service isn’t exactly 4G, and neither is the new service that begins Sunday. It is pretty fast, though, and offers welcome competition to Verizon Wireless, the current king of high-speed cellular data service.

I have been checking out the Jetstream tablet computer from HTC Corp., one of the first devices to use the new AT&T service. This latest challenger won’t make much of a dent in Apple Inc.’s revenues from its popular tablet, the iPad 2. The Jetstream suffers from a rather frumpy design and a painfully high price of $849.99, or $699.99 with a two-year service contract.

Still, it’s a decent performer with data download speeds that the iPad’s 3G networking cannot match. But before we examine the device, let’s get a few things clear about the service.

AT&T’s new 4G offering just adds to the ongoing confusion about the true meaning of 4G wireless service. So to clarify, here’s what 4G really means: nothing.

Until last year, 4G had been strictly defined by an international group of engineers. True 4G mobile devices were supposed to let you download videos, music, or photos at 100 million bits per second or faster. That is far better performance than even the fastest home Internet services.

Today’s wireless cellular networks do not come close to this speed. But some recent upgrades have made these networks faster than the older 3G systems - sometimes a little faster, sometimes a lot - so the companies began slapping the 4G label on them. The engineers complained for a while, but last year gave up and changed the definition. Now 4G just means “faster than 3G.’’

Until recently, AT&T’s 4G network was just their 3G network with some improvements that speeded it up. By contrast, Verizon Wireless spent a fortune to build a whole new data network alongside its existing 3G service. Verizon used a technology called LTE that is not only dramatically faster than 3G, it also smokes every other version of 4G.

While still far short of the original 4G standard, LTE delivers data download speeds comparable to a good home broadband connection. I’ve generally gotten 10 million to 15 million bits per second, fast enough for watching high-definition videos from Netflix. Also, I’ve seen upload speeds of about 5 million bits a second, so an LTE device is ideal for transmitting high-resolution photos or video clips to your friends.

AT&T always planned to roll out LTE, but at a slower, less expensive pace. So far, the company has upgraded five US cities, compared with about 140 for Verizon. It is Boston’s turn Sunday, along with Washington, Baltimore, and Athens, Ga.

The Jetstream, AT&T’s first LTE tablet, is pretty much your standard non-iPad. It’s thicker, heavier, not nearly as elegant as the Apple device. And the Google Inc. Android software that powers the device is not as well-designed or reliable as Apple’s software. Then again, it’s got a husky dual-core processor and 32 gigabytes of flash memory, and a decent enough video screen.

It is the Jetstream’s 4G firepower that sets it apart. I ran some tests with the same speed measurement software used by the Federal Communications Commission and got download speeds as high as 16 million bits per second, a little better than I have seen from Verizon. Upload speed was a pleasant surprise, up to 10 megabits, a lot faster than I have seen from Verizon. This suggests that the AT&T network might be a better choice for users who transmit lots of video or photographs.

But it is certainly an expensive choice. Verizon’s rival LTE tablet, the Galaxy Tab 10 by Samsung Corp., costs $629.99 with a two-year contract - $70 less than the Jetstream. Verizon also offers a slightly cheaper data plan, $30 a month for two gigabytes of data. AT&T charges $35 for three gigabytes.

And while you cannot get a 4G iPad, the 3G version does not saddle users with a service contract. These tablets start at $629.99, and users can pay as little as $14.99 a month for data service. It is a month-to-month deal too, so 3G iPad users can cancel the service whenever they like.

It’s hard to get excited about the Jetstream tablet. But AT&T’s deployment of LTE technology means an excellent new option for wireless broadband. It also means that those AT&T 4G commercials will finally start making sense.

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