Bob Gilbert

The iPhone 5 / 4G Performance Shootout in San Francisco


By Ed Robinson and Bob Gilbert

Living in San Francisco means always having the latest phone.  Apples iPhone 5 launched a couple of months ago  - so it seems like every hipster in Fog City either has an iPhone 5 or is upgrading their iPhone 5 to something newer. For the rest of us getting an iPhone 5 is a more careful decision, usually in conjunction with a special offer from our current carrier or a move to a new carrier.

No one likes to wait for webpages to load, or apps to sync.  According to the TV ads, the new 4G networks are super fast, so we put them to the test.  In SF, the two most popular carriers are AT&T and Verizon, and since the pricing is similar, we tested the data speeds of an iPhone 5 on each network to find out which is fastest.  We didnt test voice quality because no one buys an iPhone to talk on it its all about data and apps. 

How we tested:  "Can you hear me now? Good"

We did a mixture of measurement and real-world-use tests first measuring data speeds, then loading a real-world website in Safari. The tests were done in the morning of Monday Nov 5th, and we tested in 10 popular tourist locations across San Francisco.  

For data bandwidth, we ran the app on each phone, recording an average from three tests to eliminate any inconsistencies. For web browsing, we loaded the New York Times website in Safari, once at each location, clearing the browser pages, history + cache between each test.

Here is a video documenting the tests and results. 



What we found: Raw bandwidth results

For raw bandwidth pure download and upload speeds, the results tell a mixed story.

  • On average AT&T has 16% faster download speeds than Verizon
  • On average AT&T has 93% faster upload speeds than Verizon
  • Verizon completed the test at every location in San Francisco. AT&T failed at Golden Gate Bridge

AT&T failed?  Thats right an iPhone 5 on the AT&T 4G network couldnt get a reading at Golden Gate Bridge.  We bailed on the test after several minutes.

The full results are below. In general we saw wide variability, and not much predictability in the results for both carriers. For example Verizons download speeds varied from 0.2 Mb/s to 45.8 Mb/s. AT&T also varied hugely.  


Surfs up:  Loading a webpage results

After testing raw bandwidth, we looked at a more real world case loading a webpage. Again, the results were mixed:

  • In general, for both networks, webpages start to display in 3 seconds
  • Measuring total load time, Verizon was 29% faster than AT&T (pages loaded in 29% less time)
  • Both networks had wide variability from 5 seconds to a minute
  • AT&T failed to completely load the webpage at Golden Gate Bridge and Haight Ashbury

The results for load times are in the table below, and you can watch the pages loading in the video. 


Lets cut to the chase - Which carrier is better?

While both had their share of performance challenges, AT&T performed well at eight of the ten locations, while Verizon performed well only at six of the ten locations.  You can easily argue that both 80% and 60% good performance are not indicative of the performance hype around these new 4G networks.

It is also important to point out that variability of signal could be at play in our testing.  If we were to return to the test locations a couple of hours or days later, would the results be the same?  We would love to hear from you with regards to what performance you are seeing on your iPhone 5 in these same locations.  


Even with the network connectivity issues at the various locations, the iPhone 5s on both 4G networks definitely feel faster than the old iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S.  However the wide variability in data speeds and consistency on both networks is a problem. Will it work at my house?.  Thankfully the carriers are working on it people demand faster speeds.

The networks are rolling out improvements to 4G networks, the hardware is getting better, and our company Riverbeds performance tools like Stingray Aptimizer are optimizing content for websites so the pages themselves travel faster from webserver to your mobile phone. The new iPhone 5s and 4G networks are definitely an improvement, but  getting the performance to the same experience as a desktop computer takes web content optimization plus some more effort from the carriers. Are we there yet?  Nope.

6 Responses

  1. Shail Kumar

    Mar 21, 2013

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  2. Cowan Anderson

    Mar 01, 2013

    Great comparison to see of the speed of 4G of different areas of San Fransico it will see how Iphone applications will work on 4g .

  3. Calvin Brock

    Jan 24, 2013

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Riverbed delivers the most complete platform for Location-Independent Computing, turning location and distance into a competitive advantage. The Riverbed Application Performance Platform™ allows IT to have the flexibility to host applications and data in the most optimal locations while ensuring applications perform as expected, data is always available when needed, and performance issues are detected and fixed before end users notice. At more than $1 billion in annual revenue, Riverbed has 25,000+ customers, including 97% of both the Fortune 100 and the Forbes Global 100.

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