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Review: Apple's iPhone 5 running iOS 6

Network speed via 4G DC-HSPA, LTE

Apple's incredible progress in putting faster and faster chips in its iOS devices has been blunted somewhat by the fact that mobile devices are often hamstrung by their network connection. If you're accessing the web or saving data to the cloud or streaming music, the weakest link isn't likely your application processor but rather your mobile data connection.

The iPhone started out being one of the last premium smartphones still stuck in the pre-3G world of AT&T's GSM/EDGE. Over time, it gained support for 3G and then increasingly faster versions of 3GPP 3G standards, from 7.2 Mbps HSDPA (downloads) on iPhone 3GS to 5.8 Mbps HSUPA (uploads) on iPhone 4 and 14.4 Mbps HSDPA on iPhone 4S.

When iPhone 4 came to Verizon, it could only support that carrier's very slow version of 3G, which maxes out well below 3 Mbps. Verizon worked hard to advertise its 3G coverage edge over AT&T, but didn't like talking about how slow its CDMA 3G actually was, nor the fact that, unlike AT&T's UMTS/HSPA 3G, it would (and could) never get any faster.

In our earlier testing, AT&T's 3G/4G non-LTE speeds in build up areas averaged around 5Mbps, while Verizon's 3G hovered around a very slow 1.3Mbps. In rural testing, AT&T dropped to around 1.5Mbps, while Verizon collapsed to a very slow 0.3Mbps.

Verizon's CDMA 3G is really slow, which makes it particularly noteworthy that its most popular smartphone over the last year of incessantly advertising 4G has been the 3G-only iPhone 4S. Verizon is, conversely, the slowest carrier the iPhone 4S works on. All that is about to change: Verizon will suddenly become one of the fastest networks supporting iPhone 5, and Verizon will finally have its top selling phone compatible its 4G LTE network.

Verizon's tune on network speed (vs AT&T) changed dramatically when the company embarked upon a migration from CDMA to LTE. Saddled with the world's slowest 3G technology, Verizon had the most to gain from building out a new LTE network for data (Verizon voice calls are still handled over CDMA). AT&T and other international carriers had the option to upgrade their existing GSM-style networks with HSPA+ enhancements, but Verizon couldn't make such incremental improvements.

In concert with building out LTE, Verizon has launched a campaign to denigrate anything that isn't LTE. Anytime you hear a reviewer speaking of LTE being "the only one true 4G" or speaking contemptuously of AT&T or T-Mobile branding their fastest 3GPP networks as "4G," you can rest assured that they're just repeating marketing lines Verizon has fed the media. Someday, LTE will offer a big advantage over HSPA+ but not during the lifetime of iPhone 5.

The truth is that the LTE being built out by Verizon is not really any faster than the fastest 3G networks. Technically, the standards bodies that defined 4G originally did so in a way that excluded both today's LTE deployments and technologies like HSPA+. They then redefined 4G to cover any technologies that offers a major boost over common 3G networks. So by any true and functional definition, LTE is no more "4G" than HSPA+ is. Verizon doesn't like this inconvenient fact however.

When AppleInsider tested the new iPad earlier this year, Verizon's LTE network was about tied with AT&T's LTE, with both consistently reaching 40Mbps downloads more than 60 percent of the time. That's extremely fast, and clearly a huge leap over 2008-era 3G with speeds typically below 3Mbps.

Over the last year, Verizon has either saturated its LTE network or simply turned down its data throughput, because now it seems to deliver about 8Mbps most of the time, with occasional peaks of up to 14Mbps. That's still really fast (likely as fast if not faster than your home cable Internet), but it's a quarter the speeds LTE was showing at the beginning of the year.

It also destroys the vaunted opinion that LTE currently delivers some huge, differentiated leap over HSPA+, particularly now that Apple has added support for "dual carrier" DC-HSPA to the iPhone, which a variety of international carriers use to deliver speeds of up to 42Mbps. Still, in the minds of LTE-purists, only a network that is routinely 5 times slower than HSPA+ can be called 4G.

So if you're worried and disappointed that iPhone 5 won't support the future LTE networks in your part of the world, take a deep breath and consider that LTE isn't currently any faster than the fastest HSPA+ networks, and that iPhone 5 delivers a speed boost across the board, not just when using LTE, thanks to its new Qualcomm baseband chip.

Whether you're getting LTE or other variants of 4G service, iPhone 5's new support for fast mobile networks changes its usability dramatically, because typical 3G speeds of around 3Mbps or less put a pretty big crimp on email attachments, cloud storage and media streaming. With data rates around 10Mbps or more, a smartphone becomes an entirely new type of device.

Note that iPhone 5 doesn't support simultaneous voice calls over CDMA while using LTE to browse data. If you want to call and access the web at once, you'll need a GSM carrier or WiFi. This has always been the case on CDMA iPhone providers like Sprint and Verizon, so it's not a new wrinkle.

The other shoe to drop, however, is that mobile operators are not offering a lot more data in their packages, just faster data rates. So rather than slowly eating through 2GB in a month at a 3G trickle, you can now easily blow through your 2G allotment in a day. Verizon knows this, and it therefore hopes you'll take a $450 subsidy in exchange for your unlimited plan. You should consider paying full price for your iPhone 5 to keep your unlimited data plan.

Sure, you'll be paying an extra $450 across two years of contract extension. But that works out to an extra $19 per month. Even if you've never used more than 2GB of data (and given Verizon's "slowest 3G network on earth," you likely haven't), that will likely change once you have LTE. If you take the subsidy, you'll be trading unlimited LTE for 2GB LTE, and paying more than $18 per month for another couple gigabytes of data.

With data speeds that are at least 4 times faster and easily up to ten times faster, it's not crazy to think that your data use will similarly go up by a factor of two or four. That means you're going to be paying at least $20 more on your data plan. Might as well waive the subsidy and keep the ability to use as much LTE data as you can for the same price (if not less).

Again, if you're paying $700 for a smartphone, you shouldn't suddenly try to pinch pennies on your mobile plan, because the functionality of iPhone 5 is pretty tightly related to the data plan at your disposal. The three versions of iPhone 5 supporting various regional LTE service providers were detailed previously.

Wi-Fi speeds up to 150Mbps

If you spend most of your time in Wi-Fi coverage at home or at work, you might be insulated from data overage fees, making it more sensible to give up your last opportunity to ever have an unlimited 4G data plan in exchange for a phone subsidy.

If that's the case, you'll appreciate that the new iPhone 5 is even faster on Wi-Fi, with advertised support for transmit rates up to 150Mbps and support for both 2.4 and 5GHz 802.11n networks. The latter can be set up on AirPort base stations to take advantage of the less saturated 5GHz bands.

In testing, iPhone 5 had no problem seeing and connecting to 5GHz networks (just like iPad; previous iPhone models simply don't see them). However, the top speeds achieved on our 802.11n network were limited to around 20-25Mbps. That's fast, but nowhere near 150Mbps. MacBooks have no problem connecting to the same network at 300Mbps or faster.

Wi-Fi speeds may be currently hitting a wall that Apple can fix in software. We'll be doing additional in-depth testing of iPhone 5's Wi-Fi and 4G connectivity in the near future.

On page 5 of 6: Other iPhone 5 hardware features