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Verizon vs. Sprint 5G throwdown: Lightning-fast network speeds are just the beginning

Let the 5G carrier battle over the best speeds and coverage commence.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Think of 5G and you think of speed -- anywhere from 2x to 10x what you get with 4G, as the first faster networks ramp up. But after two tests of Verizon's 5G network in Chicago and one in Dallas with Sprint, it's clear that download speeds are just the beginning when it comes to a satisfying 5G experience. Consistent speeds and wide coverage are just as important as incredible peak speeds and lightning-fast real-world downloads. 

For example, Verizon's field tests were faster than Sprint's on the whole, but our test with Sprint revealed the importance of a wider coverage area overall. The results of these two tests aren't anywhere near a conclusion that either network is "better." Right now they're both saddled with challenges and growing pains that could even intensify as more people begin using the networks. Our time with these budding networks is an important litmus for our faster future. 

We're still a long way off from 5G's broader applications, like helping self-driving cars instantly talk to each other on the road, remote surgery, flawless video calls and graphics-heavy games you play in real time. Even in the short run, you may not be able to fully feel the effects of next-generation 5G speeds until these networks are more built up, more phones become available, and the price of ownership drops. However, the reality of 5G's ability to make your download speeds exponentially faster is undeniably clear and happening now.

And now, here's how Verizon and Sprint's 5G tests compare.

Read: 5G is real and Verizon, Sprint and EE have the networks to prove it

5G network footprint: Sprint wins today

Sprint claims victory in turning on a larger 5G network by square footage than Verizon. However, Verizon is the largest US network by population coverage, while Sprint is currently fourth. Still, Sprint's strong start with 5G makes it an attractive bargaining chip in the proposed merger between Sprint and T-Mobile

If the DOJ approves the merger, the newly strengthened T-Mobile will be in a strongly competitive position to take on Verizon and AT&T (which has a network for 5G hotspots but has not yet invited journalists to publicly field-test them.)

Now playing: Watch this: Putting Sprint's 5G to the test on the LG V50
11:22

Sprint stats

  • 5G cities today: Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Kansas City
  • 5G phones: LG V50,  Galaxy S10 5G coming in June
  • More 5G cities announced: Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Phoenix and Washington, in "the coming weeks."
  • Total area: 2,180 square miles; 11.5 million people

Verizon stats


Read
: See live 5G coverage anywhere in the world

Sprint 5G

The V50 ThinQ is LG and Sprint's first 5G phone.

Lynn La/CNET

Verizon is over 2x faster than Sprint's peak speeds

We field-tested Verizon and Sprint speeds in two different ways. First, using the Speedtest.net benchmarking app to measure speeds in different locations around each city. Second, we downloaded apps, movies and TV shows to see how fast the network and phones handled real-world actions.

Peak download speeds in Chicago were faster on our second visit, and more than twice as fast as Sprint's fastest speed on the LG V50 in Dallas. 

Verizon peak 5G speed: 1.3Gbps downlink (gigabits per second)
Sprint peak 5G speed: 484Mbps downlink (megabits per second)

Now playing: Watch this: See Galaxy S10 5G's jaw-dropping real-world speeds
8:44

For reference, our fast home internet speeds might hover in the 400Mbps range.

Verizon's network 5G speed superiority doesn't stop at peak speeds. Our 5G results from that most recent trek to Chicago consistently spanned 400Mbps to over 1Gbps, and we broke through the 1Gbps barrier four times in a 4-hour testing period. 4G speeds were also faster where we tested 5G.

This is an imperfect comparison in a lot of ways. Verizon and Sprint use different spectrum (radio frequencies). Verizon uses millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum, which produces extremely fast speeds to a targeted area. Sprint, however, uses midband frequencies, which cover a comparatively larger area but are a bit slower, hence the 400Mbps peaks. 

lg-v50-sprint-5g-test-lynn

Sprint's 5G download tests are a bit slower than Verizon, but still the real deal.

Lynn La/CNET

Real-world tests are more impressive than you'd think

Peak speeds are one thing, but what you'll really care about is how quickly your shows and movies can download. We downloaded some of the same apps and shows in Chicago and Dallas to try to compare. It's not apples to apples, of course, because of testing constraints that have us in different cities, on different networks using different phones at different times (and in once case, a different season of the show -- oops). 

Verizon 5G versus Sprint 5G


Galaxy S10 5G (Verizon) Galaxy S10 Plus (Verizon) LG V50 (Sprint) LG G8 (Sprint)
PUBG Mobile (1.86GB) 2.5 minutes ~3 minutes 3 minutes, 31 seconds 73MB (3% of the file) after 3.5 minutes
Wine Country movie (143 minutes) 8.2 seconds Little progress after 2 minutes 3 minutes, 45 seconds* No progress
Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Season 1 (8 episodes) N/A N/A 4 minutes First episode didn't download after 4 minutes
Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Season 2 (10 episodes) ~5 minutes 1 episode in 4 minutes N/A N/A

*Sprint later said there were issues at this location

The takeaway here is that 5G will be faster than its 4G counterpart in ways you can really see.

Sprint beats Verizon on consistency

Where Sprint really pulls ahead was in citywide coverage. Our test in Dallas had us in a bus and car driving around the city while seeing download speeds pass between 5G and 4G. We were able to test on the go, and there was a larger area of the city and Dallas outskirts outfitted with coverage.

Meanwhile in Chicago (we didn't get a chance to test in Minneapolis), 5G areas acted more like hotspots. They work best when you're within a line of sight and 100 to 300 feet away. Coverage zones are smaller and the signal is more finicky, easily obstructed by trees, cars, raindrops -- you name it. 

s10-5g-verizon-2
Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The mmWave spectrum that Verizon uses also can't penetrate indoors or through glass, so you can't get the benefit if you're driving in a car or inside your workplace ... yet. Remember, 5G is still in painfully early days.

That larger coverage area showed in our Dallas tests, but again, this was one city with its very particular geography, and Sprint took its time to construct its network. Verizon clearly rushed on the first test, which is one reason the network (and Samsung) invited journalists back to test the Galaxy S10 5G.

What does it all mean?

Verizon has the upper hand when it comes to consistently fast 5G speeds ... when you can actually latch onto the network. Sprint showed us how slower-but-broader 5G coverage can still benefit you with faster-than-4G downloads across the board. 

That said, these tests are still best thought of as demonstrations, since they're tightly monitored by the carriers and since there are only a few people using the network at a time. When people start pinging the 5G networks in droves, that will be the real test of network speed, congestion and convenience.

After all the talk, it's invigorating to see 5G networks come to life. But they still have such a long way to go.

Lynn La contributed to this story.

Originally published May 31 at 11:30 a.m. PT.
Update, June 1, June 2, June 3, June 4 at 9:10 a.m. PT: Added more details.