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If you want blazing speed, iPhone 4S may not be for you

If you're already on a Verizon Wireless or Sprint Nextel 4G device, moving to the new Apple phone could leave you disappointed, CNET's Roger Cheng explains.


commentary The "S" in iPhone 4S can't possibly stand for network speed, can it?

Despite a "never-been-done" redesigned antenna, other smartphones can still leave the iPhone 4S in their dust. For all of Apple's advances with the iPhone, the network speed is one area where the company has fallen short.

(Related: iPhone 4S First Take)

The connection speed is an increasingly critical issue for consumers, who rely on zippier networks to ferry streaming videos, music downloads, complex Web sites, and online games on to their devices. That the iPhone 4S can not ride on any of the U.S. carriers' fastest networks has to be taken into consideration before purchase.

Many were hoping the iPhone 4S to make the leap to 4G. While AT&T considers it a 4G device, at Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel the iPhone 4S will appear sluggish next to the LTE connection enjoyed by the Motorola Droid Bionic or the Evo 3D's WiMax speeds. Even at AT&T, the Samsung Galaxy S II enjoys a faster connection.

"It's not the fastest phone on AT&T," said Avi Greengart, who covers consumer electronic devices for Current Analysis. "It certainly isn't the fastest phone on Verizon or Sprint."

Nowadays, 4G is more of a marketing term than a technical classification. While Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel have what some in the industry consider a true next-generation wireless network, AT&T and T-Mobile USA have reclassified their souped-up 3G networks as 4G as well.

Apple, for its part, has wisely opted to stay out of the 4G debate.

"We're not going to get into the debate about what's 4G and what isn't. We'll leave that for others to talk about," said Philip Schiller, head of marketing for Apple, during the announcement yesterday.

The iPhone 4S stacked up against other "4G" devices from AT&T. Apple

But that didn't stop Schiller from associating the iPhone 4S with a few other AT&T devices that shared a 4G moniker: the Motorola Atrix 4G, the LG Thrill 4G, and the HTC Inspire 4G. This followed Schiller's breathless claim that the antenna design was "revolutionary" and that its ability to switch between two antennas in the device was something "that's never been done before."

AT&T was quick to point out that its version of the iPhone 4S will be the only one among U.S. carriers to offer an HSPA+ connection. But not all HSPA technology is equal. Apple doesn't even refer to HSPA+ in its presentation, instead using the term HSUPA, which is part of the same family tree of network technology. Apple isn't using the fastest branch either.

Schiller said the iPhone 4S features double the speed of the iPhone 4, allowing you to download files at a rate of 14.4 megabits per second and send up files at 5.8 megabits per second. But those are theoretical peak speeds, which only occur during the most optimal conditions. Usually the connection speed is much slower, although AT&T doesn't provide an estimate for average speeds.

CNET will be testing the iPhone 4S--versions from all three carriers--and comparing them with other top speedy competitors next week.

Apple iPhone 4S
Apple's iPhone 4S. Apple

The Samsung Galaxy S II, also on AT&T, can theoretically download a file at 21 megabits per second. T-Mobile USA, which isn't getting the iPhone, is set to launch its own version of the Galaxy S II and the HTC Amaze, which use the same wireless technology but can theoretically connect at 42 megabits per second (it claims the average speed is more like 8 megabits per second).

(Related: T-Mobile unveils Samsung Galaxy S II, HTC Amaze 4G)

Admittedly, the difference on AT&T will be minimal. The math is a lot simpler when compared with Verizon Wireless and Sprint's 4G networks. With LTE, Verizon has promised average (not theoretical) download speeds of 12 megabits per second, although the connection has often been found significantly faster. Sprint's WiMax offers an average speed of 6 megabits per second.

For customers using Verizon's Thunderbolt or Droid Bionic or Sprint's Evo 3D or Epic Touch, moving to an iPhone 4S would result in a dramatic slowdown in their connection speeds. Those used to 4G speeds may find it painful to move back to 3G.

Apple didn't decide to go to a true next-generation connection because it wanted to avoid the problems of other 4G phones. The faster connection comes at a cost in shorter battery life, and the need for a bulkier frame to hold multiple wireless radios. For a style-obsessed company such as Apple, it's easy to see why they opted to skip 4G for now. It also likely avoided WiMax altogether because even Sprint is moving to LTE.

(Related: Sprint to launch own 4G LTE network in early 2012--scoop)

To be sure, the S in iPhone 4S also stands for the faster dual-core processor, faster graphics capabilities, and its ability to take faster photos. While many are getting over the disappointment that Apple didn't redesign the phone, analysts say the backlash won't affect sales.

"Apple didn't do anything revolutionary with the iPhone 4S, but they didn't have to," Greengart said.

The lack of 4G isn't really a knock on the iPhone 4S, but more of a warning to those who have become accustomed to much higher connection speeds. This phone may not be the one for you.