The Most Over-Hyped Features
There are two real issues here. First, besides Verizon Wireless' network, 4G networks are not ready to deliver on the promise of ubiquitous, high speed networking, comparable to your cable modem or fiber optic connection at home. There are moments of greatness to be found. In the right spot, you'll see super-fast download speeds on Sprint and Clear's WiMAX network, or on T-Mobile HSPA+ networks. Even AT&T claims to match and perhaps beat T-Mobile's fast network capabilities, though we haven't had first-hand experience to match this claim.
So, it's true that, depending on where you stand (literally), you might find tomorrow's networking technology today. But if there's one thing that my extensive data networking tests proved to me, it's that performance varies wildly. You might see 5-7 Mbps downloads through Sprint's 4G network in one spot, then barely break 1 Mbps in another.
What's truly important to most customers is not the raw data network speeds or the bombastic claims the carriers make. It's how these speeds affect the real features and services you want to use. In layman's terms, current 4G networks are not going to satisfy your urge for continual movie watching through Netflix or other streaming services. Quality will suffer, and you won't see HD content streamed reliably. Web pages will not open at speeds that rival your desktop, and Flash content will take even longer. High-def video uploads to YouTube or other video sharing sites will still take a long time, if they are even possible.
At the moment, with very few active users, Verizon's network seems like the fastest bet, but even The Network's impressive LTE service comes with some caveats. Don't let the pre-production prototype phones from CES fool you. It will be a couple months at least before the first LTE phones hit the market, and these phones will probably see much lower battery life than their 3G counterparts.
The 4G phones I handled from LG, Samsung and HTC were all the thickest smartphones I've seen in a while. The network connection was still buggy and imperfect, and it failed frequently in the demonstrations I was given from Verizon reps. I'm hoping that these problems are ironed out by launch, especially because there is plenty of time until then. The four LTE phones Verizon has been showing off will be released over a period of time stretching to June. Phones announced this Spring and Summer will probably not go on sale until the fall, if not the 2011 holiday season.
It's too early to start complaining about a lack of 4G networking on new releases. That doesn't mean enthusiastic buyers shouldn't consider a 4G device, but these phones are not for everyone, at least not yet.