When Windows Phone 7.5 debuted in late 2011, it was accompanied by a small lineup of new devices, including the Samsung Focus S and Focus Flash, the HTC Titan, and others. These devices all shared many similar or even identical components and capabilities, including 4G-compatible antennas. Windows Phone, it seemed, had finally caught up with its Android competitors.
Well, not exactly.
As it turns out, the first generation of Windows Phone 7.5 devices supported what I call “pseudo-4G” connections, or what the industry refers to as HSPA/HSPA+, or High-Speed Packet Access/Evolved HSPA type connections. These connections offer better performance than the 3G connections that characterized the previous generation of cellular data connectivity. But they fall far short of what call “true 4G,” or LTE (Long Term Evolution), connections in the real world.
Wireless performance will, of course, vary depending on your physical location and other factors. And it’s fair to say that wireless performance isn’t just about pure bandwidth “speed” but also related issues like the ability of the device’s antenna to switch between various states and conditions.
But let’s not sweat the details. It basically works like this, at least on AT&T, which has been my cellular provider since the orginal (EGDE, or 2G-based) iPhone debuted in 2007. HSPA is a 3G-based technology, while HSPA+, which is marketed as 4G (but isn’t, not really) offers up to 4 times the performance. But LTE offers up to 10 times the performance of HSPA. So moving from HSPA/HSPA+ to LTE is a big deal.
Semi-controversially, Windows Phone 7.5 identifies HSPA/HSPA+ as “4G” in the Windows Phone status bar, with no differentiation between the two. And on the Nokia Lumia 900, you can still see this behavior. For example, when I’m at home in a classic cellular dead spot that seems to affect all wireless carriers, I have a poor connection (1, maybe 2 bars) that is identified as 4G. But this week, with the Lumia 900, I’ve driven around Dedham to see how or whether the connection identifier changed. And sure enough, I see LTE in the status bar virtually everywhere, even up the street at the elementary school.
I’m curious to see how this works around the country, given AT&T’s supposed lack of coverage. But I suspect that it will be pretty good in most of the places I visit for work, since they’re major cities.
Regardless, there’s a paradox to this connectivity. As the speed of the network increases, so too does the speed at which we can sop up our allotted monthly bandwidth; I’d imagine most Americans are restricted to 2 GB or 3 GB of data per month. So with a 3G or HSPA connection, it may not make a lot of sense to stream movies or TV shows via Netflix to a mobile phone. But now that more capable LTE connections exist, making such things technically more possible, we’re going to run into our monthly data limits. So even though we have the bandwidth, we may not be able to afford using it effectively.
Long story short, many of us are going to simply continue what we’ve been doing on mobile phones: Checking email, browsing the web, running apps, updating Facebook, and so on. And in my admittedly limited experience so far this week, I don’t see any advantage or difference to doing so over LTE vs. HSPA, HSPA+ or even 3G.
You could, of course, simply add more capacity. AT&T Wireless provides 2G of data for $30 per month. But pay $50 and you can get up to 5 GB of data, a decent jump. And better yet, you get Internet tethering capabilities with the latter plan as well.
Tethering debuted with Windows Phone 7.5 late last year, but I didn’t add it to my plan at the time because the phones of the day were only HSPA/HSPA+ based and I didn’t feel like the connectivity I was seeing warranted using them as wireless modems. But with the advent of true LTE connectivity in the Lumia 900, I made the switch. And I’m very eager to try this out in the real world.
Thus far, I’ve only made a few test forays into local coffee shops and restaurants, as I’m doing today as I write this. And while I’ll prepare a future Feature Focus article about this functionality soon, it’s worth exploring briefly here, since I feel that the arrival of the Lumia 900 and LTE networking does make this feature worth considering, especially for those that travel.
As with purely phone-based connectivity, you’re not going to typically want to stream videos to your laptop over the cellular connection. But you can if you want to. In fact, I’m streaming a recent episode of Leo Laporte’s “The Tech Guy” podcast as I write this. But I’m more concerned with the data consumption: I’ll typically stick to email, web browsing, and article uploading over this connection, I bet. But I’ll be tracking usage over time to see how it works.
Functionally, Internet tethering is easy enough to enable. On the device, you visit Settings, Internet Sharing, and then optionally configure the network’s name, security type, and password. (Defaults are provided.)
When enabled, Internet Sharing broadcasts a normal, 802.11g-type Wi-Fi network. You can connect up to five devices, and while the feature doesn’t offer any information about connected devices, it does provide a running count.
When broadcasting, an Internet Sharing icon appears in the Windows Phone status bar. Obviously, you’ll want to turn this off when you don’t need it, as a laptop or other device sucks data at a much faster rate than does your phone. (Think SUV vs. electric bicycle.)
(Some things I’d like to see. A running tab of how much data is being consumed over the shared connection. And a way to create a tile for individual settings interfaces—like Internet Sharing—on the Start screen. Currently, you can only create a tile for Settings. That’s very limiting.)
On the PC, of course, the connection appears as a normal Wi-Fi connection and can be used normally.
One of the concerns with both LTE and Internet tethering is battery life: It’s highly likely that either activity could directly impact battery life in a very major way. And even in limited testing, I can see this happening already, at least when both are used in tandem. (So far, just using LTE on the device itself doesn’t seem to be an issue, as it clearly is on the Android-based Samsung Galaxy Nexus I also own.) The solution to this is to physically chain the phone to the PC via USB, keeping the charge up.
(A side concern is heat. Tethering + LTE does indeed cause the back of the normally neutral Lumia to get a bit warm, though never hot. Some phones are like space heaters when used in this capacity.)
This isn’t the first time I’ve used tethering, but it’s the first time in a long, long while I’ve used it as part of my data plan: Way back in late 2006/early 2007, I used tethering over Verizon’s EVDO network using the now-ridiculous seeming Motorola Q. But it’s nice to have the capability back, and with a very modern device using very modern and capable cellular networking capabilities. So far so good, and obviously a key reason to consider the Nokia Lumia 900.