Sprint Galaxy S4

Poor network performance can handicap even the fastest of smartphones

This is the Sprint Galaxy S4. There are many others like it, but this one is Sprint’s. Externally, the phone bears no Sprint branding, and the bundled Sprint apps are relatively tame, if numerous. But unfortunately for the carrier there’s one unique aspect of its Galaxy S4 that's not quite so praiseworthy. That’s right, once again a Sprint device’s Achilles’ heel is its network performance.

More: Samsung Galaxy S4 review

On the software side, there’s not too much to surprise Sprint subscribers. Sprint Zone’s still around, as is Sprint Movies and Sprint Music, so if you’re invested in any of those services, you’ll find them waiting on the Sprint Galaxy S4. Sprint’s visual voicemail app is present and correct, too.

There are a couple of new additions -- first up is Lumen toolbar, which hooks into the stock browser, delivering a customizable shortcut menu down below while collecting anonymous analytics data. There’s also a shortcut to install the Scout (Telenav) navigation app. All standard stuff, all easily dealt with via the App settings menu if you’re not a fan.

But poor 3G speeds and a sluggish 4G LTE roll-out make the prospect of using a phone like the Galaxy S4 on a carrier like Sprint a daunting task. The speed of the handset itself contrasts jarringly against the glacial network connection, particularly in New York City where we’ve been testing the S4 in recent days.

NYC isn’t an official Sprint LTE market yet, but there are pockets of 4G to be found, particularly around Manhattan. Most of the time, though, you’re limited Sprint’s EVDO-based 3G, and on 3G we were lucky to creep above 1 megabit per second down. Inexplicably, the connection would often fail entirely. When it worked, it was only barely usable.

Where we were able to get 4G reception, Sprint’s LTE speeds weren’t much better. When it worked -- and it quite often didn’t work, even with a full five bars of reception-- we averaged around 3Mbps down and 1Mbps up, with the lone exception of a single 35Mbps downlink result.  Aside from our single super-fast speed test result, we saw performance that wasn't great, even for a work-in-progress network. And when you factor in the constant switching between 3G and 4G, and the frequent network timeouts that seemed to occur, it’s a world of hurt.

A fast smartphone like the Galaxy S4 works best with a high-speed network to back it up, and our experiences with Sprint’s network over the past week just weren’t up to the task of servicing such a handset. But it’s not just the user experience that’s impacted by network issues -- battery life takes a hit too, as the phone’s forced to juggle between EVDO and LTE, and ramp up power to the antenna in the many areas of poor reception.

So yet again, we have a flagship device on a sub-par network. If you already have great Sprint LTE coverage where you live and work, by all means go ahead and pick up the Now Networks’ Galaxy S4 -- on any network, the S4 is a great phone. But for many, the connection speeds on offer just aren’t up to scratch. We hope that’ll change in the future as the carrier’s network vision plans come to fruition.

More: Samsung Galaxy S4 review