Thunderdome Showdown: HSDPA Vs. EV-DO

The battle of the year! Cingular’s newcomer HSDPA squares off with Sprint’s crowd-favorite EV-DO. Speculation has been splattered from one side of the Internet to the other about which technology fairs better and I’m here to set the record straight.

Using both a Novatel Merlin XU870 HSDPA ExpressCard and a Merlin EX720 EV-DO, during my travels to various points across the country I was able to fully realize the pros and cons of these bitterly contested opponents. Can EV-DO maintain its dominance over the WWAN arena with its consistent performance, or will HSDPA clinch the title with its fast and fancy footwork?

As I mentioned above, HSDPA is the new kid on the block. It emerged in the past year and has recently seen some wide proliferation in its network availability. I’ve had considerable experience with HSDPA on my Blackjack and its been mostly positive. The availability has been good and the performance agreeable. Given those factors I was excited to try the dedicated HSDPA ExpressCard on my MacBook Pro.

At 7.2Mbps, Cingular HSDPA is twice as fast as the paltry 3.1Mbps EV-DO Rev. A offered by Sprint. The problem I’ve found is that you’re unlikely to achieve those speeds anywhere. During my travels, I unable to able to reach max bandwidth on Sprint of HSDPA. But don’t let that sway you, each of the mediums manage to sail in their own rights.

AlthoughCingular doesn’t currently offer the Merlin XU870 ExpressCard directly, one can be had pretty easily and it works on a MacBook Pro without a hitch. Just update the OS X software and you’re good to go. Simplicity of install is a great device feature, especially in comparison to the disaster that is the EX720 setup on Mac.

HSDPA turned out to be rather bittersweet. I found few locations where it hit anything near its stated 7.2Mbps capacity, regardless, I did locate more than a few areas that produced markedly faster speeds than its counterpart. What I noted is that three solid bars allows for some pretty speedy Web browsing. I was, however, disappointed to find a lackluster gain in download speeds. I suspect packet loss to be the culprit, but it was undeniably noticeable.

The way I see it, HSDPA has about a year to dominate. At about that time, WiMAX will squirt its beautiful head from Sprint’s placenta. When that happens, those 7.2Mbps that HSDPA offers won’t seem so pretty for the same reason that 3.1Mbps on EV-DO doesn’t seem so great anymore. Why? Because WiMAX will be 9376481641^17Mbps (results my vary), and who will want HSDPA when you can get WiMAX.

So the prompt to Cingular, is to get your game together. You’ve got the better technology right now, but you’re rolling it out slower than granny at bowling night. Those pins aren’t going to knock themselves down. You gotta put some space-aged polymer hip into it, grandma. Rally the Bridge club, call your senile old friends, I don’t care. Just get it done faster than you’re currently doing it, because you’re throwing gutter balls even with the better technology.

As I previously explained, EV-DO is a favorite for a reason: consistency. Sure when HSDPA zings, EV-DO can’t compete, but HSDPA seldom lives up to its full potential. What I found is that Sprint ain’t lyin’ about that widest availability thing. Its EV-DO is available everywhere I tried it. In buildings, under overhangs, in closets, on toilets, Texas. Nothing seemed to stop it. I also managed reasonably quick browsing speeds with downloads of around 150KB and uploads of roughly 40KBps. That’s as fast as my first home broadband connection, but it’s available anywhere — guess which is more desirable.

Meanwhile my HSDPA card sat forlorn in my backpack knowing he could do better if coach would just believe in him. A terrible fate indeed, but consider the facts. The Merlin XU870 frequently slipped into EDGE mode which isn’t good for anything. Seriously, EDGE is just bad. It’s like using dial-up. It just frustrates me more than anything and by the end I’m preparing to smash my system into the ground. EV-DO never experiences such qualms. It’s always EV-DO. It might not reach its max speeds, but it performs well enough that you can still get most of your work done.

The Merlin EX720 ExpressCard that Sprint is currently offering is straight up awesome, once you get it working that is. You see, the EX720 can’t be activated on Mac. To make it work, you’ll have to activate it on a PC with an ExpressCard slot. It’s pretty painless if you have the materials, but be prepared for it. If you don’t, the device won’t locate a carrier and will be wholly useless.

Now it’s important to consider that the playing field here is level. Given that both cards are from Novatel, they’re at least cut from the same performance caliber. The variations are completely dependent on the medium. That said, I think EV-DO is the best choice at the moment. If you’re getting a WWAN card, I suspect your goal is to use it in a variety of locations. Unless you can confirm that HSDSPA will be available in most of the areas you’ll be using it (and I expect that you’ll be using it in a lot of unexpected areas).

If HSDPA ever gets enough traction, then watch out. It’ll blast EV-DO into a million pieces. Sadly, it doesn’t seem that it’ll spread wide enough before WiMAX stomps onto the scene.