Whether you play Candy Crush or Call of Duty, find out how AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon compare for both 4G LTE and 5G networks.
Over the next few years, 5G is set to bring supersonic download speeds and a new level of responsiveness to our lives and seemingly ever-expanding armamentarium of connected devices.
These network upgrades will bring with them revolutionary changes, especially the myriad ways in which we interact with media in our day-to-day lives. In fact, a recent CNET survey found that 40% of its users felt that entertainment breakthroughs will provide "the most life-changing application of 5G," and for good reason. This increased cloud-based processing power at the user's fingertips will ensure smooth, glitch-free gameplay on mobile devices like never before, including faster gaming speeds and reduced latency compared to 4G LTE networks.
SEE: 5G technology: A business leader's guide (TechRepublic Premium)
That said, a new report from mobile performance information organization, RootMetrics, takes a look at the current state of cloud-based gaming for both 4G LTE and 5G networks. Titled "Mobile cloud gaming: the real-world cloud gaming experience in Los Angeles" (a nod to the site serving as the testbed for the study) the report compares the performances of AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon painting a clearer picture of the current state of network affairs. Below, we will take a carrier-by-carrier look at some of the more interesting key findings.
Methodology: Real-world cloud gaming experience
The report compares the top US carriers based on overall 5G network availability, 5G and 4G LTE speeds and latency, as well as other gaming experience metrics such as jitter and packet loss. Download speeds and latency requirements established by Remote Play, Stadia, and xCloud were used as set thresholds for comparison. Overall, the team looked at two general types of mobile cloud-based games at two resolutions: SD casual games (720p) and HD online games (1080p). The former being games that are not heavily impacted by minimal latency whereas the latter require premium video and audio quality and near-zero lag for optimal gameplay.
Key findings: Carrier-by-carrier results
Generally speaking, the report found that all four carriers provided adequate online speeds for both the casual and more demanding multiplayer games. However, the same cannot be said for latency. While most networks should be able to deliver a rather smooth gameplay experience for casual cloud-based games, online multiplayer games "could be challenging on most networks, even on 5G."
Overall, Sprint demonstrated by far the most packet loss of all four carriers. Packet loss rates were about 5% while on 4G LTE and more than 4% for 5G. For comparison sake, at about 3% packet loss gamers start to lose critical gaming components such as poor chat quality, excessive lag, shoddy video, poor audio, and more. Increased packet loss will greatly reduce the overall user experience for online multiplayer games, however, as noted in the report, Sprint does boast "impressive" median 5G download speeds (61.8 Mbps) and wide 5G network availability. As a result, the authors of the report appear optimistic about the future of Sprint's 5G capacity and latency improvement moving forward.
For now, Sprint may fit the bill for casual gaming, however, the same cannot be said for more intensive online multiplayer options. The carrier's median download speeds should provide a smooth gaming experience for both online multiplayer and casual games. Sprint's latency did exceed the minimal threshold considered for SD casual gaming, however, this should not necessarily hinder casual gamers playing less demanding entertainment. The carrier demonstrated comparatively high latency rates (95.0ms) on 4G LTE more than triple the minimum necessary for any form of cloud-based gaming and Sprint's latency increased to 127.0ms on 5G. Nonetheless, more casual games a la Candy Crush should offer a relatively smooth experience for some smartphone gaming.
Verizon touted quality download speeds, exceeding the minimum thresholds necessary for online multiplayer and casual games. In fact, Verizon mmWave 5G demonstrated an impressive median download speed of 254.7 Mbps. The authors of the report note that this was one of the fastest median 5G download speeds they'd ever recorded in tests around the globe. The team did note difficulties finding consistent mmWave 5G around LA. That's because mmWave 5G cannot span the distance as well as other carrier's mid- and low-band 5G. Overall, the carrier registered solid scores for speeds, jitter, and packet loss across 5G and 4G LTE, however, Verizon's latency was one of the highest recorded during the LA tests. In a nutshell, individuals relying on Verizon should expect a quality casual gaming experience, although more demanding online multiplayer options may be too much at the moment.
T-Mobile demonstrated by far the most widespread 5G network availability of the carriers. The company also touts 5G median download speeds of 24.3 Mbps compared to 4G LTE median speeds of just 16.4 Mbps. The 5G download speeds did exceed requirements established for HD and SD gaming, however the same cannot be said for HD online multiplayer games on 4G LTE.
Overall, T-Mobile scored well on 5G jitter and packet loss. While T-Mobile logged packet loss rates of 3.2% on 4G LTE, the carrier demonstrated a rate of just 0.5% on 5G. This was second only Verizon's 5G packet loss rate of 0.2%. Jitter also improved from 4G LTE to 5G, dropping from a rate of 24.0 ms to 15.0ms respectively.
SEE: How 5G will bring new capabilities for connected devices (TechRepublic)
It's important to note that T-Mobile did register latency rates lower than Verizon and Sprint, although these numbers were still higher than gaming providers bare-bones requirements. The report notes latency rates of about 77ms for both 5G and 4G LTE which should not be problematic for casual SD and HD gamers, although individuals may experience a lag and glitch during more demanding online multiplayer bouts.
AT&T recorded the best marks with regard to latency on both 5G and 4G LTE. The carrier also exceeded thresholds for other key metrics such as packet loss and 5G jitter. Additionally, AT&T's median 4G LTE and 5G download speeds exceeded the minimum threshold requirements for cloud-based gaming. Overall, the report concludes that AT&T should provide adequate speeds to accommodate multiplayer and casual online games, while only demonstrating "minor lag" during more intensive precision-focused games such as Call of Duty. That said, AT&T should be able to handle the rigors of most casual SD games with minimal complaints. Online gamers who prefer multiplayer options should also enjoy an overall smooth mobile gameplay experience with the occasional minimal lag disturbance peppered in.
Currently, the future of 5G and cloud-based online gaming appears bright. As can be readily gleaned from this initial report, each carrier certainly has areas in clear need of improvement moving forward. Feel free to peruse the full report and all of the key findings here.
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- What is 5G? Everything you need to know about the new wireless revolution (ZDNet)
- Best cell phone trade-in options for iPhones and Android phones (CNET)
- The 10 most important iPhone apps of all time (Download.com)
- 5G: More must-read coverage (TechRepublic on Flipboard)
This story was updated on May 5, 2020.