It seems that each time an LTE handset comes out, there’s invariably some perceived issue with connectivity and stability. This time, focus is being placed on Verizon’s CDMA/LTE variant of the Galaxy Nexus, and the issue surrounds LTE connectivity robustness compared to the other LTE handsets out there.

I’ve been running battery life tests on our LTE Galaxy Nexus review unit since release day (a process that takes a considerable amount of time and results in our reviews posting a while behind everyone else’s), but have had some time to run tests and gauge subjective performance. I found that LTE connectivity and performance felt above average, subjectively, and noted that in a tweet. After complaints started to surface, I spent a considerable amount of time reading the threads on XDA and other places around the web trying to discern what the complaints are about. I’ve seen a couple of big misconceptions that I think really get to the heart of the matter.

First off, is some background. The Verizon CDMA/LTE Galaxy Nexus (codename “mysid”) uses a combination of Samsung CMC221 and Via Telecom CBP 7.1 for LTE and CDMA 1x/EVDO connectivity, respectively. This is virtually identical (unsurprisingly) to the Droid Charge, which used a CMC220 for LTE and the same CBP 7.1. The CMC22x family is UE Category 3, which currently is the highest for shipping devices and means it can handle up to 100 Mbps downstream with 20 MHz FDD. To date, all of the LTE basebands in Verizon LTE devices have been UE category 3 with the exception of Motorola’s devices, which are all UE category 2, but I digress. We’ve reached out to Samsung Semiconductor about what’s changed between CMC220 and 221, but doubtless the changes improve connection stability and reliability.

Speeds thus far have also been excellent. I’ve squeezed in 183 speedtests between battery life testing, and have seen some of the fastest LTE connectivity out of the Galaxy Nexus to date. After testing so many Motorola LTE devices with UE Category 2 modems, it’s refreshing to see this kind of performance out of a UE Category 3 device.

Downstream

Upstream

Latency

The issue that most people talk about centers around signal strength, and this is where a few misconceptions kick in. I’ve gotten a few emails and tweets and read pages on forums where people are implicitly comparing CDMA2000 1x/EVDO field strength to LTE field strength. The issue here is that on basically all of the LTE/CDMA Verizon handsets, the field under “Signal Strength” in about refers to EVDO signal strength, and not LTE signal strength. The two aren’t comparable at all for a host of reasons - different spectrum (800 MHz and 1900 MHz for 1x/EVDO as opposed to 700 MHz for LTE), and different cells (there’s some correlation, but not every Verizon base station has LTE onboard). The end result is that if you’re comparing 1x/EVDO signal strength to LTE signal strength, you’re making an absolutely meaningless apples to oranges comparison.


This is not a valid comparison - LTE versus EVDO signal strength

The Galaxy Nexus (and really just Android 4.0) now correctly reports and accommodates LTE by reporting its signal strength under “About->Status” and visualizing that as bars appropriately. Switch to EVDO on the Galaxy Nexus and signal strength appropriately changes to reflect an entirely different air interface’s signal strength. It’s nice to see people using dBm instead of bars when possible (which are effectively meaningless as a comparison metric), but now that there are multiple air interfaces on handsets, we have to be explicit about what numbers we’re actually comparing.

This reporting is a problem I’ve talked about at length in more than one LTE handset review, and to date I only know of ways to show LTE signal strength and channel quality on a few handsets. Samsung’s Droid Charge (courtesy Samsung’s excellent ServiceMode application viewed through *#0011# after some unlock trickery) and the Bionic (through logcat and grepping for the radio signal status daemon) report LTE field strength, but only if you dig for them.

Comparing LTE Signal Strength the Right Way

So how does the LTE Galaxy Nexus compare to the Droid Charge and Bionic, the two handsets we can actually view LTE signal strength in dBm on? Very closely as a matter of fact.

I have a Bionic kicking around which has to go back very soon, but fired up logcat and put the Galaxy Nexus next to it. The Bionic reports signal strength pretty constantly whereas in Android 4.0 the number has some hysteresis, but here the numbers are pretty darn close, with the Bionic hovering between -91 and -95 dBm, and the Galaxy Nexus reporting an average of -92 dBm.


Left: Motorola Droid Bionic (logcat showing LTE signal strength), Right: Galaxy Nexus  

Since the Droid Charge is the only other handset I know how to show LTE signal strength on, I tracked a friend down at a local cafe with one and fired up service mode. Again, what’s shown under “About->Status” on the Droid Charge is actually EVDO signal strength. Here the Galaxy Nexus shows -107 dBm and the Droid Charge shows -108 dBm.


Left: Samsung Droid Charge (ServiceMode) Right: Galaxy Nexus

The Droid Charge is another hilarious example of why you can’t compare bars at all, as the Charge shows a positively laughable 4 out of 5 bars in an area with very low LTE signal strength, whereas the Galaxy Nexus (moreover, Android 4.0) has a very conservative and realistic strength to bars mapping. Carriers love to make things out to be better than they really are, however, and the result is this kind of hilarious visualization which portrays LTE signal as being much better than it really is if you stare at bars all day.

Verizon confirming though a tweet that there’s some sort of signal issue affecting the Galaxy Nexus confuses me, since from my perspective there isn’t any issue at all. The only real issue that exists is that the Galaxy Nexus (and really just the stock Android 4.0 signal strength to bars mapping) doesn’t line up with what Verizon has shipped on other devices, thus leading people to make apples to oranges comparisons and imagine an issue. I wager that some of this confusion is also compounded from the number of Verizon customers that are just now getting their first LTE handset with the Galaxy Nexus. It might be surprising to discover that LTE coverage right now isn't nearly as good as 1x/EVDO, but these things will improve as the carrier's LTE rollout continues. The other big disclamer is that I haven't fully investigated 1x/EVDO performance on the Galaxy Nexus, but this will end up being virtually identical to the Droid Charge.

There’s a CDMA and LTE baseband update coming with the LTE Galaxy Nexus’ 4.0.3 update as shown above, but this will likely do more to address connection stability than change the way anything is reported. Given how much attention this has gotten, however, I would not be surprised to see Google make a change to its signal strength to bars mapping for LTE and placebo away an issue that never really existed to begin with. That's also an unfortunate change, since from my perspective the Galaxy Nexus is one of the first handets that doesn't have an unrealistic mapping. In the meantime, we're still working on our Galaxy Nexus review where we'll take a complete look at the LTE/CDMA and GSM/UMTS Galaxy Nexii. 

Update:

As predicted, Verizon has made a statement to The Verge and Computerworld stating that there's nothing wrong with the RF performance characteristics or baseband firmware on the LTE/CDMA Galaxy Nexus. Instead, they will upstream some changes to Android to make the device report its bars visualization in line with the rest of its 4G LTE hardware portfolio. 

"[Verizon] will adjust the signal strength indicator to more closely match other Verizon Wireless devices.

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  • jd1992 - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    Trololol.

    Who wants a phone made out of glass? You're just asking for trouble.

    Any the Galaxy Nexus looks by far nicer than the iPhone 4S. Strangers have complimented me on mine.
    Reply
  • sooper_anandtech12 - Tuesday, December 20, 2011 - link

    While this guy is obviously trolling, I do have to confess that the Galaxy Nexus is plasticky and I don't expect to have to peel off the back cover of my $300 device on contract to just get at the battery. However, I will say that, despite its plasticky-ness, like most Samsung devices, it is very solid. The plasticky nature of the device has its advantages such as being light weight. The manner in which the edges are rounded and even the junk-in-the-trunk bottom characteristic to Samsung devices lends itself to being very well situated in the hand. No, the Galaxy Nexus isn't going to win any awards in the way of industrial design. And no, it's not made of glass and metal. But yes, it is an incredibly solid device and is appears to be a well-thought out design. This is something I cannot say about the RAZR. While the RAZR is made of incredible materials, it's top heavy and if possible, is too thin. Coupled with non-rounded edges and a bezel that seems to extend from screen to infinity, the comparison with it to the Galaxy Nexus is what makes your comment scream "troll." Reply
  • pedrobeach - Monday, December 19, 2011 - link

    Brian - My wife has a Bionic and I have a Galaxy Nexus. At home, we have always constant but weak signals. The Bionic always has an LTE connection and typically has 5mb down speeds using speedtest.net. The Nexus is always 3G and typically has 200k down speeds. The Nexus switches to LTE a few blocks after leaving the house. The Nexus signal problem is real. You may want to re-do your test in an area of marginal coverage. Reply
  • Brian Klug - Monday, December 19, 2011 - link

    The handover cutoffs are different for each device, and obviously isotropy is different between the devices as well. I've gone to areas with marginal coverage and tested and find that things are pretty much the same here (again, that -108 dBm sample is in a low signal area).

    -Brian
    Reply
  • Tetracycloide - Tuesday, December 20, 2011 - link

    Typical Brian, always retreating behind numbers and measurements with units in the face of overwhelming anecdotal evidence... Reply
  • nafhan - Tuesday, December 20, 2011 - link

    Awesome comment! :) Reply
  • Davest - Tuesday, December 20, 2011 - link

    You're welcome to visit my house to see the issue. Bring a Bionic along to compare to my GNex. Reply
  • folsom - Friday, December 23, 2011 - link

    The only thing this article shows is that the antenna efficiency between the units are about the same, but not the SNR. The SNR could be worse on the Nexus on some units, and this may be why some users are seeing increased 3G-4G handoffs at equivalent signal strengths. Reply
  • dcdttu - Tuesday, December 20, 2011 - link

    Agreed. I have compared my phone to a Droid Charge on 3G only (so there are no mix-ups with what the phone is reporting) and found dramatically different signals between the two. The Charge was a champ for signal and the Nexus barely had one.

    I am wondering if the 4.0.2 update killed reception only on certain phones. Some of my friends have the Nexus too and report that their reception is fine.
    Reply
  • numberoneoppa - Tuesday, December 20, 2011 - link

    Did you read the article at all? Just curious. Reply

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