Q: I’m ready to get an iPhone 4S but can’t decide which cellular provider to sign up with. What are the differences?
A: A couple years ago, this wouldn’t have been a dilemma since your only choice would have been AT&T, but now that the exclusivity period has expired, most everyone in the country has three choices: AT&T, Verizon and Sprint.
There are many factors that come into play for making a decision: your existing plan, how and where you use your phone and where you live are the major factors.
The price of the iPhone will be the same on all the carriers, so here are my general pros and cons for each carrier:
Pros: By just about any measure, Verizon has the largest 3G network in the country, so if you travel a lot and want the highest chances of getting a decent signal, Verizon is tops. If the iPhone 4S was an actual 4G LTE device, once again Verizon would be the clear favorite — but it’s not.
Cons: The iPhone 4S has new antenna technology that allows for faster 3G downloads, but it’s designed to be faster on GSM networks, not CDMA, so you won’t get that benefit on Verizon’s network. CDMA also doesn’t support simultaneous voice and data, so you have to connect to a Wi-Fi network before you make a phone call if you want to continue to use the Internet to look up directions, etc. while you are on the call. Verizon’s data/voice plans are also the most expensive by a slight margin that gets bigger over a two-year contract.
Pros: Sprint is the newcomer to the iPhone world and is the only one offering new subscribers an unlimited data option. They also have the cheapest packages for voice and data — as long as you don’t intend to use your phone as a hotspot.
Cons: Sprint’s network is the weakest in both coverage and speed and it also has the limitations that Verizon has because it’s a CDMA network: No simultaneous voice and data and no support for the technology in the 4S that allows for faster download speeds. Some observers also are concerned that Sprint’s network could suffer the same data overload AT&T experienced when it first got the iPhone.
Pros: AT&T has routinely been rated the fastest 3G network, and with the new antenna technology in the iPhone 4S, it’s clearly the choice if you want the fastest possible Internet speeds. It’s also the only network that supports simultaneous voice and data without having to connect to Wi-Fi first. In our random side-by-side speed tests, the 4S scored download speeds that were 1.5 to 5 times faster than iPhone 4 or 3GS, depending upon what part of town we were in.
Cons: AT&T’s reputation for poor voice service is legendary, but it’s improving. If you do a lot of talking on the phone and that is more important than all the data services, AT&T isn’t your first choice.
Where you live means more than anything, as signal strength and service areas vary widely from city to city and from neighborhood to neighborhood. Have some of your friends over to the house that are on all three networks to see if there are any obvious signal issues on any of the networks in your area.
You can also use CNET’s excellent online cell phone carrier map to check coverage along commuter routes, your office or other locations that you will spend ample time in: http://goo.gl/KG6be.
If you are grandfathered in with an unlimited plan at Verizon or AT&T and you don’t want to lose it, you’ll want to stick with whomever you are with.
If you don’t often have access to Wi-Fi and plan on using Pandora, YouTube or any of the data-hogging services on your phone a lot, you will want an unlimited data plan — which means Sprint, unless you already have unlimited data from Verizon or AT&T.
All things considered, it seems that AT&T is the best choice for most iPhone 4S users, especially if you’re in a major metropolitan area and really want to take advantage of all of the capabilities of the iPhone 4S.
Your mileage may vary based on the pros and cons, so think it through.
• Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and host of the Data Doctors Radio Program, noon Saturdays on KTAR 92.3 FM or at www.datadoctors.com/radio
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