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iPhone 4S service plans: Dirty secrets, sweet deals

Apple

Never trust a carrier when it comes to monthly plan pricing. That's pretty much the attitude you have to go in with when you buy your iPhone 4S — or any other smartphone. To demonstrate, I've drawn up a list of tricks and deals that I found while crunching numbers on the three iPhone carriers, Sprint, AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

Texting on AT&T: All or nothing
If you want text messaging on AT&T, you have to get the $20-per-month text plan or go a la carte, at a punitive 10 cents per message. This is lame because iPhones will now have iMessage, a texting service for iPhones, iPods and iPads that doesn't count against your monthly plan.

Texting on Sprint: All or all
Texting options are even worse on Sprint, since the carrier forces you to get an unlimited texting plan no matter what when you buy an iPhone.

Only Verizon has mid-priced texting plans
Verizon may be more expensive, but at least the carrier lets you drop down on text messaging. Instead of paying $20 for all-you-can-eat text messaging, you should check out $5 for 250 text messages, or $10 for 500, plus unlimited texts to any other Verizon customer.

Sprint family plans start at 1500 minutes (others start at 700)
On paper, Sprint's family plans are super competitive. Not only is a two-person entry level plan the same price as AT&T's starter family plan, but it gives you more than twice as many minutes! But wait, why can't I just get it even cheaper, with fewer minutes? After all, AT&T and Verizon make up for fewer minutes with other calling deals.

Only AT&T has mid-priced data plans
AT&T shines through on data plan options. If you want just a little bit of data, you can buy a 200MB plan for your iPhone for just $15 a month, and AT&T's $25 2GB deal is better than Verizon's $30 one. Verizon and Sprint have no step-down data plan. On Verizon, you start at 2GB; on Sprint, you start at unlimited. 

"Unlimited" data is pointless for most people
Sprint proudly says it's the only carrier offering unlimited data with the iPhone 4S. While this is true, AT&T's customers who have maintained unlimited data plans are allowed to keep theirs. But listen up, people. For all but the super-power-users, there's really no point to unlimited data. If you don't know how much data you use, chances are you use far less than you think, especially if you set your phone to use Wi-Fi at home, school and/or your place of business. 

Now, about those AT&T unlimited customers
AT&T users who still have unlimited should save $5 and downgrade to the $25-per-month 2GB plan, unless they know full well that they need more than 2GB. Don't fool yourself into handing AT&T $60 extra per year to protect some non-existent customer right — you will only get burned later.

Add $10/month for every smartphone on Sprint
Even though it's been ages since Sprint instituted its $10 "premium data service" fee on every smartphone — 4G or not — they don't actually show this in their advertised pricing. So that $69.99 unlimited plan? Yeah, that's actually $79.99. Two phones on the family plan? That's $20 more, per month, than whatever pricing is advertised. 

Add $10/month for every Verizon family-plan phone
Most family plans are promoted as including the cost of the first two phones, with a surcharge noted for each additional phone. But Verizon adds $10 for every phone, though you don't see it when picking a plan. So if you pick a $79.99 700-minute plan with unlimited texting for two phones, it's really $99.99. And that's before you add $30 per phone for data.

T-Mobile would have been a nice iPhone carrier
Apple isn't going with T-Mobile, probably because of all that AT&T merger business, but it's a shame. Based on current smartphone prices, T-Mo would have had a sweet iPhone deal: $70 for unlimited talk and text with 2GB of high-speed data for an individual, and $120 for a similar plan that allows a family to share 2GB of data. (From time to time, plans go on sale — with the right timing, that family plan could get down to $100.)

Now that you're sufficiently jaded, here are my recommendations for good iPhone 4S service deals:

Best 3-phone family plan: $180 on Sprint
While Sprint's 1500-minute and AT&T's 700-minute family plans are pretty much even-steven when there are only two phones involved, Sprint pulls ahead when you add another handset, since the per-phone cost on Sprint is $30, and the equivalent on AT&T is $35 — $10 for the line, plus $25 for data. Verizon is a lot worse, at $50 per extra phone including data. And Sprint's over-the-top 1500 talk minutes and unlimited data actually would come in handy when three phones are in play. 

Best barebones plan: $55 on AT&T
I actually like this: If you sign up for the lowest data plan, $15 for 200MB, plus no text messages at all, you can get a 450-minute individual plan for $55. That's as far as I know the cheapest official advertised contract plan for an iPhone. But you really have to avoid text messaging, since you'll pay 20 cents for every message — 30 cents if it contains a picture or video. That can add up fast. 

Best not-too-texty plan: $75 on Verizon Wireless
Verizon's the only iPhone carrier that still has a $5-per-month 250-text-message plan, so it makes sense for people who don't text much, or plan to replace some of their texting with Apple's new iMessage service, which delivers to iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches. In my mind, this could very well be the best reasonable monthly rate for an iPhone, but of course those with text-heavy lifestyles couldn't do it.

More on the iPhone 4S from msnbc.com:

Catch up with Wilson on Twitter at @wjrothman, or on Google+. And join our conversation on Facebook.