Aug. 30, 2012 at 8:17 PM ET
Q. My wireless contract just expired. Now that I'm free to use any mobile carrier, I'm wondering: Which is really the best for me? I need reliable service, of course, but I also want to get the best value and features. Please help me decide.
A. Picking a wireless provider can definitely be tough. Every service claims to be the best in some regard — fastest, largest, cheapest, highest in customer satisfaction, and so on — and cellphone plans typically have a befuddling array of features and prices, making it hard to compare them on an apples-to-apples basis.
In addition, choosing a cellphone provider is also a very individual choice; no one plan will meet every person's needs. Keeping that in mind, we've compared the benefits and features of each of the four major wireless services— AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon — so you can make a more informed decision and choose the best one for your particular needs.
First, check coverage maps
There's no use wasting time and mental energy considering a provider that doesn't serve your area well. One way to check if you can actually get a strong and reliable reception on any network is to consult user-created coverage maps for your neighborhood.
We've highlighted several of these maps before. DeadCellZones, founded in 2001, seems to have the largest database, with over 100,000 user-contributed comments pinpointing where signals are non-existant or strong for their network. If your area isn't covered on DeadCellZones or you just want more info, take a look at SignalMap, which offers handy bar (and skull) icons, and Coverage, which overlays detailed carrier maps on your iPhone ($1.99).
Of course, you should also refer to the carrier's own coverage maps before committing. OpenSignalMaps saves you the trouble of visiting each provider's website. In addition to presenting network coverage maps and tower locations, OpenSignalMaps will show you the average speed, signal strength, and reliability of each network based on user stats from their Android app. (Here are the links to the official network coverage maps, though, for your reference: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon).
When looking at any of these maps, make sure you're noting which are 4G, 3G, and 2G. If you travel a lot, it's also a good idea to look up those areas you visit frequently.
Compare the features that matter most to you
Once you know which wireless networks should give you decent coverage, it's time to see how they measure up against each other.
Which carriers have the most satisfied customers? If you've ever had to deal with inept customer service or poor tech support, you know how important the answer to this question can be.
Consumer Reports' customer satisfaction survey found that, in almost all cities surveyed, Verizon was among the most satisfying and AT&T the least. Sprint and T-Mobile had high overall satisfaction rates in the majority of cities surveyed, but not all.
J.D. Power and Associates likewise ranked Verizon at the top for overall customer care among competing wireless providers (for the third time in a row) — followed closely by Sprint. When it comes to customer service while buying a phone or plan, Sprint scored highest in the J.D. Power and Associates study.
Top Picks: Verizon and Sprint
Network speed and quality
Besides good coverage and customer service, what about a network that simply works? It's not too much to ask to not have your calls dropped, have clear call quality, and use data speeds close to those promised to us.
Although call and data quality can be greatly influenced by the handset you use, some networks may be better than others on these points. J.D. Power recently named Verizon highest in wireless network quality performance for five areas (Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, Southwest, and West), while U.S. Cellular took the title for the North Central region. The study evaluated wireless providers on 10 common problem areas including dropped calls, calls not connected, audio issues, late text message notifications, and slow downloads.
In terms of data connection speeds, PCWorld's recent speed tests in 13 cities found T-Mobile tops for 3G downloads and uploads, AT&T best for 4G downloads, and Verizon tops for 4G upload. PCMagazine's speed tests in 30 cities crowned Verizon as fastest 4G in the nation and for pretty much every region, but T-Mobile scored highest in rural and suburban areas. So I suppose everyone's a data winner in the speed race —e xcept Sprint users.
Note that these tests were conducted in limited areas, so your mileage may vary depending on your location.
Top Picks: Overall: Verizon; data speed: Verizon or T-Mobile
The biggest difference between these wireless providers is in their data services for smartphone users. Which services have the best data plans or options?
Sprint has long stood out as the only wireless service with truly unlimited data — meaning you don't have to worry about being charged more or throttled to slower speeds after a certain limit. T-Mobile (and MetroPCS), however, recently announced unlimited data plans like Sprint's, to be available in September. These unlimited data plans are useful if you're a heavy data user and don't want to bother with monitoring your data allotment.
AT&T and Verizon, on the other hand, have recently introduced "shared data plans" — a bundle of data to be spread across your devices. This could be a good value if you have multiple devices, but you'll have to do the math (see the next section) and keep an eye on your data usage.
One more consideration: When it comes to tethering — using your mobile phone's data with your laptop or other devices — all of the wireless providers charge extra ($15 to $30 a month) — except those on AT&T's shared data plans and Verizon customers on tiered data plans. Those customers can now tether for free to their heart's content.
Top Picks: Toss up, depending on your data usage (see charts below for pricing).
Finally, if you're simply looking for the most wireless service for your money, the answer depends on what kind of plan you need — there are quite a few variations among the wireless providers.
To simplify things, we took a look at two types of usage: a basic calling plan with allotted minutes and unlimited voice and messaging plus data. We compared these two tiers for both individual and family/shared plans.
Here's the individual plans comparison:
Just want a basic calling plan? T-Mobile offers the most basic minutes for the $40/month price, but the three providers with minutes plans are all priced competitively. If you want to add on unlimited data (e.g., you use your phone as an internet device more than a phone to talk on), Sprint is the better value. Sprint also has an even more basic 200 minutes plan for $30 a month.
Least expensive unlimited plan? When it comes to unlimited everything — or, in the case of AT&T and Verizon, 2GB or 3GB of data a month — prices vary quite a bit. T-Mobile is the least expensive, for both the current data plan that throttles you after 2GB or for the upcoming unlimited data.
Best for tethering/multiple devices?: As mentioned previously, these basic prices don't include hotspot fees. On T-Mobile, it's an extra $15 a month for 2GB and Sprint's mobile hotspot add-on is $30 a month for 5GB. This raises the T-Mobile unlimited plan to $105 and the Sprint plan to $130. At those prices, Verizon's shared data plans are more attractive: $100 a month will cover your smartphone with 2GB of data and you can share the data with your tablet for $10 more. Note the data allowance is still limited, though.
It gets even more fun comparing shared data plans and family plans:
Cheapest shared minutes plan? T-Mobile wins for being least expensive and offering the most minutes for families too. Although, again, if you want to add unlimited data to a minutes plan, Sprint is less expensive.
Cheapest shared unlimited plan? T-Mobile hasn't announced if its unlimited data will be added to the family plans. I'm betting it will, but we don't have prices, so right now Sprint is the cheapest —and only — truly unlimited family plan provider.
Best for multiple devices?: Here's where it gets tricky: AT&T and Verizon have different starting prices for each data tier, plus different prices per device type. Their pricing is about the same, though. You'll have to calculate your exact needs to get a clear idea of pricing. Verizon has a calculator to determine the Share Everything prices and AT&T has a shared plan tool as well.
For as many configurations as I could think of, though, T-Mobile still comes ahead on pricing. If you need three smartphones/lines, for example, it'd be $165 on T-Mobile — and each would get 2GB of data. Verizon's shared plan for three smartphones would be $180 — and that would be with 2GB spread across each device. (Sprint's is the most expensive — $280 a month for unlimited data for all three phones.)
Other considerations, more tools to help you decide
In the end, you're going to have to weigh your needs yourself.
Other considerations include phone choices (the iPhone isn't available on T-Mobile), special needs like if you want prepaid plans or travel internationally (AT&T and T-Mobile users can swap out SIM cards for easy overseas portability), free in-network calling (if most of your friends and family are on one network, you can save minutes by joining them), and perks each provider offers (AT&T's rollover minutes, for example, or Sprint's earlier night start time).
Local and regional providers can be a good choice too. MetroPCS is rolling out unlimited data and Virgin Mobile ranks high in customer satisfaction. The service areas can be limited, however.
Finally, if you still need help deciding, give BillShrink a gander. The webapp searches for the perfect cellphone service (lowest priced, at least) based on criteria you select. MyRatePlan is similar, but compares individual, family, and no contract plans side-by-side for you.
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