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iPhone 4S shootout: AT&T vs. Sprint vs Verizon

Comparative data speeds for the three phones, gauged using the app.
Comparative data speeds for the three phones, gauged using the app.Laptop
Apple's iPhone 4SApple

By Davey Alba

The AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless versions have all sold out (at least temporarily). And the overwhelming demand is understandable, given the brilliant Siri voice-controlled assistant, faster dual-core processor and super-sharp 8-megapixel camera. But which of the carrier models is best? We evaluated all three versions based on pricing plans, data speeds and call quality to help you decide which iPhone 4S is right for you.

Pricing plans
Let's say you opt for the minimum amount of minutes on each of the carriers (450 minutes), unlimited text messaging, and 2GB of data (it's unlimited for Sprint). If you factor in the cost of the $199 iPhone 4S, over two years you'd pay $1,896 on Sprint, versus $2,520 on AT&T and $2,640 on Verizon. If you went with Sprint, you'd save $144 versus AT&T and $264 versus Verizon. However, Sprint charges more than the other carriers to use your phone as a hotspot — $30 versus $20 — and at that point you would be paying about the same amount versus Verizon and about $100 less on AT&T.

Winner: Sprint
Provided you don't plan to use your phone as a hotspot — something we wouldn't recommend with a 3G phone anyway — Sprint's plans are much more affordable than AT&T's and Verizon's. And you don't have to watch the data meter.

Data speeds
The AT&T version of the iPhone is the only one that supports speeds up to 14.4 Mbps on the carrier's HSPA network, while the Verizon and Sprint versions are tied to older and slower EV-DO networks. So it wasn't a surprise that AT&T turned in the fastest download and upload speeds in our three testing locations using the app.

The AT&T iPhone 4S pulled off an overall average rate of 970 Kbps for downloads, and 270 Kbps for uploads. By comparison, Verizon only mustered 380 Kbps on the download and Sprint was even slower at 280 Kbps. Verizon's iPhone 4S consistently offered the slowest upload speeds, with an average of 100 Kbps versus a not-much-better 170 Kbps for Sprint. 

Winner: AT&T
While all three iPhone 4S models trail true 4G phones by a mile, the AT&T iPhone 4S consistently delivered the fastest download and upload speeds.

Comparative data speeds for the three phones, gauged using the app.Laptop

Web browsing
Our Speedtest results were backed up by our real-world testing: the average times it took to load different websites. It took an overall average of 19 seconds for the AT&T iPhone 4S to load the full website of the New York Times on the AT&T iPhone 4S, 20 seconds faster than Verizon's overall average time (39 seconds), and 40 seconds faster than the average time it took for the Sprint iPhone 4S to load the page (59 seconds). It loaded the full website of and ESPN's mobile website fastest as well, at 20 seconds and 10 seconds, respectively. The only site it did not load faster than the other two carriers was CNN's mobile website, which it loaded in an average of 10 seconds, compared to Verizon's average of 9 seconds. 

Winner: AT&T
The AT&T iPhone 4S loaded sites considerably faster than the Verizon and Sprint versions of the device.

Call quality
We found the call quality on Verizon's iPhone 4S to be top notch. Sound was loud, clear, and exhibited no choppiness. In the first and third locations where we tested for call quality (a noisy coffee shop in New York, a private residential area in New Jersey), our callers had the same comment: We sounded the loudest, and background noise was present. On our end, we heard some scratchiness and static during calls, but there was less of it compared to the AT&T experience, and none during silences.

On Sprint, calls sounded quieter, which some callers said they appreciated, especially coming from two very loud calls (AT&T and Verizon). With Sprint background noise was less of an issue. One caller from our second location even said we sounded like we were in an office cubicle; initially he couldn't tell we were using a mobile phone at all. However, in every location where we tested for call quality, callers commented that the Sprint iPhone 4S sounded choppy. On our end, we sometimes heard a strange sort of echo to our voice. 

Winner: Verizon Wireless
Verizon beat out AT&T and Sprint with the clearest and loudest call quality on both ends of the line.

Final verdict
AT&T has shaken its reputation for poor service on the iPhone in this shootout, offering better data speeds than both Sprint and Verizon. And while Sprint offers unlimited data, AT&T's 2GB plan is cheaper than Verizon's. Verizon wins out for best overall call quality, but that's not why people buy smartphones. Whether you're asking Siri to find nearby steakhouses, downloading an app or sending a tweet, AT&T's iPhone 4S is just faster. And that's why it's your best bet.

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