The iPhone 4S is available for pre-order in just a few hours, and for the first time it will be available on the U.S.’s three largest wireless networks: Verizon, AT&T and Sprint. Pre-orders for the new iPhone begin at 12:01 AM PT on Friday (that’s later tonight, but technically extremely early tomorrow morning) — so if you stay up late, you can be one of the first.
That leaves an important question for the millions of you eager to upgrade to the iPhone 4S: Which carrier should you choose?
The short answer is that it depends on your priorities. Some networks win on price, while others win on network speed or 3G coverage. To help you make an informed decision, we’ve done a quick analysis of the three major carriers.
Here are some factors to consider when choosing between AT&T, Verizon and Sprint:
Owning an iPhone isn’t cheap. You have to buy the minutes, the data plan and the texting plan, and that bill can easily top $100 per month.
If you’re a price-conscious consumer looking for the best overall deal, then you’re going to want to choose Sprint. While Sprint’s voice plans are slightly more expensive ($69.99 for 450 minutes and $99.99 for unlimited) than Verizon or AT&T’s plans ($59.99 for 450 minutes and $89.99 for unlimited), its data plan is much cheaper.
For unlimited data, Sprint costs just $10 per month. AT&T costs a whopping $55 for 5GB of data, and Verizon charges $50. One other thing to note though: Sprint tacks on an extra $29.99 for a mobile hotspot, while AT&T and Verizon include it with plans 4GB and above.
If you were to get a 900-minute plan with unlimited texting and 2GB of data per month, you’d save approximately $120-240 on a two-year contract with Sprint.
In an attempt to differentiate itself from the competition, Sprint is offering unlimited data for an astoundingly cheap $10 a month. Verizon and AT&T do not offer unlimited data plans anymore. However, if you had an unlimited data plan on AT&T before they killed it, you’re grandfathered in. That’s how I still have an unlimited data plan on my AT&T iPhone.
AT&T is the only GSM carrier of the three, which means two things: Its 3G network is faster and supports simultaneous talking and web surfing.
Last year, PCWorld tested the three networks for their speeds. AT&T trumped Verizon and Sprint with an average download speed of 1410 kbps. Verizon achieved 877 kbps on average, while Sprint clocked in at 795 kbps.
Of course, networks have improved since then, but AT&T’s GSM network is still faster, hands-down. It will get the closest to the iPhone 4S’s theoretical max download speed of 14.4 mbps (14,400 kbps).
Talking & Web Surfing
In the area of talking while surfing the web, AT&T is also the winner. Sprint and Verizon’s CDMA networks simply don’t support this functionality. So if you love checking restaurant reviews or reading Mashable articles while chatting with your friends, then AT&T is your only choice.
AT&T’s network is notorious for its dropped calls and dead zones. iPhone users simply went to town on AT&T’s infrastructure. It’s part of the reason why AT&T wants to acquire T-Mobile.
But in a 2010 nationwide reliability test by PCWorld, AT&T and Sprint were tops with 94% reliability (Verizon scored a 92%).
Of course, that was 2010 and all three have been making infrastructure improvements. AT&T has activated several towers in the San Francisco Bay Area (one of its weakest areas) in the last few months, though any Bay Area native will tell you that AT&T still has a long way to go.
In the end, network reliability depends on your location. But Verizon has the biggest advantage here: It has the largest 3G network of the three. You’re more likely to get a 3G signal in the countryside with Verizon than you are with AT&T.
The Bottom Line
If you’re buying an iPhone 4S, which network should you pick? That really depends on your priorities:
If you care about speed the most, AT&T is your best choice.
If you care about simultaneous talking and web surfing, AT&T is your best choice as well
If you’re very price-conscious, Sprint is the way to go.
If you care about unlimited data, Sprint is the only one that offers a new plan.
If your concern is network reliability, you need to test the different networks in the areas you visit most.
If you travel a lot and want constant 3G access, Verizon is your best bet.
In a few years, we’ll have to revisit this issue as 4G networks become more mainstream. But for right now, iPhone users have more choices than ever.
Which network has your loyalty? We want to hear about your experiences in the comments.