iPhone buying has officially begun with online pre-orders this morning and in-store sales starting next week. It's time to start thinking about the right phone plan for your new iPhone 5. Buyers now have more variables than ever to consider. The actual phone will go for the same prices as before: $199 for 16 GB, $299 for 32 GB, and $399 for 64 GB. But when it comes to value it's really all about the carrier, and a lot has changed on that front. In addition to our three iPhone 4S wireless providers AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon, pre-paid phone retailer Cricket Wireless will also sell the phone this year. Beyond that there are new data-share plans to consider, FaceTime over data, and the new 4G LTE network. Plus, with each new phone it gets harder to keep those unlimited data plans. Below, we've broken down the pros and cons of the options, with our picks of the best in that category. Happy shopping.
4G LTE Service
One of the biggest bonuses of the iPhone5 over the 4S is the faster 4G LTE network. Apple says that will bring download speeds to 100 megabits per second, up from 42 Mbps that its other 3G phones get. That promise, however, depends on the strength of the network in your area, which depends on the carrier. While AT&T had the most dependable 3G network, it only offers LTE in a handful of cities, as the map below shows. Though all that blue makes it look like AT&T has a lot of coverage, only the orange dots represent the areas that currently offer 4G LTE.
Compared to AT&T's 63 markets above, Sprint looks even sadder, as you can see by the very few orange dots below. This coverage isn't as unfortunate as Cricket's, however, which extends to just one market: Tucson. Both those networks have talked of adding more LTE areas. Just this week Sprint announced expansion in over 100 cities "in the coming months."
Right this moment, however, Verizon has LTE in the most markets, as its map shows. That is 371 cities with LTE, which is many times more than both Sprint and Verizon.
Beyond availability, the actual networks can vary in their speeds. This test between an AT&T and Verizon 4G LTE iPad showed faster download speeds for Verizon, faster upload speeds with AT&T. In general both are very, very fast. Once these networks get overwhelmed with new iPhone 5 users, they might not be quite so fast, as The Verge's Chris Ziegler points out.
Our Pick: Verizon. Though the other networks have promised more cities with LTE later, Verizon has more now. Beyond that, Verizon already "ironed out" its growing pains (outages), as Ziegler puts it. With the iPhone 5 slated to overwhelm these networks you don't want to be on the one that hasn't gone through the growing pains stage yet.
Data Plan Pricing
4G LTE phone owners use twice as much data (1.2 GB/per month) as other smartphone owners, according to a recent study, so a data plan with the iPhone 5 is more relevant than ever. Yet, there are more options than ever before. Let's break it down.
Pros: Unlimited data, Unrestricted FaceTime
Cons: No simultaneous voice and data, bad LTE network
Sprint has one option that costs $79.99 for voice, texting, and unlimited data. Sprint is the only carrier to still offer unlimited data, which is great because you don't have to worry about going over. It also has no restrictions on using FaceTime over data, a new feature on the iPhone 5 that will likely take up a lot of gigs compared to other activities.
Besides its very small LTE offerings, Sprint's other downfall is that it won't allow you to use data and voice at the same time. That might sound inconsequential. But take it from someone who has a Verizon iPhone, which doesn't do that either. Sometimes you want to look something up while talking on the phone. With Sprint, you can't.
Pros: Lots of data options, better LTE, keep unlimited data
Cons: Forced data-share plan, price, FaceTime restrictions
Oh dear, AT&T is complicated. It offers two types of plans, a data-share plan and a standard pay-for-data plan. As we've mentioned before, the data-share plans are not good deals for a lot of customers. Most likely, however, you will want one for your new iPhone, or else AT&T won't let you use FaceTime over data. As most people use under 2GB of data, that's what we recommend for the average phone owner, which on AT&T's data-share plan would cost $110 for 4GB/month and unlimited talk and text. (They offer 1GB for month for $95, but you will probably use more data than that, especially on the LTE network.) If you don't care about FaceTime, 3GB of data on AT&T and unlimited minutes and text costs $100.
Also, for those who have grandfathered unlimited data plans, AT&T will let you keep them with the iPhone 5.
Pros: Unrestricted FaceTime, lots of data options, best LTE service
Cons: No voice and data at the same time, hard to keep unlimited data
Verizon isn't as tyrannical as AT&T about the FaceTime thing and will let users video chat with any plan, however, it doesn't want you to have that unlimited data anymore. There are (expensive) ways around it, but by signing a new contract, you lose that plan. For new customers, that's moot because it requires a data-share plan, which for the recommended 2GB costs $100 for one smartphone and unlimited talk and text. Or, existing customers can get 450 voice minutes, 1,000 text messages, and 2 GB of data (the minimum) for $80. And, like Sprint, Verizon doesn't let users talk and surf the web at the same time, which is inconvenient.
Pros: Absolute cheapest
Cons: The worst LTE service, by far; big upfront payment now
When it comes to sheer numbers, these pre-paid phone services are the absolute cheapest over a two year period, as Brian X. Chen has pointed out many times in The New York Times. Caveats: The service won't be as good. Also, the phone doesn't arrive until September 28 -- a whole week after the other carriers have it.
Our picks: Cricket and Sprint. On price alone Cricket wins. But, when it comes to value, Sprint has the best deal because of its unlimited data, which smartphone owners can be obsessive over. Of course, that means you will have to give up LTE capabilities until those 100 new networks get going.
Though we use our phones less and less as voice operators, it's worth discussing its namesake feature for big talkers. The three major carriers have extensive nationwide coverage, depending on where you live. Though, in the past, Verizon has been known for the best phone service. Cricket is no comparison, however, with a lot of spotty white and roaming areas on its map.
Winner: Verizon, by a smidge.