For a lot of you, the initial question of whether to get the new iPhone 5 is a no-brainer. You’re jumping in head-first and forking over $200 or more to get Apple’s latest and greatest mobile device, which is being released Friday (curse you, Apple marketers!).
The bigger question may come next. If you’re upgrading to the iPhone 5, that probably means your two-year contract is up. So, many of you buying the new phone are then asking yourselves: "Do I stay with my current carrier and buy the phone at a subsidized price , or do I switch?"
The decision may be more complicated than you think. That’s because the three carriers that are compatible with the iPhone 5 — AT&T, Verizon and Sprint — each have their advantages and disadvantages. Here’s a breakdown of what to consider, so get your scorecard ready:
4G LTE network • This is the newer, faster technology that smartphones use to connect to the Internet. Because the iPhone 5 will support the speedier 4G LTE for data networks, it’s important to look at the differences.
4G LTE is a much faster connection that can give smartphones the ability to link to the Internet at near broadband speeds similar to a Comcast or Century Link connection at home. For surfing the Web or streaming music and movies, it’s the fastest type of network available for phones.
First, only Verizon has a 4G LTE network in Utah and has the most coverage nationwide, and that should be a huge consideration in deciding which carrier to go with. AT&T, however, is working on its LTE network in Utah and says it will be launched by the end of the year. Sprint also is building an LTE network, but it hasn’t announced when it will be up and running in Utah.
Talk and surf • Verizon may be the first in Utah with a 4G LTE network but it has one big disadvantage when it comes to the iPhone 5. You can’t talk and surf the Web at the same time on the device. On the AT&T 4G network, you will. That’s a limitation more related to the iPhone 5’s design than the network itself. On some phones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S III, you can talk and surf the Web simultaneously on Verizon’s network. This may be an issue if you frequently talk on the phone and need to, say, check movie times.
The same is true for the three carriers’ 3G networks — on AT&T’s you can do both, while on Verizon and Sprint you can’t.
3G networks • Before 4G, all carriers relied only on slower 3G networks. Verizon and Sprint, in fact, still use an older version of 3G called EV-DO, while AT&T banks on a faster network called HSPA+ that all newer iPhones can take advantage of (AT&T has incorrectly called it 4G but it’s really more like "3.5G").
Why is this important when all of the carriers eventually will have the faster 4G LTE networks? Well, if you’re in an area where the 4G connection is weak, the iPhone 5 will fall back to the 3G network. Earlier this year, The Salt Lake Tribune tested all of the data networks in Salt Lake County, and AT&T clearly had the fastest 3G network by far, while Verizon had one of the slowest.
Data plans • Only Sprint has an unlimited data plan, meaning you can surf the Internet or stream video and music to your heart’s content without the carrier either capping your data or throttling the speed (slowing it down). That’s a huge deal because users probably will be eating up more and more data per month on the faster 4G networks and because streaming services for movies and music will become more ubiquitous.
Verizon and AT&T have done away with unlimited plans, although AT&T still has customers with old unlimited plans who can be grandfathered in. And, yes, those unlimited plans can be used on AT&T’s new 4G network (although the carrier does throttle the speeds if those users consistently go over a certain unspecified limit every month).
FaceTime • FaceTime is Apple’s video conferencing service on the iPhone and iPad. Before, FaceTime was limited to Wi-fi only, but Apple is opening that up to 3G and 4G connections. This means if you want to FaceTime with someone while away from a Wi-Fi hotspot, say while traveling in a car, you can now. The problem is, with AT&T you have to be on one of its Mobile Share plans to use FaceTime on 3G or 4G. So if you’re on an individual plan, you will have to switch over. With Verizon and Sprint, there are no restrictions.
Pricing and coverage • How much you will pay per month really depends on a lot of factors, ranging from how many users are on the plan and how many voice and data minutes you want to have per month. Will you share the data minutes or want your own? This is where only your own homework will give you the answers you need. Based on your situation, price out the plans.
The same can be said for coverage. How good it is or how often you experience dropped calls really depends on where you live and in which areas you use your phone most. If you’re a regular mobile phone user, chances are you already know who the best carrier is for your area.
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