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In search of my next smartphone, part 1: The carrier

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It has been quite a while (at least in technology terms) since I bought a smartphone, and for that time my trusty Nexus S has served me well. However, it is now time to move on. Much like Calob, I need a new smartphone that is more modern in order to both do my job and simply to keep up with technology. 

In this series of articles, I am going to go through my purchasing process, weighing all of the options, with analysis and why I finally made whatever choice I made. As usual, your mileage may vary, as buying a smartphone is a very personal thing, and will have quite a lot to do with what you want out of your device. Still, I hope that this information can at least let you see why I made my choices, if not help you figure out exactly what you want yourself. 

As much as I wish it weren't the case, here in the states the first thing that you have to pick when buying a smartphone is the carrier. There is very little of the "buying an unlocked phone and use it on whatever network you like" as there is in Europe, usually you must pick a service provider first and then look at their line of devices. So, I'm going to take a look at some of the quick pros and cons of each carrier, and tell you which one I choose past the break.

There are four major carriers in the US, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile, from largest to smallest. In the past, I have used other very small carriers like MetroPCS for their cheap prices and unlimited plans, but at this point their prices have gone up, phone selection is still not good, and coverage is questionable at best. That leaves me with a choice between the big four, so let's take a look at the pros and cons of each in a handy list.

Verizon

Verizon-4g-lte-coverage-map-2012

I've been reviewing a lot of Verizon smartphones lately, and I can say without a doubt that their network is top notch: coverage is great, LTE is fast, and device selection is very good. In fact, they are often credited with having the best network in the country, and based on coverage and reliability they certainly do. As far I I know, their speeds have been beaten by AT&T in some test, but really with Verizon or AT&T LTE the difference is minor. Either one will have download speeds that so far I have no real use for, and that will put many WiFi connections to shame.

There are, however, two problems that I have with Verizon. The first is price, as the cheapest plan that you can get with a smartphone will cost you $40 for 450 minutes and $30 for 2GB of data, coming to a total of $70 a month with contract. If, on the other hand, you go the prepaid monthly route, the cheapest smartphone plan is $80 for unlimited minutes, text, and 1GB of data. Both of these plans are a bit too much for me, as I would like to keep my bill below $50 and still have at least 4-5GB of data.

Finally, there's the CDMA issue. Instead of the universal standard that is GSM, Verizon uses CDMA connectivity for their smartphones, which means there's no popping in another SIM for use on another carrier, and no international use without a special "world" device. Verizon may have superior coverage and reliability, but it isn't worth sacrificing price and universal standard compatibility.

AT&T

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One of the problems with Verizon AT&T solves right away, as it operates a GSM network on the 850 and 1900 MHz bands for both 3G and 2G, as well as the 700 MHz band for LTE. Most international devices support the 1900, 1800, 900, and 850 bands for 3G, which means that they would be able to operate without much trouble on AT&T's 3G and voice networks. 

This scores one for AT&T, but their prices don't. As far as I can tell, the cheapest individual plan available on contract from AT&T costs $40 a month for 450 minutes, plus $20 a month for the minimum 300MB data plan. That puts the minimum monthly cost at $60 for a very small amount of minutes and data, and were I to choose the 5GB plan that I want the cost would go up to $50 for the data and $90 overall. 

For that reason alone, AT&T is also not high on my list of carriers to do business with, although they do have the advantage of using GSM. However, bringing your own smartphone is not really condoned by the company, and no special plans are offered either. Basically, even if you pay for your own smartphone and bring it to AT&T, you still have to pay the same price as those who subsidized. Since I plan on buying my phone outright, that just doesn't make financial sense. 

Sprint

Sprint-coverage-map

Ah, Sprint. They've been through quite a few changes and rough times, and still manage to be a very interesting carrier. The EVO 4G lifted them out of a slump and actually resulted in me using their network for a while as well, but now it seems as if they might be having some trouble again.

They routinely rank last in speedtests of both 3G and 4G networks, their device selection is merely alright, and their prices are nearly as high as Verizon and AT&T. Not only that, the fact that they use CDMA instead of GSM for their network means that I can't bring my own device, immediately ruling them out of my consideration. 

Even if I wanted a device they carry, though, I would probably pass on signing a contract at this point, at least until they build out their LTE network and perhaps get some better plans. They are the only carrier to currently offer truly unlimited data, but you probably wouldn't be able to hit a cap anyhow with the way their download speeds look. 

T-Mobile

Tmobile-coverage-map

T-Mobile is an interesting case. You may remember that it was almost bought up by AT&T earlier this year, only to barely escape death. It is also the smallest US carrier, has a very small selection of phones, is the only carrier not to have the iPhone, the only carrier not yet rolling out LTE, and the carrier with the least money. 

However, if you can get past those problems, T-Mobile has a lot going for it. Coverage might not be on the level of Verizon and AT&T, but it is fairly good nonetheless. Then there's HSPA+ which, although it is no LTE, does provide respectable download speeds of around 10-15MBPS, plenty to keep most users happy. Not only that, T-Mobile does use the GSM standard, which means that you can bring your own phone and use it on the carrier's own 3G. Making the deal even sweeter is the fact that T-Mobile actually condones this kind of behavior, and offers cheaper monthly plans to those who already own their device.

I'm not so much a fan of their on contract plans, but T-Mobile's so called "monthly 4G" plans are a fairly good deal. The best one John has mentioned before, and includes 5GB of data, unlimited texts, and 100 minutes for only $30 a month. For those who talk a lot, this obviously wouldn't be the best plan, but in my situation it is perfect. I hardly ever use voice minutes, and mostly use data. The 5GB of HSPA+ "4G" data should suffice, but even if you go over you still have data, but are just limited to 2G speeds. 

As you can probably already tell, my personal choice was T-Mobile's $30 a month prepaid 100 minute plan. It will certainly not be the best for everyone, but in my situation it fits perfectly. I want a lot of data, on a fairly fast network, where I can bring my own GSM device, and for that T-Mobile offers the perfect plan.

In the interest of fairness, I'll also mention some situations where I would pick other carriers. If money was no object, I would easily choose Verizon for their massive and reliable network with blazing fast LTE. If I wanted GSM, better coverage than T-Mobile, and money still wasn't a huge issue, then AT&T would be the way to go. As for Sprint, I can't think of many situations where they would be best, unless you want one of their specific devices or can get a cheaper Sprint Employee Referral Option (SERO) plan.

Hopefully, this little insight into my decision making process has helped inform you, and perhaps even help you make a decision as well. Now that I've gotten this out of the way, I am going to move on to choosing a platform and finally a device, so stay tuned to see what happens. 

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Aaron Orquia

Aaron Orquia is an associate editor at Pocketables. He has been using Android and Linux since he bought his first computer years ago, and his interest in technology, software, and tweaking both to work just right has only grown stronger since then. His current gadgets include a OnePlus One, a Pebble smartwatch, and an Acer C720 Chromebook.

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