iPhone 4S: AT&T vs. Verizon vs. Sprint – Which Carrier is Best?

Apple is selling an iPhone with multiple wireless partners right off the bat for the first time. AT&T, Sprint and Verizon are the nation’s largest carriers, but which one is right for you? It depends on what you value most, where you live and how you plan on using your iPhone 4S.

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Choosing a new phone and options can be difficult enough, but adding an array of carriers to the mix makes selecting an iPhone 4S only more complex.

Even though the iPhone 4S is capable of running on AT&T, Sprint and Verizon, you need to select your carrier up front and you won’t be able to easily switch between carriers.

(Read: iPhone 4S: Should I Buy the New iPhone?)

(Read: iPhone 4S: Should I Upgrade from an iPhone 4?)

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Why You Want an iPhone 4S with AT&T

iPhone 4S

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The first iPhone carrier hopes to keep its customers with the lowest price on data plans and simultaneous voice and data capabilities. Call quality and data network performance has improved drastically for some iPhone users on AT&T’s network since Apple introduced the iPhone 4.

The new antenna design on the iPhone 4S should help, too, but if don’t expect any miracles if AT&T iPhone users in your area consistently complain about dropped calls.

AT&T iPhone 4S Plans

No roaming charges in the U.S., unlimited mobile to mobile calling anytime, rollover minutes, can ditch Text plan (pay as you go).

  • Lowest price: $54.99/month ($1319.76 over 2 years) – $39.99 for 450 minutes + $15 for 200MB of Data and pay as you go texting.
  • Highest price: $134.99/month ($3239.76 over 2 years) – $69.99 unlimited minutes + $20 unlimited text + $45 for 4GB Data

Why You Want an iPhone 4S with Sprint

Sprint iPhone 4S

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Even though only 20% of those surveyed said they would choose Sprint when they bought a new iPhone, the carrier has some tempting perks neither AT&T nor Verizon offer.

Sprint is the only carrier to offer unlimited data plans for iPhone 4S. Unlimited data means you can stream as much music and video as you’d like without worrying about data caps. While a lot of iPhone 4S users won’t go over AT&T or Verizon’s caps, but there are some users that eat throw mobile bandwidth like crazy.

Want to watch hours upon hours of Netflix movies or sports programs via the SlingBox app without worrying about overage charges? Then Sprint should be your top pick.

Sprint iPhone 4S Plans

Includes free mobile to mobile calls. Can’t drop text messaging.

  • Lowest price: $79.99/month ($1919.76 over 2 years) 450 minutes, unlimited messaging, unlimited data.
  • Highest price: $109.99/month ($2639.76 over 2 years) Unlimited everything.

Why You Want an iPhone 4S with Verizon

iPhone 4S

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Verizon has the highest customer satisfaction according to several surveys, including our own. When we surveyed almost a thousand next-generation iPhone buyers, only 3.4% of existing Verizon’s existing customers said they would switch to Sprint and only 2.4% would switch to AT&T.

On the other hand, 7% of AT&T subscribers said they would switch to Verizon.

Verizon was rated highest in call quality across most regions by J. D. Power. Thus far, data speeds on the 3G network haven’t suffered as much as AT&T despite a heavy load from iPhone and Android customers.

This carrier also has the widest range of data options from 2GB up to 12GB per month.

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Verizon iPhone 4S Plans

Free Friends & Family on some plans, can ditch Text plan (pay as you go).

  • Lowest Price: $69.99/month ($1679.76 over 2 years) – $39.99 Talk + $30 2GB Data and pay as you go texting.
  • Highest Price: $169.99/month ($4079.76 over 2 years) – $69.99 Talk + $20 Text + $80 10GB Data

iPhone 4SWhy You Don’t Want an AT&T iPhone 4S

  • AT&T is limiting purchases to one iPhone 4S per customer at launch, which means your spouse and kids will have to wait in line with you if you hope to buy multiple iPhones on launch day at an AT&T retail store.
  • AT&T has a reputation for dropping calls consistently and having more dead zones than other carriers, especially in some metro areas, such as New York and San Francisco.
  • According to J.D. Power and Associates, AT&T comes in dead last in customer service.
  • The iPhone 4S mobile hotspot feature is not included with the base 200MB or 2GB data plans.
  • AT&T’s top voice plan combined with the 2GB data plan is more expensive than Sprint’s unlimited plan.

Why You Don’t Want a Sprint iPhone 4S

  • Sprint’s iPhone 4S can’t take advantage of HSDPA speeds; it’s CDMA only, so data won’t be as fast as AT&T’s model.
  • The CDMA band also means no simultaneous voice and data.
  • The carrier only offers unlimited data. Not all customers will need that much data and would prefer tiered options.
  • The mobile hotspot feature is $30/mo extra.
  • Sprint is usually rated second or third (depending on the region) for call quality by J. D. Power.

Why You Don’t Want a Verizon iPhone 4S

  • Verizon’s iPhone 4S can’t take advantage of HSDPA speeds; it’s CDMA only, so data won’t be as fast as AT&T’s model.
  • The CDMA band also means no simultaneous voice and data on the phone.
  • New customers can only order tiered data plans — there’s no unlimited data option.
  • The carrier offers nothing below the 2GB/mo plan for customers who don’t use very much data.
  • The mobile hotspot feature not included with 2GB data plan.
  • With the 2GB data plan, 450 minutes, and unlimited texting, Verizon’s plan is more expensive than Sprint’s with 450 minutes plus unlimited text and data ($89.99 vs. $79.99).
  • Verizon’s unlimited talk and text plan with 10GB of data is more expensive than Sprint’s everything unlimited plan.

(written collaboratively with Adam Mills and Xavier Lanier)