T-Mobile Monthly 4G Review: $30 per Month Bargain

T-Mobile’s $30 Monthly 4G plan is an unbelievable deal. Smartphone users on a budget should definitely take a look at T-Mobile’s somewhat-hidden $30 plan before signing a two-year contract. You will need to bring your own phone or buy an unsubsidized phone from T-Mobile, but the long-term savings are worth it.

I purchased an unlocked Galaxy Nexus from a developer that attended Google I/O last week. I primarily bought it so I could get an early look at Jelly Bean, the latest version of Android.

Read: Jelly Bean Makes Galaxy Nexus Faster, Smoother & Smarter

The phone is unlocked, which means I can use it with any GSM service provider. In the United States that pretty much limits my options to T-Mobile or AT&T.  I already have an iPhone 4S on an AT&T family plan and a Galaxy Nexus on an individual Verizon plan.

Galaxy Nexus Jelly Bean

Unlocked Galaxy Nexus running Jelly Bean.c

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The unlocked Galaxy Nexus will serve as a third phone, so I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a service plan for it. As with all of my mobile devices, a high data limit and portable hotspot service for the unlocked Nexus are a must. Adding a line to my AT&T family plan would cost $9.99 for voice and SMS, while 5GB of data with hotspot would cost an extra $50.  Taxes and fees would cost an extra $10 or so, bringing the total up to about $70 per month.

That was more than I wanted to spend and I prefer carrying devices that run on separate networks, especially when I travel. You never know when you’ll be stuck without phone service, as many found out during recent storms.  I took a look at T-Mobile’s pre-paid rates and didn’t see a whole lot of savings compared to adding a line with AT&T, at first glance. Bringing a phone to T-Mobile will save subscribers $20 per month compared to buying a subsidized phone from the carrier. The 5GB 4G plan costs $74.99 per month and does not include the portable hotspot feature. Like other major carriers, T-Mobile primarily pushes post-paid plans.

I found exactly the right plan for my unlocked Galaxy Nexus when I discovered T-Mobile’s pre-paid plan page. For $30 per month, including taxes and fees, I could get unlimited messaging and Web. The plan includes just 100 minutes of voice calls per month, but that’s plenty considering my use-case for this phone. Extra minutes cost just 10 cents each. The mobile hotspot feature is a $15 add-on.

I went to Walgreens and bought a $30 pre-paid T-Mobile phone. I didn’t care about the cheap Samsung  flip phone, I just wanted the SIM card. I popped the SIM card in my Nexus and went through the activation process on T-Mobile’s Web site. I had to call in to confirm my credit card details and just like that I had a plan that wouldn’t break the bank.

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Monthly Costs of New Individual AT&T Account

At $45 per month the Monthly 4G plan is more than a third cheaper than adding a line to an AT&T family plan. The price difference is even more dramatic compared to getting a completely new line of service with AT&T. Above is a screenshot of what it looks like to sign up for a 5GB per month plan with mobile hotspot, unlimited messaging and 450 minutes per month, plus unlimited mobile to mobile calling. Add in taxes and fees and the plan is north of $120 per month. Ouch…

Obviously, AT&T’s basic plan offers a lot more voice minutes, but smartphone users often aren’t as concerned about voice minutes as they are with data speeds and limits.  If you fall into this camp, the $30 T-Mobile plan may be for you. You’d have go at least 750 minutes over the 100 per month limit to catch up to the AT&T monthly plan. If you talk on your smartphone a lot, the $30 per month T-Mobile plan probably isn’t for you.

Google Now Card

Google Now cards like this offer fast access to information.

Of course, cheap doesn’t mean a thing if the service doesn’t work well. Fortunately, T-Mobile’s been as reliable, if not more reliable than AT&T and Verizon in Washington DC, New York and everywhere in between. I did notice about a half hour of network downtime Monday evening, which may have been caused by last Friday’s serious thunderstorms and power outages in the Washington DC area. Verizon and AT&T service has also been spotty at times in recent days in some areas.

I used the Galaxy Nexus with T-Mobile service to navigate my way around the capitol by foot. I used it as my portable hotspot at my hotel one night in Washington and was pleasantly surprised to find the connection was still alive and well the next morning. T-Mobile didn’t miss a beat as I used Google’s Navigation app, with satellite view and other layers turned on, to make the five-hour trek from Washington DC to New York.

T-Mobile 4G Speedtest in New York

T-mobile’s download speeds are fantastic so far, clocking in between 7mbps and 12mbps on the Speedtest.net app. Upload speeds are slower, generally clocking in between 1.25mbps and 3.0mbps. That’s plenty fast enough to stream HD video through services such as Netflix, though you’ll want to watch the 5GB cap if you do so. Browsing the web on the Galaxy Nexus and wirelessly tethered laptop is almost as snappy as when using my home Internet connection. The only noticeable difference is when uploading large files.

As much as I like T-Mobile’s service so far,T-Mobile’s HSPA+ service doesn’t come close to besting Verizon’s and AT&T’s 4G LTE services in terms of raw speed in the real world.  But is the steep price premium worth the it? For most users the answer is probably not. $30 per month is just too good of a deal to pass up, especially if you already have a mobile work phone you can use for voice calls.