Decide whether you want to stick with your current carrier
Assuming you’re on a month-to-month with your carrier, the first thing you’ll need to consider is whether you want to stick with your current cellphone carrier. I know, I know, why even bother with this? You’ve been with your carrier for years and are reasonably satisfied with your service. Even better, you’ve got a grandfathered plan from 5 years ago that they don’t offer anymore, but that you love like old leather because it fits your usage just right.
Take this consideration seriously. As it turns out, choosing the right carrier for your future smartphone device can have a significant impact on your usability of and the enjoyment you get from your device. It goes without saying that not all the carriers are created equal, but this bears particular significance in the smartphone world. Here are some of the factors you’ll want to consider:
Data speed is one space where the carriers are significantly differentiated. At this time, you have three basic choices, from slowest to fastest: 3G, and 4G LTE. There’s also a pseudo-category I’ll refer to as “4G.” I’ll explain these standards further below.
Before getting to that though, I need to mention something important up front, which also explains why I refer to “4G” as a pseudo category and put it in quotation marks. Due to the way they’ve been marketed for the last several years, data speeds are confusing and a little hard to explain and understand. Why is that? When carriers that offered 3G networks started introducing faster speeds, they marketed them as “4G” to signal the faster speeds to consumers; however, many of these 4G networks are not “true” 4G networks in that they do not meet the technical specifications for true 4G. Nevertheless, the carriers continue to market their networks as 4G (and have even been given permission by the standard setting organization responsible for developing the 4G standard to do so). If you’re interested in learning more about this weird historical accident, check out this Wikpedia article.
Currently, 4G LTE is the gold standard for mobile data speeds in the U.S. LTE stands for “Long Term Evolution.” A full technical explanation of LTE is beyond the scope of this article, but if you’re interested, the Wikipedia is always a good place to start.
As a general matter, it offers the fastest upload and download speeds, and represents a significant speed boost over earlier generation data transmission technologies. 4G LTE is fast – you can comfortably stream high quality movies, download full albums from Amazon mp3, and leave others in your wake as you hop across the Internet at a most zippy pace.
Not all carriers offer 4G LTE. At the time of this writing, the only carriers that offer it are Verizon and AT&T. Verizon has the larger 4G LTE network by far (a fact that they are more than happy to tell you about ad nauseum in just about every marketing material they put out) and they claim to offer it in some 300 cities. AT&T’s network is still in its infancy (around 40 markets or so). Needless to say, the chances that you’ll lose 4G LTE coverage traveling between cities is far greater on AT&T’s network than on Verizon’s.
At this time, only Android smartphones support 4G LTE (i.e., if you want an iPhone, you’ll have to sacrifice data speed). Unfortunately, at this time, there’s not much to say about Sprint and T-mobile when it comes to 4G LTE. After initial delays, Sprint is finally rolling out 4G LTE in 5 cities, but it clearly has a long way to go before it even begins to nip at even AT&T’s heels (with itself is far second to Verizon’s coverage). As for T-Mobile, it doesn’t even have any current plans to roll out an LTE network. However, it is planning to jump on the LTE bandwagon eventually: T-Mobile is planning to conduct LTE-Advanced trials this summer. LTE-Advanced is, actually, a true 4G standard.
But back to the here and now. You’re only actual choices for 4G LTE are Verizon and AT&T. If you want true nationwide 4G LTE coverage, than Verizon’s your best bet.
3G is a step down from 4G LTE. It’s an earlier generation protocol and noticeably slower than 4G LTE. I’ll put it this way: 3G is to 4G LTE as ISDN (or maybe even dial-up) is to broadband. It’ll get you from point A to B, but it’s certainly not the fastest you could go, and at times it may go slowly that you may not want to wait. It would be wrong for me to that 3G is intolerable; it isn’t. In fact, I’ve been using 3G on my Droid Incredible for the past 15 months, and, while I certainly look forward to shortly upgrading to 4G-LTE, I’d be exaggerating if I said that I couldn’t stand using 3G anymore. That said, if you go with a 3G service, you are making a compromise. For example, you probably won’t be able to watch videos at any given time lag free (you might be able to, depending on the time of day). You’ll be waiting a little longer for websites–particularly media-heavy websites–to load. Again, it’s not unbearable; ultimately, it comes down to how much waiting you’re willing to tolerate.
3G is a bedrock standard, and all of the major carriers offer it. In fact, AT&T, T-Mobile offer a slightly super-charged version of 3G that will be faster than Verizon’s and Sprint’s 3G if you’re in a covered area, which I’ll discuss more below. With the advent of faster networks, 3G is now more of a yesteryear technology these days though, so you’re not going to see any of the carriers specifically advertising it, other than to note that you can still connect to a network of reasonable speed if you can’t access a faster signal. It’s my understanding that Verizon has the largest coverage area for its 3G network, but, if 3G is your sole measuring stick, it’s safe to say the carriers are a dime a dozen in this category, and it all comes down to individual experiences.
AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile all offer what they call 4G service. The truth of the matter though, is that these speeds are not true 4G. They are either extensions to the 3G standard (HSPA and HSPA+ for AT&T and T-Mobile) or WiMAX (Sprint) which is like a broadband version of your home wifi.
To be sure, these standards are faster than plain vanilla 3G. If you’re in an area with good coverage and the network isn’t being stressed too much, you should get faster speeds on these networks than you will on Verizon’s 3G network (remember, Verizon’s 3G network a less super-charged version of 3G, so it’s a bit slower). But that’s a big if. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past several years, you’ve likely heard all sorts of stories about how AT&T’s network feels very slow to most people because it was over-whelmed by the iPhone. The reality is that these higher speeds are theoretical, and in practical, day-to-day use, the “4G” coverage you get from AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint is not going to feel that much faster than Verizon’s. This is why everyone is making a push to LTE.
The bottom line: If you’re a speed demon, a Verizon 4G LTE phone is your best bet. If you live in an area without 4g LTE coverage, then the rest of the carriers are basically on equal footing, and the decision will come down to other factors, such as plan pricing, the extent of coverage in your area, or phone models. Chances are if you go with Verizon, you’ll eventually get 4G LTE coverage; with AT&T, you’ll probably have to wait longer, and even longer than that with Sprint. At this point, LTE-Advanced is too far in the horizon for me to recommend it; you’re better locking yourself into a 2-year with Verizon and by the time that ends, you can evaluate where T-Mobile is with LTE-Advanced.