"Why would anyone want to limit the iPhone?" That's the question Sprint poses in recent television ads, highlighting the value of its unlimited, unthrottled data plans in a world where Verizon and AT&T have ditched unlimited plans in favor of pricier tiered caps and shared data. Sprint's not the only one who can play that card any longer, however; T-Mobile may not sell the iPhone, but it recently announced a new Unlimited Nationwide 4G Data plan that's very competitive with Sprint's offerings.
Which is better for you? Let's see how the two carriers compare -- and highlight where one of them is playing with fine print to make your monthly bill seem lower than it actually is.
iPhone. Let's get the low-hanging fruit out of the way first. If you want an iPhone, Sprint trumps T-Mobile, as T-Mobile is the only major carrier that doesn't directly sell the iPhone. There is a loophole, though; if you're at the end of your AT&T contract, the carrier will unlock your iPhone, which you can then activate on T-Mobile. A wide range of Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phones, including the Samsung Galaxy S III and Nokia Lumia 710 are also available on T-Mobile.
Price. Here's where things start to get interesting. T-Mobile lets you add an Unlimited Nationwide 4G plan to a Classic talk and text plan for $30 per month or to a Value plan for $20 per month. (Classic plans come with phone subsidies; Value plans don't.) You can snag an individual Classic plan with 500 talk minutes, unlimited text and unlimited data for $79.99 per month, or unlimited everything for $89.99. If you bring your own phone or flat-out buy a T-Mobile phone and tack the Unlimited Nationwide 4G offer onto a Value plan, you get unlimited talk, text and data for just $69.99 per month.
Sprint responded to T-Mobile's announcement by apparently dropping the prices on its own unlimited plans by $10/month... but buyer beware: it wasn't really a price drop. Instead, Sprint now tacks on a $10/mo. "Premium Data" fee for smartphones that was previously included in the advertised rates.
That being said, Sprints individual plans come with unlimited texting and data, with prices varying based on how many voice minutes you need. A 450 minute plan costs $79.99, a 900 minute plan costs $99.99, and unlimited everything costs $109.99. Those rates reflect the extra $10/month Premium Data fee, not Sprint's advertised rates.
As you see, Sprint's unlimited plans are considerably more expensive than T-Mobile's.
Mobile hotspot. Neither carrier's unlimited plans let you tether other devices to your phone's mobile Internet connection. Mobile hotspot capabilities are a $20/month option at Sprint, but if you want mobile hotspot at T-Mobile, you'll have to opt for a traditional data plan. T-Mobile's traditional plans are also billed as unlimited, but if you hit a predetermined amount of data in a month, the carrier will greatly reduce your connection speed.
Network Speeds. T-Mobile's "4G" speeds don't actually use the LTE technology that's considered to be full-fledged 4G; instead, the carrier's HSPA+ network is more like "3.5G." Even still, T-Mobile's data speeds are fairly fast in most testing and HSPA+ covers most of the country -- far more than any carrier's 4G LTE network. That means rural residents can take advantage of the faster downloads, not just city dwellers.
Sprint's network covers the vast majority of the country as well, but its LTE initiative is just starting to get underway. As such, many of its users will be on Sprint's 3G network, not a 4G connection. Sprint's older WiMax 4G technology is still available in dozens of cities, but Sprint is phasing out WiMax in favor of LTE, while Laptop Magazine's Nationwide 4G Showdown and PCWorld's 4G speed tests showed that Sprint's WiMax was considerably slower than T-Mobile's HSPA+ 4G. Both are slower than Verizon's LTE service, however -- by far. Verizon no longer offers unlimited data plans, though.
So which is better? All in all, T-Mobile's unlimited data plan seems to come out on top of Sprint's where it matters -- price and performance. Sprint's next-generation LTE network will be built out long before T-Mobile's, though, and Sprint is the network of choice if you want unlimited, unthrottled data with either a subsidized iPhone or mobile hotspot capabilities. Which fits your needs?