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T-Mobile is a great value, but coverage is limited

Led by its colorful CEO, John Legere, T-Mobile's (Est. $50 per month and up)  "uncarrier" philosophy has been the driving force behind some of the more dramatic changes in cell phone plans in recent years. It was the first carrier to do away with contracts and subsidized phones, and to introduce other concepts, such as rollover data, that have been adopted by some competitors. By introducing plans with soft caps, eliminating data overages, offering roll over data that's good for up to a year and adding perks such as free streaming music, there's little doubt that T-Mobile offers the best bang for the buck among the big four national carriers. It also offers some of the best capacity and highest speeds in many of the areas it covers. The downside is that the carrier falls behind its competition when it comes to reach; while things are improving, getting service outside of metropolitan areas and away from major highways can sometimes be a challenge.

Be that as it may, if you live, work and play in areas where T-Mobile's network is robust, it can be a very good choice. In PCMag.com testing, T-Mobile is rated the second fastest network on a nationwide basis, following Verizon. It's competitive in most regions, and is just nosed out by Verizon in the population dense Northeast. It's also judged to be the fastest provider in the Northwest, but with a caveat: outstanding performance in the big cities, Portland and Seattle, was enough to overcome "shaky at best" performance in that region's "wide open spaces." While T-Mobile's performance in rural areas relegated it to last place in the most recent RootMetric national ratings, "T-Mobile's performance within metro areas was strong in multiple test categories, with improved data reliability and fast speeds," says RootMetric's Dave Andersen. "If you primarily use your smartphone in a major urban environment, T-Mobile remains a solid choice," he adds.

Survey results indicate that T-Mobile customers are largely a happy bunch. T-Mobile is the first place finisher in the most recent J.D. Power and Associates survey of satisfaction with mobile provider customer care. It also does relatively well in PCMag.com's Readers' Choice poll, finishing stronger than the other "big four" carriers on the basis of higher satisfaction with fees and support.

As noted, T-Mobile does not offer subsidized phones nor contracts. It also does not offer shared data plans. All plans are "unlimited," but capped plans throttle data to 2G speeds once that cap is reached, and there are no overage charges. Prices range from $50 per month for 1 GB of LTE data to $80 per month for unlimited LTE data (though T-Mobile reserves the right to reduce speeds during periods of peak demand for users that have consumed more than 21 GB of LTE data in a billing period). Plans include features such as free "Music Freedom" streaming, which lets you listen to a variety of top music streaming providers without the data counting toward your LTE allotment; free calling, texting and LTE data to and from Mexico and Canada; free 2g data roaming in over 120 countries; free hot spot service; and Data Stash rollover of unused data (for plans with 3 GB and 5 GB of data) for up to a year. Data only plans for tablets and mobile hot spots have many of the same features as T-Mobile's voice and data plans (Music Freedom, data rollover, etc.) and start at $20 per month for 1 GB of data, with a $10 discount if you also have a postpaid phone plan on the same account.

While data is not shared in family plan offerings, T-Mobile lets you add additional lines to your service at a discount, each with its own data allotment. The second added line enjoys a $20 discount over the equivalent service -- i.e. where the first line at 3 GB would cost $60 per month, the second is billed at $40 -- while each additional line gets a $40 discount over the primary line and are billed at $20 each.

T-Mobile doesn't offer quite as many phones as AT&T or Verizon, but most flagship phones and many budget devices are available. T-Mobile also welcomes any compatible GSM phone bought from third parties (such as Amazon.com) or transferred from other carriers. You can pay for your phone upfront, or spread out over 24 payments. T-Mobile Jump! is an early upgrade program that lets you trade in your device after it is 50 percent paid off and receive a new phone. It costs an additional $10 per month, but that sting is offset by the fact that it includes handset insurance and a security software subscriptions that would collectively cost $12 per month if purchased separately.

Borrowing a page from Sprint (covered below) T-Mobile has recently introduced Jump! on Demand -- an in-store only program that lets users lease rather than buy a phone. The lease lasts 18 months, after which you must return the phone or pay its remaining value if you wish to keep it. You can also trade in your phone up to three times a year at no cost.

Sprint ($60 per month and up) doesn't fare particularly well in large surveys that judge performance and customer care, but qualitative testing by PCMag.com and RootMetrics reveal a cellular network that's clearly on the rise. "Sprint only won one city, Denver, but I don't want to minimize its achievements," says PCMag.com's Sascha Segan. "If we handed out a "most improved" award—we don't—Sprint would win it by a landslide," he adds. RootMetrics largely concurs, with Andersen saying "the network's improved reliability at both the state and metro levels suggest that the network is heading in a positive direction."

The carrier offers a virtual smorgasbord of options when it comes to plans and phone payments. When it comes to the hardware, Sprint has a good selection of phones, including flagship models, mid-priced devices and budget choices, along with a handful of carrier-exclusives (though once again none that should tip the balance toward choosing Sprint over a competing carrier). Sprint will let you finance, pay in full, or accept a subsidized phone with a two year contact (but offsets that with higher monthly payments for service). The carrier will also let you lease most handsets (budget models are typically excluded). Standard lease and financing terms are for 24 months. If you finance the handset it's yours to keep at the end of the term, but you have to return leased smartphones when the lease is up. Sprint also throws in some additional wrinkles, like the iPhone Forever program which lets you trade in your leased iPhone anytime a new model is released, but that changes the term of the lease to either 21 or 22 months.

Sprint's plan for individual lines costs $60 per month if you buy, lease or finance a phone, or $85 if you accept a traditional subsidized phone and a two year contract. The plan includes unlimited talk, text and data while on the Sprint network. Shared data plans run from $20 per month for 1 GB to $225 for 60 GB, plus an access charge per line of $25 for data pools of 5 GB or below, or $15 for larger data packages for phones that are purchased or leased; the access charge jumps to $40 for phones that are purchased at discount on a two year contract. Newly available Sprint OpenWorld adds free talk, text and 1 GB of data when travelling in Canada, Mexico and most Latin American countries, free talk and text to Mexico and Canada from the U.S., and free texts and discounted calling to other included countries. The service is free, and can be applied to all plans, but has to be added separately.

Regional carriers and MVNOs

Most of those who will sign on with a postpaid cellphone plan will select one of the big four carriers --AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile -- but those aren't the only choices. In addition to the aforementioned carriers there are a number of smaller, regional mobile phone companies that operate their own, much smaller networks, supplemented with roaming agreements that allow subscribers to use the networks of other carriers when out of their home area.

Among these, the largest and best regarded options is U.S. Cellular (Est. $40 per month and up). However, its reach (the carrier's home region now covers parts of just 23 states) and better performance among its competitors look to have reduced U.S. Cellular's former luster to mid-pack status in large surveys, such as the one conducted by PCMag.com.

Still, if you live within U.S. Cellular's home area, the service is worth considering. Though you'll only get 3G service when roaming elsewhere, LTE coverage is expected to be available to 98 percent of U.S. Cellular's home area by the end of 2015. The selection of phones, while smaller than that of the major carriers, includes a good number of the best regarded high-end and budget devices. Rates are competitive and customer service continues to rate well -- though it's not available 24/7 as is the norm with the national carriers.

Plans follow the model set by other carriers. You can finance your phone over 24 months with no contract for service, or accept a subsidized phone with a two year contract. Options for individual lines of service are limited; $60 per month for 1 GB, $75 for 2 GB, both with unlimited talk and text. Shared data plans start at 300 MB for $20 per month plus a line access charge and go to 560 per month for 75 GB. Line access charges are $40 for a smartphone, $30 for a basic phone bought on a contract, and drop to $20 for either if the phone is financed. For smartphone users, access charges drop to $10 per device for plans larger than 8GB.

An MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) is a mobile carrier that does not own its own network but instead provides service by buying capacity in bulk from one of the large national carriers and reselling it to its subscribers. Because MVNO's typically pay a much lower price than what's available to individual subscribers, they can often undercut carrier pricing and still turn a profit. MVNO subscribers use the same networks that subscribers to the major carriers use, and receive the same coverage, though some limitations (such as capped speeds) are sometimes applied.

Many prepaid cell phone providers follow the MVNO model, and those are covered in depth in our report on prepaid cell phone plans. However, some postpaid providers are MVNOs as well, and some are scoring highly in major surveys.

A case in point is Consumer Cellular (Est. $10 per month and up). It finishes near the top of charts among postpaid providers in one large national survey and is a Readers' Choice winner for the second year in a row at PCMag.com. "Once again, Consumer Cellular has shown that great pricing and service, a good choice of phones, and a reliable network translate into an unbeatable package," says Ben Gottesman

The "reliable network" that Gottesman is referring to is the one owned by AT&T, with good coverage and performance according to testing, but poor feedback in surveys. That conundrum comes to the surface in PCMag.com's poll. Though both are using the same network, satisfaction ratings with coverage and dropped calls are much higher with Consumer Cellular than AT&T. That leads Gottesman to speculate that "Consumer Cellular's excellent pricing and service may have its customers looking at the world through rose colored glasses."

Rates are indeed attractive, especially for those who want a talk only plan from a postpaid provider. Talk plans start at $10 monthly plus 25 cents per minute, and go up to $50 per month for unlimited talk. Data and text are an optional add-on and start at $2.50 per month for 300 texts and 30 MB of data and run to $40 per month for unlimited texts and 4 GB of data. You can add up to two additional lines to an account at a cost of $10 each and all lines share minutes, text and data allotments. In addition, calls between lines on an account are free. That kind of flexibility is rare among postpaid cell phone providers and lets users tailor an individual or small-family package with the right mix of talk and data for how they use their service. The company markets extensively to seniors, and AARP members get a 5 percent discount on service.

There are some downsides. The limits on shared plans and data mean that Consumer Cellular might not be the best choice for larger families or power users. Phone selection isn't terrific. The iPhone 6 is available (as are all the other current iPhone models), but the only LTE-capable Android device is the Motorola Moto E (2nd Generation) (Est. $100); a great cheap phone, but one that falls far short of the best -- and much more expensive -- Android devices (see our report on smartphones for more information on that phone). For users interested in talk only phones, a pair of flip phones is also offered. If that line up doesn't include a phone you like or want, Consumer Cellular welcomes compatible phones from elsewhere, including unlocked phones previously used with AT&T or T-Mobile, or an unlocked GSM phone from a third party, such as Amazon.com.

Elsewhere in this report:

Best Cell Phone Plans | Best Nationwide Cell Phone Plans | Buying Guide | Our Sources

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