Which Phone/Carrier Combo (U.S.) Would I Choose?

31 Comments

iPhone 3G, Palm Pre, BlackBerry Storm, T-Mobile G1

iPhone 3G, Palm Pre, BlackBerry Storm, T-Mobile G1

There are now some pretty good smartphones available and I am in a very unique position to give my thoughts on them. I currently have phone and data plans on four different U.S. carriers and a smartphone to go along with each of those. Color me crazy and you’re correct. Because I have all of these phones I frequently get asked one question: Which phone do I like the best? That is such a difficult question to answer as the carrier plays a huge role in the usefulness of a smartphone. Let me give you my thoughts on each phone and carrier, and then share how I rate the phone/carrier combination.

Bear in mind that my judgment on each phone and carrier is going to be greatly influenced by the network performance in my local area. I have traveled with each of the phones — with the exception of the one with Sprint — and will include my travel experience in the rankings, so keep that in mind when you take in my ratings.

It’s also important to realize that I use my phones primarily for data and much less for voice calls. I will give my impressions of voice call quality for each phone; after all, a phone should do a good job making calls, right? Just remember that data is far more important to me than voice and you’ll get the most out of this comparison.

Phones

I currently have the flagship smartphone for three of the U. S. carriers and until last week I had the fourth one, too. I have the iPhone 3G (s aapl) running iPhone 3.0 on AT&T (s t), not the iPhone 3G S that has hit just the past week. I have the Palm (s palm) Pre on Sprint (s s), Android G1 (s goog) on T-Mobile and the BlackBerry Storm (s rimm) on Verizon (s vzn).

  • BlackBerry Storm- Verizon
  • T-Mobile G1- T-Mobile
  • Palm Pre- Sprint
  • iPhone 3G- AT&T

I have unlimited data plans on all four phones along with my voice minutes of various durations. I use the data extensively and always get unlimited (or the closest they offer) on any phone I buy.

One thing all of these phones have in common is the large touchscreen and good web browser. This is the single biggest factor that led to my picking up each phone and it is vital to me. I understand that these carriers have other phones that some will feel are better than the model I have but these are the best web phones on each carrier, in my opinion, and why they’re in my pocket. Not all of them at once, of course.

If I were to compare the four phones without considering the carrier I would rate them in this order: iPhone 3G, Palm Pre, T-Mobile G1, BlackBerry Storm. I base this on ease of use, fullness of the applications available, browsing experience and overall user experience. I can state that it was very close between the iPhone 3G and the Palm Pre, so those two could easily flip in order over time. The Pre is so new that there’s a lack of application support at this point, which puts it just behind the iPhone, but that could change. Of course, the iPhone 3G S would likely come in much farther ahead of the Pre if I had one, due to its speed and video recording.

The G1 came in just ahead of the Storm in my ranking solely because of how well the G1 interacts with the Google cloud. I use Google extensively and the G1 works well with it natively and nudges out the Storm.  The G1 web browser is much better than the Storm’s, too, which rounds out why it’s ahead of the Storm.

All four of these phones have decent call quality and I have no quarrels with any of them. The Storm has consistently performed better on phone calls than the rest, followed by the Pre, G1 and the iPhone 3G. I think that the carrier network plays a big role in voice call quality so that’s why I don’t put much stock in this ranking.

Carrier Ranking

Before I get into ranking the four carriers I should make it clear how long I have been on each of them. I have been with Verizon for years. I first was using their 1xRTT data network prior to the launch of EV-DO. I have grown with them from the Rev. 0 to the current Rev. A EV-DO, so I have the most experience with their network. I have been with AT&T for a little over a year, T-Mobile for less than a year and Sprint for only two weeks. Keep that in mind when you take in my ranking for each network.  I will rank each network for voice and data separately and then give an overall ranking for combined quality.

I would rank the carriers for voice calls in this order: Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T. This reflects how good the phone calls work and how frequently (or infrequently) I experience call drops or signal problems. Verizon is easily the best of the four for me and T-Mobile has been pretty good, too. I have not experienced a single problem call with Sprint so they slightly nudge past T-Mobile in this category. AT&T is easily the worst network as I have experienced frequent problems making calls in my home area as well as while traveling. I have experienced multiple episodes of being totally unable to make or receive calls with AT&T due to no signal.

The ranking for the carriers based on data network performance is the same as the voice ranking. I base this on the ability to get a decent 3G signal and consequent bandwidth in different locations. I have used Verizon’s 3G network all over the country with very few problems and only rarely dropping from EV-DO to 1xRTT. Verizon’s slower network is good enough to use even when EV-DO is not available. Sprint’s EV-DO network has been solid in my home area and I have so far failed to get a good signal. T-Mobile’s 3G network is pretty good in my home area but has been spotty when traveling. AT&T’s 3G network is spotty at best; I have watched the signal strength fluctuate while sitting in one location. This has happened many times and I’ve also found it so poor at times that I can’t make phone calls and get text messages, much less get on the data network.

Phone/ Carrier Combined Rankings

This is the money category, as it takes into account how good I find each phone to be along with how well the network performs with said phone. This is the “user experience” ranking I would give for each of the four combos. Here is my ranking for each, which thus ends up answering my “If I only had one, which would it be?” question:

  1. Palm Pre/Sprint
  2. BlackBerry Storm/Verizon
  3. T-Mobile G1
  4. iPhone 3G/AT&T

This ranking is much different than the earlier ones as it is largely influenced by carrier performance. I ranked these as I would if I could only have one on the list. Sprint has been a solid carrier for me although I’ve only been with them that short period. The BlackBerry Storm makes it to the second position solely on the basis of the solid Verizon network. The iPhone is easily in last place and that is solely based on how poor a network AT&T has been for me. It doesn’t matter how good a given phone is if I can’t use it due to the network not performing.

This is just my own opinion based on my experience of using these phones and networks. I am also biased by how I work with my phones, which is largely for data usage. Your mileage may vary. One thing I will state with absolute certainty: If Verizon would get a top smartphone like the Pre or the iPhone, they would be far and away No. 1 on my list.

31 Comments

Shaneaus

I believe location is very important regarding carrier reliability. I work as a Deputy Sheriff in the rural areas of my county in the Austin, Texas area. I have been on ATT for over 7 years. Consistently, all across Travis County I have been in places that I was the only Deputy able to make calls on a cell phone. I recently moved into an office on the east side of my county – ATT is the ONLY service available inside the building. All of the staff with other carriers have to leave the building to talk. The ATT coverage here is why I stay with ATT. As far as 3G goes… I like the G1 so much more than the iPhone that I live with edge instead of 3G – But, I can tell you I have edge service everywhere I have voice service – including inside the building.

Silverstreak

As a current iPhone/AT&T customer, and former Alltel client, my ideal setup would be the iPhone on Verizon…hands down!

Char

You guys are forgetting one company.. US Cellular? They have amazing coverage! I would rank the carriers I have had over the years..

1.) Verizon
2.) US. Cellular
3.) Sprint
4.) T-Mobile

rob

I think the one thing you left out was cost. I agree with your assesement of carriers- however, Verizon comes at a huge premium over Sprint and if anything the throughput on Sprint’s network is slightly better. Factor in that roaming onto Verizon’s network is included in Sprint’s plans and you have a no brainer in my opinion.

Bordercreek

I was a long-time Verizon customer back when it was Primeco, but then switch to Sprint due to the cheaper data plan. I can’t afford multiple phones, but the HTC phone I have works very well. I’m looking forward to all the Windows Mobile phones coming out this and next year. If I couldn’t have a WinMo phone, I’d go with the Pre or Android phone whenever it became available on Sprint. In my area, US Cellular is considered to have the best signal strength and coverage.

Dave52

I generally like my iPhone 3G but am not fond of AT&T. I’ve been with them for about 5 years because their voice coverage was better than Sprint’s in the Northern Virginia suburbs of DC, esp. inside office buildings.

AT&T’s 3G data coverage in the DC area is adequate but not spectacular. Oddly enough, it extends far out into the countryside and can work well there, but there are weak or dead spots closer to the city.

Now that I spend most of my time in Central VA (Charlottesville), I’ve come to rely on various WiFi networks (school, stores, etc.) for data – there’s no 3G and the Edge network is nearly unusable.

Voice coverage is not good in either Northern or Central VA, and mobile-to-mobile connections are horrible. I stick with the iPhone and AT&T for mainly for support – I don’t want to mess around with jailbreaking, and I’m not so impressed with other phones to want to switch. If I had VoIP for WiFi I’d be a lot happier.

However, if Verizon or T-Mobile supported the iPhone I would certainly consider switching carriers.

chris

Not being American and not having experienced firsthand any American carriers, I’m gonna have to say the iPhone 3GS and I would use it on T-Mobile. But only because they have Catherine Zeta-Jones in their ads.

solomon

what if you could match any phone to any carrier, how would you match and rank them?

Shaneaus

I would love to use my G1 on ATT with 3G. Right now I have an unlocked G1 and am restricted to using edge.

I don’t find the GUI easy to use AT ALL on the iPhone as compared to Android – especially, with the new Sense UI/Rosie – which is AWESOME.

I love ATT in my area because of the excellent coverage – But,will stick with an Android device NO MATTER WHAT.

Jack Won

Blackberry Bold + AT&T = Best Corporate Combination , IMO

Good for roaming, both domestic and international and has WiFI and GPS, with a physical keyboard.

Dave Zatz

Verizon is the best network in the metro DC area. They don’t really have any phones I want though. I have heard confirmation a Storm replacement is in the works, but who knows when (or if it’ll still be Verizon).

I’m contemplating the Pre or Magic/myTouch, as I’m bored with the iPhone and AT&T’s data network can’t handle demand.

victor

I know most people will laugh…but did you not consider a Windows Mobile phone like the HTC Touch Pro 2? Or, are you waiting for the true WM 6.5 devices to come out and be carried officially?

I think people seem to forget that the platform is alive and also has thousands of applications available and, for business use especially, the integration with Outlook over-the-air is pretty sweet.

HSK

Very valid comment, IMO. I have had WM devices for years, but I do not need specific apps and the Pre’s interface is just so much smoother, easier to use (just had a Touch Pro). Can say the same for the iPhone. I will take a look at the TP2 when it arrives – once it has 6.5 – but the Pre with webOS seems to be more of what I am looking for in a mobile device. I don’t need a mini-computer which WM typically tries to do. I need email, browsing and media. Heck, if the iPhone was on Sprint or Verizon – or if ATT was better, I would have had an iPhone 6 months ago.

Jalapeno

I think your article highlights a very important factor in the decision to buy a smartphone, the quality of the network. I think that so many are wowed by the iphone that they forget to ask how good ATT’s coverage is..and after a while when the iPhone wow factor has rubbed off the terrible quality of the ATT network really starts to chafe.

Chris

Owning a Storm on VZW and an iPhone 3G on ATTWS, I’m halfway with you.

There’s one thing that all of these “reviews” of the networks just keep failing to mention – none of them certify use of their devices in homes. ATTWS is the only provider here that doesn’t have a femtocell available.

I drop calls with my iPhone, but only once in a year have a dropped a call when outdoors, and that was almost a year ago. I’m not going to defend ATTWS, but these reviews have got to start qualifying where the call drops and data quality issues take place – indoors, in a vehicle, or outdoors, or the “empirical” observations mean nothing and reduce the gripes as rants.

HSK

Yep, everyone likes to walk outside to use the phone… Certified or not, the majority of cell phone calls are made indoors.

I even tried that when I had ATT and it didn’t help.

GoodThings2Life

First of all, I want to know why the hell you people need multiple phones at all! Think of all the way cooler stuff you could have if not for cell phone contracts! :)

The only two pieces of “technology” worse than phones are printers and fax machines, so why anyone would choose to have multiple of any of the three is absolutely absurd! :)

Now, aside from that, I do agree completely with the outcome… doesn’t matter how awesome your phone is if your service and billing sucks. Sprint has the best billing plan (Hooray Simply Everything!) with very respectable coverage in my experience (traveling between Youngstown, OH to Pittsburgh, PA and Chattanooga, TN and everywhere in between).

(Oh and the multi-phone thing was mostly rhetorical, lol.)

Jerry Green

Want a NEW number 1? Try the Samsung Omnia on Verizon. WinMobile (1000’s of FREE apps), FIVE megapixel camera ,and VIDEO (no “jailbreak” needed). The ONLY downside for me is mainscreen resolution. My next one will be the newer Omnia with HD screen. My only complaint with Verizon is disabling of GPS :(

dbas

@chris

Actually you can get phone calls and browse internet on Spring as long as you are using EV-DO connection. I just tried it and works great.

Chris

Really? I read that Rev. A does not allow you to do that.

So you can make a phone call and still use the high speed internet at the same time?

Note: I’ve always has GSM so CDMA technology is new to me. If you can explain a little to the newbie, I would appreciate it.

HSK

While browsing you can receive a phone call – but once you take the phone call, you are no longer able to browse. Phone calls get the preference while using data. Emails can still come in via 1xRTT while on a call, but no EVDO while on a call.

You can browse via wifi while on a call though if that is available.

Is not a big deal to me – when on a call, I talk not browse!

dbas

I have Palm Pre, iPhone 3GS and Google ion G2. The G2 is simply outgunned by iPhone and Pre so it is 3rd place by far.

The iPhone 3GS and Palm Pre are close but depending on what you use them for one is much better than other. As multimedia device iPhone cannot be beat. Pre does not come even close. It is sluggish compared to 3GS, sluggish in terms of UI feedback and it lack those multi-media features, video recording, voice, better camera etc.

Now my needs for phone are messaging and web and that is where Palm Pre beats iPhone 3GS by wide margin. Pre has great push email support. IMAP Idle works, think GMail and Google Apps. It has Exchange support. All push and all works perfect. The notification system is way better than iPhone too. iPhone still uses the modal message box that interrupts your flow completely.

Browsing on iPhone is slightly smoother and I love how now can remember data for login forms etc. However Pre browser is great too but it needs some of the smoothness and features that iPhone now has.

I also like Pre mutli-tasking ability a lot. In lot of respects iPhone now “feels old” if you used Palm Pre for some time.

Now if iPhone solves the problems with messaging and fixes notification system I would see it as clear winner in all categories…

Chris

@ dbas

I completely agree, I have the same needs as you in a phone, messaging and the internet. The pre handles email and notifications beutifully from the videos I’ve seen. I hope the iphone addresses these issues in 4.0 next year.

Right now the iphone “feels” old, even with 3.0. I need something new, I need better notifications and email interface. I need to listen to pandora while writing an email. I dont play games often, and there are only a handful of apps that I actually use fron the app store.

I will wait till next year to get a phone. I believe the Pre(2) and the Iphone(4.0) will be the real battle. Each will be more mature, and will address issues users have asked for.

The only advantage network wise, that the iphone has is its 3G netowrk. It can handle phone calls and the internet at the same time which has come in handy repeatedly. That is one of the main deterrants for me to get the Pre. The pre can only handle voice and data one at a time. I hate the 3G service of the iphone because its not consistently there. But when it is there, its awesome.

HSK

Fair review, IMO. I have tried 3 of the 4 and had similar experience (but at the time, my Storm had very poor audio quality – everyone said my voice sounded “muffled” while talking). ATT’s network was awful for me – and I need to make quality calls. Been with Sprint for over 10 years and have never really had a problem – I kept trying to move to another carrier for the “fun” phones, but I am pretty happy with the Pre so I will sit tight and save money!

Chris

@ HSK

Trust me, the “fun” phones get boring when you constantly switch from 3G to Edge(ATT with Iphone). Also, the call quality sucks, the only reason I have the phone is for the amazing internet experience. I’m ready to switch to Sprint for the Pre, but I have learned one thing about getting my Iphone 3G. Always get the second version, let them get the kinks out of the first.

Mark

One thing that should be added is your location and where you mainly travel. This would be an added benefit to those thinking of different networks.
Now I want to know why you would say Sprint as a network came in second when you said you never had a problem with them? Is it because of the years experience vs the 2 weeks with Sprint.
Another thing you should add to this is the monthly cost of the plans.
One last thing, Verizon piggy backs Sprint network and Sprint will do the same so they both have the most reliable network in America. Just one company does a better job marketing and the other did a better job of bad customer service.
It should be noted, I have been with Sprint for 11 plus years so I have been thru the crappy service. Now if I get the crappy service, I just hang up and talk to someone else.

John

I have all he phones you mentioned above Plus iPhone 3G S, except the G1.

There is no doubt Verizon has the most reliable network and gets voice and data roaming while other carriers’ signals are simply dead ( I am talking about AT&T here). Verizon just needs a better cell phone to move to the top of the list. Blackberry is built for the optimum web browsing experience.

Spint has pretty much the same coverage as Verizon since it roams over Verizon’s network if neccessary. However, when in roaming mode, you can’t use data at all. That’s the case with Pre. The Plam Pre runs faster when compares to the iphone 3G. Too bad it only has that advantage for 2 weeks, now iPhone 3G S beats the Pre in every test that I did. Sprint does get better signals than AT&T, at least in metro NJ/NY/CT area.

I can’t speak for T-mobile since I dropped their service long time ago when they wer still called VoiceStream. The voice quality was terrible back then but I heard they had been improved a lot.

To really compare voice/data fairly, we need to test the same mobile device on all networks.

Jalapeno

You can use data while roaming, its just that you have to enable it. In the phone app go to preferences, and enable data roaming. All the Sprint Pre plans include data roaming but it is disabled by default on the phone. I imagine they do this to save a bit of $$ on roaming costs.

Thomas

I’m not at all surprised by this assessment. I have used VZW, ATT, and SPR over the last ten years – sometimes two at a time. Verizon, undoubtedly, has the best network and AT&T the worst. I value quick change among multiple phones and international use and, for those reasons, would always choose the GSM network. GSM is also (always) the most open option – Verizon is the least open among CDMA. For this reason, I have stuck with AT&T as my primary network for voice and app support. I use a VZW Aircard with data account and am very happy with it.
If it weren’t for these tradeoffs, there would be only price competition.

spinedoc

I’ve used Sprint, Verizon and ATT in Western MA for the past 10 years. Overall ATT has been the best for me in this area, but not the best in all categories:

Reception: In metro and suburbs ATT has more reception that Sprint or Verizon. Sprint and Verizon are a close tie, with the winner going to Sprint in metro/suburbs, and the winner going to Verizon for rural areas. Sprint/Verizon just had too many weird spots where it would be good reception for miles, then there would be a mile or 2 where reception is dead, then it picks up again. I suspect overlapping cell towers that don’t overlap enough.

3g/evdo: Sprint/Verizon are clear winners here. 3g sucks, even if you are lucky enough to be in a 3g area it’s definitely slower than advertised in real life. The main thing I miss from my CDMA phone is the BLAZING fast evdo which seems to cover the US pretty uniformly. Unlike 3g which is spotty.

The main reason I stayed with ATT is because there are several places on my ride home where sprint/verizon drops reception for literally a couple of blocks. This made it impossible to keep a phone call and I’d always grit my teeth and drive 20 miles before I could make a phone call. After nearly 10 years of complaining about this and it never getting fixed I sampled ATT and found it didn’t drop at all on my route to work.

There are 2 HUGE negatives to ATT though, or at least GSM in general. 1) Quite often I will get echo on a call, I can hear my own voice. This is extremely annoying. 2) GSM buzz, if my phone is anywhere near my car stereo, or my home PC speakers they will buzz very loudly, horrible technology.

Fernando

Hi James: interesting piece. You acknowledge the fact that this ranking is heavily dependent on carrier, which then is also heavily dependent on location.

It would be interesting to hear from folks in different locations. For instance, here in Miami, AT&T beats the pants off T-Mobile (I have used both for about 5 years) in terms of coverage and signal strength; I have not had either Verizon nor Sprint.

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