Sprint iPhone 4S review: Unlimited, kind of, sort of

Sprint iPhone 4S

That, above, is a Sprint iPhone 4S. Physically, it's the exact same iPhone 4S you can get on Verizon. Or AT&T. Or Rogers, O2, KDDI, Vodacom, or any other carrier that sells the iPhone 4S anywhere in the world. Apple makes one iPhone 4S (okay, technically six, when you include the storage variations and colors). But this one runs on Sprint. There's no user-facing software difference - it's an iPhone 4S inside and out.

So here we are, three months after the biggest network load freight train in history smacked into Sprint's network. CEO Dan Hesse was begging for it. Literally, he really wanted the iPhone. After the long-term sales disappointment that was the Palm Pre (rest in peace, shiny webOS pebble) and the failure of the Android-powered HTC Evo 4G to really take the market by storm, Sprint found themselves really needing the iPhone, and publicly proclaiming such.

With three months of more-and-more users switching to the iPhone on Sprint (including myself, I know at least seven webOS, BlackBerry, and Android users on Sprint that picked up a Sprint iPhone), it's time to check in and see just how well the pin drop network is holding up. And the answer is… quiet well.

The Good

Unlimited data and Apple's no bloatware policy make for calm, clean experience.

The Bad

Sprint's network isn't as fast as AT&T or as expansive as Verizon.

Conclusion

The iPhone 4S is the best smartphone on Sprint. The iPhone 4S on Sprint is for people who want to be on Sprint. And as I want to be on Sprint, it's the iPhone for me.


I've been on Sprint since 2004, and in seven years I've owned five-and-a-half phones on America's perpetually third-place cellular carrier. The last phone-and-a-half before the iPhone (a Palm Pre and a hacked-together Sprint Pre 2 (there's the half phone)) were on Sprint's EVDO Rev. A 3G network, the same network used by the iPhone 4S. And the experience has been largely the same as far as that network is concerned.

Coverage

The iPhone on Sprint does just as well as any other Sprint smartphone as far as coverage is concerned - I can't say I've noticed it picking up a signal any better in fringe-coverage areas than my trust old Pre did, nor has it performed more poorly. Pretty much right on the mark wherever my Pre failed the iPhone fails as well. That said, those failures were pretty rare. Sprint's done a commendable job of expanding its network footprint, and nine times out of ten, if Sprint isn't available, you can roam onto Verizon 3G without hiccup. As a caveat: I live in Ohio, and the Midwest is "Sprint Country" - the Ohio/Indiana/Illinois/Michigan area is one of Sprint's strongest (along with Sprint home state Kansas).

Sprint 3G coverage

Call quality

Call quality is adequate, in that callers will be able to understand what you're saying and you'll be able to understand them. It's not for broadcasting concertos to a remote audience, and as CDMA calls are routed over Sprint's 1xRTT (2G) network, it never will be.

International roaming

Well, there's one hiccup - the Sprint iPhone is carrier-locked internationally. Sort of. You can purchase an expensive international data pack and Micro SIM through Sprint for your international travels, or if your Sprint customer service rep is feeling particularly nice, they can unlock the iPhone's SIM slot so you can just buy a prepaid card for your trip overseas.

Data speed

Speed-wise, the iPhone does seem to manage the Sprint network better than my previous Sprint smartphones, albeit marginally so. Does the iPhone get a stronger signal than other Sprint smartphones or is it just better at optimizing what it pumps through the datapipes? Hard to say, but the user experience is that it does its thing faster. The speeds are roughly comparable to Verizon's 3G service (though roaming onto Verizon isn't that speedy). Download speeds over 3G rarely cracked over 1.5mpbs, which is right around average for a Sprint smartphone. Yes, that's rather pathetic compared to the HSPA+ service available on GSM carriers, which itself performs as-well-as if not better than Sprint's ill-fated WiMAX network. There's a reason Sprint's going full steam ahead with LTE.

Bloatware free

The Sprint iPhone doesn't hold an edge over AT&T or Verizon when it comes to speed or network coverage, respectively, and thanks to Apple's no bloatware policy, it doesn't bring any of Sprint's gratis services like Sprint TV, Sprint Navigation, Sprint Music, or Sprint Anything Else. That's a good thing, in that the phone isn't loaded down with unwanted and undeletable apps like so many Android devices, but it's also a bad thing in that these apps are not available in the App Store either. Will Sprint make them available for Sprint iPhone users? Only time will tell, but it's been three months already and they're not there.

Unlimited data

Sprint has one signature advantage over AT&T and Verizon. It's something that the other carriers, with all their coverage and speeds can't match. Or rather, something they won't match. It's unlimited data. Not "unlimited but really 5GB", not "unlimited but throttled." Just plain unlimited. With your Sprint iPhone you can download as much as you want. Well, as long as you're doing it on the phone - like the other carriers, tethering requires an addition; $30-a-month tethering/hotspot plan and is limited to 5GB in a month. To be honest, 99% of users would struggle to break 2GB of use in a month, let alone 5GB.

Sprint's advertising for the iPhone has focused almost exclusively on this unlimited aspect, because really that and the plan pricing are Sprint's only true selling points. Every carrier at this point offers some form of unlimited mobile-to-mobile calling (a feature first implemented by Sprint), and with the exception of business and grandparents, most of your calling is going to be done to landlines. So who is the Sprint iPhone for? Sprint and Sprint customers. Just as customers didn't flee en masse to Verizon or AT&T for the iPhone, they aren't going to switch to Sprint for the iPhone.

Should you buy your iPhone 4S on Sprint?

It all comes down to our perpetual advise for smartphone buyers: pick your carrier first. Coverage where you live/work/play and how much you're willing to pay for that service, by far the most expensive part of purchasing a phone on contract, should be the first decisions you make. It doesn't matter if the iPhone or whatever other phone you're looking for isn't on the best carrier for your situation if you can't use it. With the iPhone now on Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon, that makes the decision even easier.

  • With AT&T you get spotty but improving coverage but fantastic speeds so long as you stick close to urban centers.
  • With Verizon you get a generally reliable network with fantastic coverage and so-so speeds that you'll pay out the nose for and still have to deal with Big Red's meddling ways.
  • With Sprint you get good coverage, underdog status, so-so speeds, unlimited usage, and cheaper prices.

Conclusion

There you have it - the iPhone 4S on Sprint. Sprint's smartphone selection hasn't been great recently, with the Samsung Galaxy S II, Epic 4G Touch (yes, the name has a comma) serving as the closest competition to the iPhone 4S. We might be a bit biased here, but it's safe to say the iPhone 4S is the best smartphone on Sprint. It's certainly going to be a sales king for the Overland Park, Kanasa-based network. The iPhone 4S on Sprint is for people who want to be on Sprint. And as I want to be on Sprint, it's the iPhone for me.

Derek Kessler

Managing Editor of Mobile Nations, Army musician, armchair pundit, and professional ranter.

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Reader comments

Sprint iPhone 4S review: Unlimited, kind of, sort of

32 Comments

What's with the ATT bias? "Verizon ... you’ll pay out the nose for and still have to deal with Big Red’s meddling ways."
Have you actually compared prices between ATT and Verizon? They're almost identical. You pay the same price for voice and have a slightly different data plans.

Actually, I have had both AT&T and Verizon in the past 3 months, and I can tell you, AT&T has better value.
~AT&T is $5. cheaper on data... 2GB at $25 vs. $30., & faster speeds on AT&T as HSPA+.
~The voice packages may be the same price, but you get free mobile to any mobile calling on AT&T where you only get free Verizon to Verizon calling on Verizon.
~Verizon meddling comes from their devious ways to nickel & dime us. Like the recent $2.00 charge to make a payment (except for e-cheque & auto payment, which gives them a blank cheque more or less, and they may debit your account whatever they want).
So, there are substantial differences.
AT&T may have been the bad guys in the past, but they are working to reshape their image.
As for Sprint, I had them recently too. Thankfully they had a promo going when I joined them & AT&T didn't acquire T-Mobile (which I ported in from), and that allowed for me to port out of Sprint & not be charged an ETA. Sprint had some of the slowest data I had experienced since my days with T-Mobile. And that is sad, I loved Sprint, but their coverage here & the data speeds are kind of poor here where I live. But such coverage & speeds vary everywhere.

I am still digging having my iPhone 4S on Sprint! It is fast enough for me when I am away from a wifi connection and the BEST 4S feature is that the battery will last all day!!
Thank you Sprint for getting the iPhone!

I actually wanted to switch from AT&T to Sprint but when I researched my area using their coverage map it said it would be "roaming." I called Sprint to find out what the ramifications of "living in a roaming area" would be. They explained that when in a roaming area the "unlimited doesn't count because it is using a partners network" and thus they would only give me (I have forgotten the specific numbers, but I'm sure anyone could call or look it up to find out) a limited amount of data and minutes. I like their prices, I like the iPhone I just don't like their coverage (specifically here in Northern California). I hope they can get some expanded coverage up here because I would seriously consider switching.
Great article, though, thank you.

"the failure of the Android-powered HTC Evo 4G to really take the market by storm"
How can you say that? I have seen plenty of EVOs in the wild. Top selling Sprint for what like a year? The only bad thing is that I could never find sales figures of the phone.
Both are great phones.

I was thinking the same thing. The author is clueless or an Apple fanboy (I am when it comes to computers, but phones go to Android).The EVO was the best selling Android phone for quite a while (I've had mine since launch). You don't think they would spawn different models for a 'failure phone', do you?

I have the Sprint model, my coworker has the AT&T model, our Speedtest results (Downtown Holland, MI) are almost identical, the AT&T model is just a hair faster.

Don't forget that on AT&T's 3G you can do voice and data at the same time whereas on Verizon's 3G you can't. +1 for AT&T.

Great article but i do have a few points to make. Ive had every model of the Evo line and The Evo was the reason android took off and overcame blackberry and iOS. I left big red for better coverage and data plans for sprint. True they dont have as big a selection, but then there arent twelve phones released every other day on the other two carriers! When comparing the two, there are valid points made for everything. Pick the carrier you need to fulfill your needs. Money, coverage and data plans. Great article, even if I don't agree with all points made.

Derek, in what area of Ohio are you pulling anything close to 1.5mbps? I'm in the northeast and I've never gotten over .5mbps on Sprint. EVER. Most of the time, I get around 100kpbs with roughly 600ms ping. That's a huge difference from the claimed 1.5mbps you've claimed from Sprint's 3G network.

come on man best smart phone on sprint,I bought the iphone and I return it and I got the write epic 4g touch, now I can use 4G speed, sprint navigation, sprint tv , sprint music and google voice best app on a sprint phone

The Evo series has done REALLY Well. The first one was impossible to find in my area for the longest time. Can't anyone ever write an article on here without badmouthing a competitor?
Also how is Verizon meddling? My iphone on Verizon works great and has no bloatware. The prices are pretty similar to AT&T's too. I just don't get why everyone on this site has such a huge problem with Verizon.

Sprint data speeds similiar to Verizon? Review seems a little biased and I am not with either carrier.

oh and i routinely get data speeds of 100kps to 300kps download and often get 0kps download. Oh i'm in LA too. i rarely get over 800kps. i've got it twice and it's never lasted more then moments. luckily i'm on wifi a lot.

sorry, i clicked reply on accident. i wasn't directing this comment at you. it was supposed to just be a random comment.

i'm one of those webos converts. Iphone 4s is light years better then my old phone and i'll never return to webos. Stayed on sprint cause it's cheap. But i'd agree with the network criticism. The network sucks and is very slow most of the day. other then that i'm totally satified. Well raising my bill ten bucks sucks too.

I liked Sprint Nav, Tv, and NFL. I am disappointed that they aren't on the app store.
I won't sell my iPhone to get an android just for those features, but I wish I still had them.

I thought if you purchased a 4s from Sprint early on, it's SIM is unlocked. It's only later on that they locked it. Maybe I'm mistaken on that.

And here I thought I also read that all iPhone 4S purchased from Apple, regardless of carrier, were shipped SIM-unlocked?

Not sure who wrote this article, but Sprint's service is absolutely horrible in Chicago. I have, too, had my iPhone 4sfor three months. I am quite disappointed with the battery liife on my phone. I am disappointed with the data speeds in which I get less than 30kitbs per second in one of the biggest cities and metropolitain areas in the world. I've called sprint, they have been less than helpful. Sprint's service sucks and I would glady pay more for Verizon. I am going back to android and leaving Sprint as soon as I can.

Okay everyone, please read the title of the article ;-)
I am actually on Sprint and am in the process of switching from Android to Apple - No need for banters and interjections or opinions needed here, we just are.
After having been on Android and BB for some time our question revolves around storage and weather to get the 16 or 32G iPhones. We had iPhone 3G's back in the day, but now with an 8mp shooter and 1080p vid were not sure. ALso we will be picking up iPads later this year once the iPad3 releases so I am taking that into consideration. In fact we will probably get 32G iPads do to probably having more movies, etc on them.
Thoughts people? Did you buy the 16 and wish you had a 32? Or was the 16G sufficient?
Thanks!

"and with the exception of business and grandparents, most of your calling is going to be done to landlines."
Whoa there! Proofread your articles first!

Wow they sent my post of the site .hers the baloney again please email me at g. Mail. Leroycalvin13 so we can band together and end our termatic time we've endured with this carrier and I want to here what you half to say and ok share my voice rec. With you and the lies also ok b back tomorrow thanks hope you get me a EMAIL PLEASE THANKS PEPPS.