Sprint iPhone 4S review: Unlimited, kind of, sort of
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.
Unlimited data and Apple's no bloatware policy make for calm, clean experience.
Sprint's network isn't as fast as AT&T or as expansive as Verizon.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.