Speed vs. reliability vs. value: Which iPhone 5s or iPhone 5c carrier should you get?

2013 iPhone buyers guide: How to choose between Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint for you iPhone 5s or iPhone 5c!

Have you decided to to get a new iPhone 5s or iPhone 5c? The Big Four: Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, will all be carrying both new iPhones on day one. Regardless of whether this is your first cell phone or you're eligible for a phone upgrade on the plan you have, it's worth considering what each carrier brings to the table, to find out if you can get a better deal. To that end, your considerations might include factors like price, coverage area, features and functionality. After all, the phone is only as good as the network it's on. Here's the deal!

Shared Plans

Many of us have spouses, significant others and kids with whom we're pooling our cell plans. For households with more than one iPhone user, all four carriers offered shared data plans that merit some comparison. All four carriers also use pretty different rules to calculate how much their plans cost, which can make for some tough comparisons.

The U.S. cell phone business has largely moved to an "all you can eat" plan for talk and text. Where they get you is in data transmission. So for simplicity's sake, we're doing as "apples to apples" a comparison as possible here by looking at each carrier's unlimited talk and text plans, and we'll try to make sense of how they break down data charges. We'll do our best to unravel this Gordian Knot for you.

Let's look at the "big two" first - Verizon and AT&T Wireless.

Verizon and AT&T compared

There are certainly some differences: AT&T, for example, has a 300MB plan for its phones that run even less than what you see here. But at their most direct points of convergence, AT&T and Verizon's plans are similar, with Verizon edging AT&T out most of the time on price, and once you get above 10GB per month, AT&T will charge you a lot more for the privilege - and that goes for single users too.

Sprint's pricing is pretty comparable to AT&T and Verizon:

Sprint prices

Sprint also has an unlimited talk, text and data plan they call "My Way, All In." It's for single lines, and it costs $110 - that includes 5GB of mobile hotspot usage per month, as well. Sprint makes a big deal out of how they're the only carrier in the business doing truly unlimited data plans, and now they're pitching an "Unlimited for Life" promotion that guarantees you'll have unlimited data for as long as you have an account with them.

T-Mobile has shaken up the mobile industry with its "Un-Carrier" plan, which gets rid of long-term contracts and also stops device subsidies. You can still buy a phone and finance it through T-Mobile, paying it off over time, but T-Mobile has broken out the cost of actual coverage separately. This makes T-Mobile a lot easier to understand if you already own your phone - for example, if you bought an unlocked version.

T-Mobile prices

The interesting thing to note here is that those data amounts are not caps. T-Mobile's service is actually unlimited, but they throttle your phone's data speeds if you exceed your cap. And like Sprint, you can mix and match the plan to each phone. Bear in mind also that T-Mobile's Unlimited plan implements a hotspot cap - you can pay for more if you need it.

The important thing to understand about Sprint (and T-Mobile) is that the data allowances are per line. So while AT&T and Verizon are providing shared plans that pool everyone's data together in the increments you see in the table above, each phone on Sprint's plan has its own allotment of 1GB or unlimited speed. And you can mix and match - so if one phone in your group isn't going to be used for a lot of data, you can pay for 1GB for that one.

LTE availability

LTE is the fastest you can get on a cell carrier at the moment, and each of the four major carriers is making a major push to increase their LTE footprints in major markets. Verizon has deployed LTE the fastest: they claim that 99 percent of their 3G network now receives LTE coverage. However, customers in some areas are already complaining about network slowdowns, so Verizon has to stay on its toes by building out more capacity.

Verizon coverage

AT&T is building out their LTE network as fast as they can. Right now they have LTE available in almost 400 markets nationwide, with more to come. So if you're on AT&T and don't have LTE already, you should have it soon.

AT&T coverage

Sprint is playing catchup here - the company has LTE available in more than 151 markets nationwide, and made a strong push this summer to grow that further.

Sprint Coverage

And while T-Mobile may be in last place, it's catching up quickly. The company plans to have 200 markets with LTE coverage by the end of the year; and it only started to build out LTE coverage this past March. The company is also aggressively "refarming" its network to improve its 4G footprint.

T-Mobile coverage

Obviously, all of this nationwide stuff is irrelevant if the coverage isn't good in your market. So here are some links to individual service providers' coverage maps. Check them yourself, and talk with friends, family members, coworkers and others about their experience with different services.

Simultaneous voice and data

If being able to make a phone call and access the Web at the same time is important to you, you should stick with either AT&T or T-Mobile. iPhones operating on those carriers' networks can do so because they use GSM technology to communicate.

Verizon and Sprint use a different technology called CDMA. iPhones operating on those networks can't talk and chew gum online at the same time. While other phone makers have released devices that provide that capability, they did so by incorporating two seperate antennas (one for voice and one for data) a design compromise Apple is unwilling to make.

International roaming

If you're traveling internationally and need to use your phone, make sure you have an international plan active. You can activate these through your carrier for the duration of your visit abroad and pay a lower rate than the exorbitant roaming fees you'd otherwise get dinged with.

Alternately, you can use a local carrier's pre-paid SIM card once you land at your destination (you can usually buy them right at the airport), which might save you a bundle. There's an important caveat, however: your phone needs to be "unlocked" from its network back home. Phones bought on contract with individual carriers are typically locked to that carrier's network until you've paid it off and requested the phone to be unlocked.

If you bought the phone off-contract for the full retail price (starting at $549 for the iPhone 5c; $649 for the iPhone 5s), the sim tray should be unlocked. And in an interesting twist, Verizon - which locks the iPhone's CDMA hardware for use on its network - leaves the SIM tray unlocked, so you can travel abroad with that phone and use a local pay-as-you-go plan. Best of both worlds!

Who should get the iPhone on Verizon?

Verizon has a reputation for reliability, and it's well earned. They got the iPhone in 2011 and have been doing gangbusters with it ever since, and their LTE rollout was and is the first and fastest in the U.S. If you don't need simultaneous data, and making calls and staying connected is more important than raw money or speed, go with Verizon.

Who should get their iPhone on AT&T?

AT&T is the original iPhone carrier and while it's taken a lot of ribbing for dropped calls and broken data connections over the years, they've been investing heavily in rolling out their LTE network quickly. If they have good coverage in your areas, simultaneous voice and data is important to you, and you value speed over cost, go with AT&T.

Who should get their iPhone on Sprint?

Sprint made a wrong turn with WiMax and it's cost them years. They have the same simultaneous voice and data problem as Verizon, and their LTE rollout is far, far behind. Still if they're the best in your area, and their plans appeal to you, go with Sprint.

Who should get their iPhone on T-Mobile?

T-Mobile is in fourth place, and that's causing them to take risks. They were the last of the big four carriers to get the iPhone, but they're not wasting time pushing interesting and potentially cost-saving plans. Their LTE is far behind, but the HSPA+ is very fast anyway. If you have great service with them, and like the plans they're offering, go with T-Mo.

Making the choice

Still undecided?

If you're still not sure about which US carrier to get for your iPhone 5s, iPhone 5c, or iPhone 4s, jump into our iPhone discussion forums and the best community in mobile will happily help you out. Then let me know - which one did you go with and why?