Best iPhone carrier in 2014

There was a time when major U.S. carrier — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile — plans and rates were constant. We'd constantly pay too much and they'd constantly give us okay to terrible service in return. But now the constant is changing. Whether it's a reflection of the maturing smartphone market or simply the results of one carrier going rogue is arguable. What's not arguably is that a lot has happened changed from when we last compared carriers back when the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c launched in September of 2013. That means we have to take another look at what the Big Four offer, and help you figure out how to get the best bang for your buck.

This year's trend from most major U.S. carriers has been to revise and enhance their shared data plans, which break up a pool of data between a specific number of devices. You pay a flat rate for each device to be connected, then you pay for data which is shared between however many devices on your network. Will it save you money? Let's run the numbers!

iPhone on Verizon

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Verizon coverage map

Each major vendor has shared plans that they're emphasizing as the best value for their customers. Whether these plans will be of good value to you depends entirely on how you use your phone and how you can share them, but just in general, the more people you have on your plan, the better the savings will scale.

Verizon's big push right now is its "More Everything" plan. With this plan you pay a fixed amount for each phone — $40 — plus a shared pool of data. It includes unlimited talk and text and unlimited international texting, along with 25 GB of cloud storage.

The More Everything data plans starts at $15 for a scant 250 MB, with 500 MB available for $30 a month and 1 GB priced at $40. Data tiers increase $10 per month from there, with 2 GB, 3, 4, priced from $50 to $70 per month. Verizon increases allotments in 2 GB increments from 6 to 20 GB, going from $80 to $150, then offers 30, 40 and 50 GB tiers for $225, $300 and $375 per month respectively.

Verizon offers a discount for customers enrolled in their Edge upgrade program, which lets you to upgrade your phone more frequently than once every two years. While payments are still broken up over 24 months, you can upgrade after the first 30 days if you've paid off at least 50 percent of the balance of the phone price.

Most More Everything customers will get a $10 per month break on smartphones enrolled through the Edge program, but heavy users with 10 GB or greater plans will see a $20 per month break.

iPhone on AT&T

AT&T coverage map

AT&T's alternative to More Everything is called the Mobile Share Value plan — it's another plan that charges you a fixed rate for the phone plus a shared data pool you can use for all devices on the same plan — up to 10 devices. Unlimited talk and text, unlimited world messaging, and 50 GB of free cloud storage using AT&T's Locker service.

If you have a conventional two-year contract with AT&T to pay off your new smartphone, expect to pay $40 per month plus the cost of data. But just like with Verizon, AT&T will cut you a break if you're enrolled in their upgrade program, called AT&T Next.

AT&T' Next customers enrolled in 300 MB — 6 GB plans pay $25 per month for each smartphone enrolled in the Mobile Share Value plan, with customers enrolled in 10 GB or higher plans paying $15 per smartphone. Tablets cost $10 per month each. You get the same price you get if you bring your own device to AT&T's network or if you just buy a device outright from AT&T. If you pay for your phone with a conventional two-year agreement through AT&T, you'll pay more for the privilege — $40 per month.

Here's how the Mobile Share Value plan's monthly data rate breaks down:

$20 for 300 MB, $40 for 2 GB, $70 for 4 GB, $80 for 6 GB, $100 for 10 GB, $130 for 15 GB, $150 for 20 GB, $225 for 30 GB, $300 for 40 GB and $375 for 50 GB.

iPhone on Sprint

Sprint coverage map

Sprint is trying to shake things up with its "Framily" plan. The program enables up to ten customers to enroll at the same time to scale their savings, but it doesn't need to be family members sharing the same bill.

Each phone gets unlimited take and text and 1 GB of discrete data to use themselves. The basic cost of the Framily plan is $55 for one person, but each additional person reduces the cost $5, so two people pay $50 each, three people pay $45 each, From seven to 10 people it's all gravy — you're each paying $25 per month.

Unlike the other plans, each member of your Framily plan can be billed together or separately, so you can include your spouse and kids on one bill, and pull in friends, coworkers, and total strangers on the street.

You're not limited to 1 GB, either. For an extra $10 per month (per line) you can get 3 GB, with unlimited data available for $20 per month.

Like the other major vendors, Sprint has a payment plan deal for people who want a new smartphone but can't buy it outright — their Easy Pay plan lets you pay off your phone over 24 months.

iPhone on T-Mobile

T-Mobile coverage map

T-Mobile's been a disruptive force in the U.S. wireless market since early in 2013, when it first announced its "Uncarrier" program, ending subsidies and streamlining their plan structure. The company's continue to pile on, leading the way with free international calling, early termination fee payoffs for customers switching from AT&T and other enticements.

They also offers family plans, but their work a bit differently than the competition. You can have up to five lines on a single plan, and the more lines you have, the more you save. You'll spend $50 per month for the first phone, $30 per month for the second and $10 each for the third, fourth and fifth phones.

Each of those plans includes 500 MB of 4G LTE; after that, T-Mobile kicks down the speed to 2G, though it's technically unlimited. 2.5 GB is available for an additional $10 per month on each line; unlimited costs $20 per month.

The plan changes on March 23, 2014: T-Mobile will start offering 1 GB for the same price as 500 MB. Customers who opt for the unlimited data plan will also see their hotspot tethering doubled from 2.5 GB per month to 5 GB per month.

T-Mobile was the first major carrier to publicly divorce itself from subsidies — burying the true cost of your cell phone in the bill. They were also the first major carrier to launch an upgrade program, which they call Jump. The Jump plan, which launched in 2013, was revised in late February to include tablets, also eliminated a six-month waiting period and removed restrictions on the number of times you can upgrade.

Network improvements

The changeover to 4G LTE has caused each of the major U.S. carriers to invest huge amounts of money in rebuilding and building out their networks.

Verizon has the farthest reach of any of the Big Four, with near-ubiquitous coverage. Network performance, however, has suffered, so Verizon's current emphasis is improving capacity in congested areas.

Verizon has effectively tripled capacity already in some key urban markets. The short-term bandwidth increase for customers in those area will be evened out over the long term as more customers come online with LTE-capable devices.

AT&T now lays claim to being the nation's most reliable wireless network, with faster overall speeds than Verizon. The company uses a different radio standard than Verizon — GSM, similar to T-Mobile, rather than the CDMA technology employed by Verizon and Sprint. One upside of GSM is that you can make calls and send data at the same time using a single-antenna phone like the iPhone, something you can't do on Verizon and Sprint's network — at least not until they switch over to Voice over LTE (VoLTE), and that's still a way off.

2013 and 2014 have been rebuilding years for both Sprint and T-Mobile. Both companies have had to make major overhauls to modernize their network; in Sprint's case, it bet on the wrong horse for its next high-speed wireless network standard (WiMax) and has been backtracking and building out their network.

Sprint is focused on enhancing its 3G network while it also expands the footprint of 4G LTE offerings; the net goal is to offer improved call reliability with stronger signals and better data transfer rates. Spark is the name for this new initiative, and now offers LTE coverage in 300 markets from coast to coast.

T-Mobile isn't lying down on the job, either. Their 4G LTE rollout only started a year ago and is nothing short of remarkable; they've turned their entire network around on a dime. T-Mobile expects their 4G LTE buildout to be done by the middle of 2015, and they've also announced a deal with Verizon to buy lower-frequency spectrum to help them expand their network footprint in areas that have weak service.

Who should get the iPhone on Verizon?

Many people who have phones on Verizon's network are perfectly content — they can make calls anywhere and get pretty good data speeds to boot, though they do see congestion in major areas. If you don't need simultaneous voice/data calling, Verizon's a good choice.

Who should get their iPhone on AT&T?

AT&T's improved their network dramatically in the last 12 months and continue to invest heavily in improving both the coverage and speed of their 4G LTE network. Whether or not you'll be able to save money with AT&T depends on how many devices you've got connected and whether you're plugged into their upgrade program, so do the math.

Who should get their iPhone on Sprint?

Sprint's in third place overall in terms of customer base, but in some respects their network is far behind even what T-Mobile is doing. If you're one of the relatively few who live where Sprint works well they're a viable choice, but you may be better off shopping around.

Who should get their iPhone on T-Mobile?

T-Mobile's become the enfant terrible of the U.S. wireless carrier market. They're nipping at AT&T's heels constantly. Between their advertising and their early termination fee deals, they want everyone's customers. If you're with one of the other companies, you should give T-Mobile a call just to find out what they'll do for you — you may find it's worth your while.

Still undecided?

If you're still not sure about what carrier to get service through, make sure to visit our iPhone discussion forums to talk with other users about their experience, then make up your own mind. Then come back and drop me a line here — which one did you go with, and why?

Peter Cohen