T-Mobile iPhone 5 review

Hands-on with the iPhone 5 on T-Mobile, including call quality and DC-HSPA and LTE data

More than 6 years after the original iPhone was introduced, and almost 6 months after the iPhone 5 was launched, T-Mobile US finally has an Apple phone on their shelves. Along with bright Magenta Apple t-shirts, and some unusual new data plans, T-Mobile is banking on the iPhone 5 being as popular on their network as it's been on every other US network to date. We already have a full review of the iPhone 5 and a detailed walkthrough of iOS 6, so here I'm going to cover everything that makes the T-Mobile iPhone 5 different and, hopefully, special.

T-Mobile iPhone call quality

I am pleased to report that the call quality of T-Mobile network on the iPhone 5 is superb. Voices are clear and I have not experienced any dropped calls. I'd say it's equivalent to my service with AT&T.

T-Mobile iPhone LTE, DC-HSPA+ -- and EDGE -- data speeds

In addition to being the last major U.S. mobile carrier to roll out the iPhone, T-Mobile is also the last major U.S. mobile carrier to roll out next-generation 4G LTE. As such, T-Mobile LTE is currently available in seven cities: Baltimore, Houston, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Jose, and Washington DC. When it comes to T-Mobile, however, that's the not the deal-breaker it might be on Sprint. Where the difference between Sprint CDMA EVDO rev A and LTE is potentially 3mbps to 50+mbps, the difference between T-Mobile DC-HSPA+ and LTE is theoretically only 42mbps to 50+mbps. With but one huge caveat... EDGE.

I live about an hour from San Jose, so I made a small trip to the Silicon Valley to test out T-Mobile's LTE network in San Jose. During the drive between Salinas and San Jose, I was dropped to EDGE for the majority of the trip. I haven't seen that dreaded 'E', in a very long time as an AT&T customer, so this was very disappointing. These EDGE speeds were horrifically low, as well. One time, I literally got 0.00 Mbps upload results. I'm not kidding.

Surprisingly, there were even areas in San Jose where I was on Edge, but most of the time, I was connected to 4G. I spent much of the day at the Children's Museum where my T-Mobile iPhone claimed to have LTE, but every time I attempted to run a speed test, it would drop to 4G. Again, very disappointing.

When I finally found a solid LTE signal at the Valley Fair Mall in front of the Cheesecake Factory, I ran some tests with the Speedtest.net app (opens in new tab) with impressive results: 31.8 Mbps down, 14.52 Mbps up, and 41 ms ping. AT&T's LTE results at the same location was 22.48 Mbps down, 9.58 Mbps up, and 62 ms ping.

So not bad! I've never seen results like that with AT&T LTE, so I was impressed.

Since T-Mobile LTE is only available in seven cities, the average T-Mobile customer won't actually be using LTE, so T-Mobile's 4G DC-HSPA+ network is what you really care about, and I've seen mixed results.

In San Jose, 4G download speeds were consistently in the mid-teens. But in Salinas, download speeds are more around 5-10 Mbps. Considering AT&T's LTE is in the mid-teens in the same area, though, I guess that's not too bad.

It's also worth noting that Apple updated the current North American GSM iPhone 5 model (A1428) to support T-Mobile's AWS data frequencies. Older iPhones, including older iPhone 5 devices brought to T-Mobile won't have AWS support, and won't provide as good as an experience.

T-Mobile iPhone plans

T-Mobile's new iPhone plans are an interesting experiment. American's are used to getting huge subsidies when they sign contracts, which greatly reduces the up-front price of the phone but locks them to that network for 2 years. People in other countries are used to buying their phones outright but then being able to switch carriers whenever they like. T-Mobile is trying to offer a middle-ground by still reducing the up-front price of the iPhone to $99 (starting) but giving more options, and more flexibility, instead of just one locked-down contract. For some people, this will be complicated and confusing, maybe even uncomfortable and off-putting. For others, it may just be the beginning of a dream come true. It's simply too early to tell.

Price is always a huge factor to consider when choosing a carrier, but coverage should be just as, if not more, important when making a decision. If you're not sure about T-Mobile coverage in your area, ask around your work and/or school, and home, and if you can find a colleague, classmate, or neighbor on T-Mobile, make sure they're delighted with the service in your area.

If T-Mobile is what you decide to go with, there are still some important things to consider. T-Mobile data plans are not "share everything" plans like Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint. So the 500MB plans more closely compare with Verizon and AT&T's 1 GB plans and the 2 GB plans are similar to 4GB on Verizon and AT&T. I say 'similar', because they're not identical -- each line on T-Mobile has its own pool of data.

Another important detail about T-Mobile's plans is that they all technically include unlimited data. The 500MB and 2GB plans are the data caps for high-speed 4G data. If you pass those limits, you will not be charged extra, but you'll be throttled to 3G or 2G speeds.

The bottom line

The biggest thing you have to consider when choosing a carrier for your iPhone is what the coverage is like in the areas you are most of the time. My results may not be equivalent to your hometown, so do your research. Talk to your friends, neighbors, and coworkers who have T-Mobile. For people in my area and in San Jose, I would recommend T-Mobile to those looking to save a few bucks and who aren't concerned about having the absolutely fastest speed; though, In San Jose, LTE speeds are actually faster than AT&T, albeit, a bit spotty.

Former app and photography editor at iMore, Leanna has since moved on to other endeavors. Mother, wife, mathamagician, even though she no longer writes for iMore you can still follow her on Twitter @llofte.

  • Thanks for the Review i like a lot of people are considering switching to tmobile in 2-3 years to save some serious $$$ once the phone is paid off. Hopefully their network will be much better by then also tell Rene to spot you $.99 to remove the ads for your next speed review ;),
  • I have AT&T and on my couch I get 55 Mbps download and 35 upload. I live about 40 min from a major city so I am very happy with my service. Everyone I've known with tmobile hated it, I think they need to improve their service in MN before I will consider changing.
  • Well, on my couch I'm on wifi... so... (and are you sure you're not when on your couch?) I came back to T-Mobile specifically for the plans and iPhone and it's fine in north Seattle. 8meg down, 2meg up when on 4G. Yes, I want more, but really, how fast do I need to get new emails or refresh my facebook feed?
  • Great review Leanna! I see the dreaded "E" often in the SF East Bay. I just ran the Speedtest app and got a pitiful 2.50Mb/s down and 1.26 up on AT&T LTE. That's roughly 2x the DSL speed I get to the house.
  • Perfect review Leanna, but i as see, t-mobile is not really worth for a device that need fast internet connection, i'll preffer to stay with att, but hopefully tmobile get better throught the years, now the bottom line is that tmobile is more cheaper, they are selling the iphone 5 in 100 dollars and their plan is cheaper, but only if their internet was faster, it will be awesome, but nice revew
  • One thing you forgot is that T-Mobile does offer a truly unlimited 4G data plan for $20 a month more than the 500 Mb plan.
  • " American's are used to getting huge subsidies when they sign contracts, which greatly reduces the up-front price of the phone but locks them to that network for 2 years. People in other countries are used to buying their phones outright but then being able to switch carriers whenever they like." Actually, the main point in the "foreign" non-subsidized contracts is that they are ridiculously cheap compared to the subsidized American ones because the customer is not paying the phone price for the oeprator and hence pricing is more transparent, leading to more direct competition between operators. And since you are not locked in, they have to offer actual coverage, or you will simply go away. For what I would have to pay 200-300USD a month on Verizon I get for USD 20 from a local oeprator -- with no data limits. But I have to buy my own phone. And I can leave anytime I want and ask for competing offers from other operators. It is no wodner the uber expensive iPhone is so popualr in the US: The phone is actually the smallest expense, so why go for anything but the "most expenive" when you have to pay a couple of hundred bucks a month anyway? Here, people think twice before they shell out USD 1000 for an iPhone 5, when comparable phones can be bought for less than half of that and the carrier contract will be the same (or better, since iP5 has poor LTE support, missing the 2600MHz band.)
  • +1, In other countries people buy unlocked phones directly from manufacturers and carriers are just dumb pipes with zero influence and compete with each other on pricing and network coverage.
  • Are all these plans purposely created to confuse buyers? Looks like TMo is simply offering a plan that we cannot meaningfully compare to the others.
  • Actually, it is quite simple really. You get your base package, similar to like you do with Verizon and AT&T (their $40. smartphone line fee), and then you choose your data amounts, the same as Verizon and AT&T. Only, VZW's and AT&T's data plans run in 2GB increments, ranging from $40 for 300MB's up to 12GB's+. With T-Mobile, you get unlimited everything with the base package of $50 (first line, $30 second line, & $10. each add'l line). Sure, that's 500MB's of data, but add another $10 for 2.5GB's or $20 for Unlimited high speed data. Sprint is T-Mobile's closest competitor at $80./mo for Unlimited everything, but their 3G is ridiculously slow.
  • I think you have it backwards. Other companies make it confusing, while T-Mobile is offering the phone for sale and.. Oh, they have service plans to use the phone.
  • I ran 3 sets of SpeedTest's on T-Mobile 4G, Verizon LTE, and AT&T 4G using iPhone 5's. The results were interesting. Verizon LTE: Varied between 5-10Mbps down... on LTE? That's not very impressive.
    AT&T 4G: 2-5Mbps down... even the AT&T store rep said the speeds are weird lately.
    T-Mobile 4G: 5-9Mbps down... That's on par with Verizon LTE speeds. Kind of weird that Verizon and AT&T are all going slower these days. I cannot understand it. I thought the AT&T was going slow because they were upgrading the towers to LTE since they are upgrading the towers to LTE just 60 miles north of us. But, that is not the case I'm afraid. There has been reports online of Verizon LTE speeds being bogged down, so I dunno about them. I cancelled my AT&T 3GB tablet plan, and deciding between T-Mobile & Verizon. I have both carriers iPhone 5's currently, and my 14 day window is only a week old. I may just go with T-Mobile iPhone 5 & move my LTE SIM into my iPad Mini.
  • It just depends on your area. I'm on Verizon using LTE & just got 23.76Mbps down/14.61Mbps up & I'm indoors...I think thats pretty darn good!!
  • T-Mobile also has a real unlimited data plan for 30 bucks a month. I used over 18 gb of data last month and no throttle. This writer didn't do their homework. If you have T-Mobile in your area you would be crazy not to use them. I have AT&T in my area, Suburb of Boston and the At&T coverage map has me in their LTE area but no LTE and my speeds may say 3G on the notification but .25 killabits is less than Edge speeds. T-Mobile may say Edge if you are in a lousy area but I have not seen Edge in over 2 years. If you do get Edge you are guaranteed to get great voice coverage, much better than if you are in a poor AT&T area. These are facts. AS I stated, if you are in T-Mobile country and it is getting much bigger every day, jump on T-Mobile with their unlimited data program. I dropped my AT&T and Verizon accounts that is how good it is in the Boston area. Metro will be teaming with T-Mobile and it will increase T-Mobile coverage. Try it you will love it.
  • My T-Mobile plan on their new set up costs me $70.00 a month and that is for unlimited everything. That is real unlimited data. I used over 18 gb of data last month and no extra costs.
    PS For that plan they throw in I think 500 mb of free tethering. I may be wrong, it might be more than that but it is free. That is great if you need to use your pad or laptop and need some juice. For $70.00 a month unlimited everything with no sneaky hooks of hiccups. Great deal. See what AT&T & Verizon charges for that plan on their over saturated Networks.
  • The 500MB of tethering is only for the $70 post-paid plans. I'm on the $70 prepaid and they flat out refuse to allow tethering (absurd). I would note that the post paid plans come with taxes and fees totaling $10-$15 per month, making your monthly bill more like $80-$85...so in essence, you can think of it as paying $10-$15 per month for 500MB of tethering.
  • I like my iPhone 5 on tmobile. I've been getting a consistent 12-14Mbps in my area. I don't have lte but that's more than what I was getting on AT&T. Unlimited everything for less than AT&T as well. More than happy.
  • About two weeks ago, i purchased a GSM factory unlocked iPhone 4S (gently used of course) after moving from my Blackberry 9900 to an LG Optimus G (L9). I am pretty content with the T-Mobile data speeds that I have experienced from my 4S. I would say that my observations are almost parallel with this review (4S shows "4G" but never "LTE") I too live about an hour from one major metropolitan to another and, in between the commute, i will see the upper-case "E". It's not a real deal-breaker for my personal use right at that point mainly because i am driving and NOT using my mobile device trying to look up various information. The overall data speeds and OS experience is more than adequate for my needs. Plus, c'mon, that retina display is pretty frickin' crystal clear. : )
  • Canon, Please understand that the 4S will NEVER get LTE because it doesn't have the correct radio for it. The iPhone 5 is the first iphone which uses LTE.
  • Those pitiful speeds you were unhappy with, Leanna, that's what we get from Sprint in the Southeast United States. All the time. Everywhere. My tests almost never rise above 1Mbps.
  • ^ this ^ is a totally accurate statement (pitiful speeds). I live in Dallas TX and we are one of the first markets to get LTE from Sprint. It is literally a gamble if it will work. I spoke to the technical manager the other day (not your usual rep) and verified that they are 65% done with the Dallas rollout. So here's my beef. In my house, as I walk out my front door, I turn right and see the Sprint tower equipped with LTE. Maybe 600 yards away. If I drive 1/4 to my right (East), my signal not only loses LTE, it also loses 3G and drops to ONE BAR of CDMA EvDO Rev A....so much so that I will generally drop the call. No way I can access data or maintain a signal of any consequence. This is a flat surface, no additional objects in the way, no water towers, no broadcast towers, buildings or anything that should interfere with the signal. It is one of the most populated areas locally. It also is consistent, in that it doesn't matter what time of day or what day, it simply sucks. And to top it off, there is a Sprint store at that location where the signal void exists. Sprint sucks. I re-upped my contract on a promise from them that LTE will solve my worries. I was a loyal T-Mobile customer since the VoiceStream days and am probably breaking my contract and switching back. AT&T is radically fast here, but also inconsistent, lots of dropped calls. I tried them and bailed. Can't rely on them. Verizon is simply too expensive. "Sprint is the debil". (Waterboy voice) To top it off, I travel to Phoenix and Columbus frequently. In either of those two towns, I am LUCKY to get any usable data. Those aren't small towns. Phoenix is large. Columbus, the home of Ohio State Univeristy and the largest Chase building in the US...and there is no usable data or coverage. Sprint, you guys are worthless.
  • Bingo. The closest Sprint store to me is right by what I call "the Briar Patch" - an area that consistently results in dropped calls and slow speeds. No way should Sprint be charging for even 3G service. These are Edge speeds and I'm just WAITING to hear that there's a class-action lawsuit against them for touting "unlimited" data, without mentioning the VERY limited speeds - even in metropolitan areas like Atlanta (where I can get iPad AT&T LTE speeds North of 58 Mbps, at times). I, too, have SpeedTest results that are nil - 0.00 Mbps. Even the 4th largest carrier, T-Mobile, seems to have higher peaks than Sprint. Not trying troll here but this is why I bring this up every time any carrier's speed or coverage is in-question. I'm not breaking the contract with less than a year left and new iPhones and towers to unveil, so for now, I'm stuck. It's 2013 and we have to use an Airave device (using our paid high-speed Internet) to even have a semi-decent signal in our home. Get it together, Sprint.
  • I just picked up a TMo iPhone 5 last weekend. I live in south San Jose, no LTE. Work in Sunnyvale, solid LTE. My speed results have been roughly consistent with Leanna's except that I hardly ever see EDGE within populated areas. The caveat to that is that if I venture into a large building, sometimes I do indeed see the dreaded E.
    All in all, worth saving the $50ish per month from AT
  • Nice review. Just picked up mine last weekend. Couldn't be happier.
  • This is good to know. Great review.
  • Great review! I'm glad for t-mobile to be able to get the iPhone!
  • I really wish the UnCarrier move by T-Mobile will filters through the industry and all around the world. The current insane and stupidity of Mobile Networks with their Price Plan that sometimes requires an Accountant to work out the exact TCO is beyond ridiculous. And they keep pushing out extra and useless services as addon. While just continue to milk the network and let its performance degrades.
  • I live in a suburb a few miles from Boston where I get T-Mobile's HSPA+ Network, it's fast, real freaken fast. I get during the day over 20MB down and 4MB up, at night I get close to 30. Those speeds are everywhere in the Boston area and the Network constantly is improving. They are in the process of installing LTE Advanced Hardware on all their towers. They are very close to flipping the switch on many more areas. I know a Tower Jokey who free lances for all the Carriers and he is working for T-Mobile. They are flying with their Hardware. Verizon's LTE is just pathetically slow, under 4mb down, that isn't even LTE. AT&T in this area is also very spotty. T-Mobile's HSPA+ is fast as lightening. On average 25MB down is very good. The plans are also great, I get unlimited everything including real unlimited data for 70 bucks a month. For that plan they also throw in tethering, only allow I think 500 mb of tethering but you can ad to it. This writer said she was on edge in her travels, she must have been in no mans land because I haven't seen edge in years. T-Mobile's edge is faster than AT&T's 3G sometimes so you will always get fantastic voice calls, email and text. I honestly haven't seen edge in years. T-Mobile is my Carrier of choice, if you have it in your area you are nuts not to give it a try. Just my Opinion.
  • Just switched from Boost Mobile (been with them 6 years) to T-Mobile a week ago and i LOVE it!!! The new plans are good for people like me who dont have the best credit and want to move up in the world to better smart phones. I have the S4 and i just got the iPhone 5 today (off Clist). I got the official Tmobile iPhone so it has the new HSPA+ bands and thats all i get at the moment but its great!! I read on several sites that T-Mobile LTE is coming to Columbus in June. I cant wait!!
  • Btw, in my room, which is where i always get the worst signal, i get up to 12Mbps on the HSPA+ signal. When i was on Boost Mobile 4G (Sprints Wimax), i could only get 1.5Mbps at the most.
  • I have the 5 and Iam always on E