Ask Techland: Best iPhone 4S Plans by Carrier

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With three carriers now selling the iPhone, your options have gotten a bit more complex as far as monthly service plans go. We’ll take a look at which carrier’s plans are best for cheapskates, big talkers, big texters, and those who want it all—voice, data and text messaging.

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Before we start, some constants between all three carriers:

  • The iPhone 4S starts at $199 with a two-year contract.
  • Voice plans include unlimited minutes to people on the same network, so even if you have the 450-minute plan on Verizon, for instance, you won’t use any minutes when calling other Verizon customers.
  • Apple’s new iOS software features “iMessage,” which lets you send and receive free text messages (for now, at least) between other Apple devices that have the iMessage feature turned on as well.

And with that, let’s get started.

Cheapest Plan

  • AT&T: $40 for 450 voice minutes + $15 for 200MB data = $55/month
  • Verizon: $40 for 450 voice minutes + $30 for 2GB data = $70/month
  • Sprint: $80 for 450 voice minutes, unlimited texting and data

AT&T is the cheapest way to get into an iPhone, especially considering that if all you want is an iPhone—any iPhone—AT&T’s the only carrier giving away the iPhone 3GS for free with a two-year contract.

You give up text messaging with both AT&T’s and Verizon’s cheapest plans. With AT&T, you’ll pay 20 cents per text message (incoming or outgoing) and 30 cents per picture or video message (incoming or outgoing). Verizon charges 20 cents per text message (incoming or outgoing) and 25 cents per picture or video message (incoming or outgoing).

As for data, with AT&T you’ll pay $15 for another 200-megabyte bucket if you go over your initial 200 megabytes. With Verizon, you’ll pay $10 for an additional gigabyte after you go over your two-gigabyte allowance.

Cheapest Plan with Light Text Messaging

  • Verizon: $40 for 450 voice minutes + $30 for 2GB data + $5 for 250 text messages = $75/month
  • AT&T: $40 for 450 voice minutes + $15 for 200MB data + $20 for unlimited texts = $75/month
  • Sprint: $80 for 450 voice minutes, unlimited texting and data

Verizon shows a good mixture of data—two gigabytes should be plenty for most people—and text messages here, though for $5 more per month, you can get the same amount of voice minutes with Sprint and not have to worry at all about data or text messaging overages. AT&T only offers unlimited text messages at a price of $20 per month.

Cheapest Plan with Heavy Text Messaging

  • AT&T: $40 for 450 voice minutes + $15 for 200MB data + $20 for unlimited texts = $75/month
  • Sprint: $80 for 450 voice minutes, unlimited texting and data
  • Verizon: $60 for 450 voice minutes and unlimited texting + $30 for 2GB data = $90/month

For heavy texters, Sprint’s a good worry-free option since you get unlimited data as a bonus. AT&T’s five bucks less but that’s with only a 200-megabyte data allowance.

Cheapest Plan with Heavy Voice Minutes

  • AT&T: $70 for unlimited voice minutes + $15 for 200MB data = $85/month
  • Verizon: $70 for unlimited voice minutes + $30 for 2GB data = $100/month
  • Sprint: $110 for unlimited voice minutes, unlimited texting and data

If you’ll be doing more talking than anything else, AT&T’s your best bet at $85 per month for unlimited voice minutes. Verizon gets you substantially more data, but will cost you an extra $15 per month. Sprint is the most expensive, but you get unlimited data and text messages, too.

Cheapest Plan with Heavy Voice Minutes and Light Texting

  • AT&T: $70 for unlimited voice minutes + $15 for 200MB data + $20 for unlimited texting = $105/month
  • Verizon: $70 for unlimited voice minutes + $30 for 2GB data + $5 for 250 text messages = $105/month
  • Sprint: $110 for unlimited voice minutes, unlimited texting and data

AT&T and Verizon are neck and neck here. AT&T gets you unlimited texts but only 200 megabytes of data; Verizon gets you two gigabytes of data but only 250 text messages. Sprint actually looks pretty good—for $5 more, you don’t have to worry about anything.

Cheapest Unlimited Plan (Voice + Texting + Data)

  • Sprint: $110 for unlimited voice minutes, unlimited texting and data
  • AT&T: $70 for unlimited voice minutes + $45 for 4GB data + $20 for unlimited texting = $135/month
  • Verizon: $90 for unlimited voice minutes and texting + $80 for 10GB data = $170/month

Sprint is the clear winner here, edging out AT&T by $25 per month and Verizon by $60 per month. Sprint’s also the only carrier that offers unlimited data plans. You’re still in danger of overage fees with AT&T and Verizon.

Conclusions

AT&T provides the cheapest path to an iPhone… until you add text messaging. The company’s decision to offer only a $20 all-or-nothing texting plan prices it out of cheapskate range pretty quickly, especially considering that even if you’re not sending any text messages, you can be charged for messages sent to you.

Verizon’s weakness is that its lowest-priced data plan starts at $30. You get more than enough data if you’re a typical user, though, as AT&T’s $15-per-month data plan only provides 200 megabytes to work with.

Sprint actually comes away looking pretty good here. If you can get past the fact that you’re facing a minimal monthly outlay of $80, the peace of mind you get with unlimited data and unlimited text messaging might be worth it. And if you really don’t want to have to worry about anything, you can avoid any and all overage charges with the $110 plan. AT&T and Verizon cost $25 and $60 more per month, respectively, for similar peace of mind, but even their plans aren’t truly unlimited when it comes to data overages.

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