The best 4G network speed
While it was a region-dependent split decision between Verizon and AT&T when it came to reliable coverage, AT&T stayed true to its claim of offering the "nation's fastest 4G LTE network."
AT&T 4G LTE speeds topped 33 Mb/s in some tests and averaged 22.3 Mb/s. When testing the Verizon 4G LTE speeds, we were lucky to get 5 or 10 Mb/s.
AT&T and Verizon upload speed were surprisingly strong for both networks at 10 Mb/s.
Sprint download speeds were meager in comparison to both of its rival carriers, averaging between 1 and 5 Mb/s overall in our tests, sometimes giving us a network error to boot. Surprisingly, its upload speeds, when there wasn't an error message, were stronger than a lot of its download speeds, consistently at 3 and 4 Mb/s.
4G LTE price plan comparison
Here's where Sprint beats both AT&T and Verizon quite handily. Sprint charges just $30 a month for its 4G LTE unlimited data per line, or $20 a month for 1GB.
Verizon and AT&T don't provide unlimited plans anymore, except to long-time AT&T iPhone owners who still cling to their grandfathered-in data plans for dear life.
But the same $20 that gets you 1GB of data on Sprint would leave AT&T customers with less than a third of that - 300MB - for an entire month. AT&T's 3GB option is $30, and the 5GB tier is $50 a month.
Verizon lumps its 4G LTE data into the "unlimited talk and text" price, making it difficult for a direct comparison. The end result is $90 a month for a lousy 1GB of data, which is $20 more every month than what Sprint offers its customers.
Sprint's 4G LTE network hasn't rolled out everywhere, but if it's in your area, saving $240 a year isn't such a bad deal.
Final 4G LTE speed tips
AT&T was the fastest of the three carriers in our 4G LTE data tests, but that's only half of the story. Consistent coverage throughout the U.S. is the biggest hurdle every network needs to address.
Therefore, rule No. 1 of buying a new smartphone with a different carrier than you're used to is check the AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint coverage maps with your zip code plugged in.
You don't want to get stuck in a two-year contract with a carrier that has a lack of cell towers in your neck of the woods.
Rule No. 2 is to talk to friends. Everyone seems to incessantly complain or, rarely, biasly rave about their cell phone reception - this is usually due to a lack of knowledge when there are problems that exist. But poll enough people and you may be surprised.
As carriers prep 4G LTE-Advanced and new smartphone supporting the upgraded speed, we could see theoretical speeds of 1GB/s. Until that rolls out, however, we'll keep testing the 4G LTE networks to see which is the best in all sorts of environments.