For the first time ever, Apple launched the iPhone 5S on four major US carriers: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and day-one newcomer T-Mobile. It has since spread to 30 different wireless networks, including pre-paid and regional carriers.
This updated list doesn't change that fact that AT&T remains the best postpaid option for new iPhone owners who are willing to enter into a binding two-year contract. There are a number of reasons to stick it out with Ma Bell, as irksome as it can be regarding some of its policies.
The iPhone 5S on Verizon and Sprint sounds like a good deal, and it is for millions of people. Verizon offers better coverage in some regions of the US, especially on the east coast, while Sprint is able to bring better value through its Unlimited Everything plans. But because they use more restrictive CDMA technology, neither can handle voice and data at the same time.
That means, with a Verizon or Sprint iPhone 5S, it's impossible to look up movie times or the exact closing of time a restaurant while chit-chatting with a loved one on speaker phone. Power users are going to run into more serious trouble when it's no work and no play. Imagine talking to a co-working without being able to pull up a crucial cloud-based document or calendar.
It really didn't have to be that way. In order for the iPhone 5S to have simultaneous talk and surf on CDMA, it would need a second cellular radio like the Samsung Galaxy S4. Apple hasn't fit that into this generation of its smartphone. Even though the iPhone 5S packs 13 LTE bands, up from the five in iPhone 5, none support voice. It has to fall back to either GSM and CDMA, and the latter technology can't handle voice calls and downloads at the same time. That's where the GSM-compatible AT&T phone has an undeniable edge.
T-Mobile, the other major US carrier that uses GSM configuration in the newest iPhone, can also support talk and surf at the same time but its LTE network isn't as mature. It now has coverage in 269 cities and 42 states, up from the 152 cities when we first reviewed the iPhone 5S. It has certainly come a long way from the seven cities that were a part of T-Mobile's early 2013 LTE launch.
T-Mobile offers tremendous value, buts its data speeds and reception quality depends on where you live in the country.
Best iPhone 5S prices, data plans
Carriers and the Apple Store are still selling the iPhone 5S starting at $199, attempting to gouge customers for the launch price of the gold, silver and space gray 16GB model. It's best to look at retailers like Best Buy, which has been offering better deals ever since Black Friday of last year. The starting price has fluctuated from $175 all the way down to $125. Right now it's at $150.
An iPhone 5S from Best Buy still requires a two-year contract from AT&T, Verizon or Sprint (it doesn't sell T-Mobile iPhones). A reasonable plan with 2GB of data and unlimited talk and text costs a monthly $90 on Verizon and $95 on AT&T. Sprint's Unlimited My Way Plan is $80 when adding together its unlimited talk and text for $50 a month and unlimited data for smartphones for $30 a month. Of the three, Sprint is the cheapest, while Verizon and AT&T's prices are pretty much neck-and neck.
Long-time iPhone AT&T customers do have one distinct advantage for their pricey loyalty: being grandfathered into their unlimited data plan for $29.99 a month. Verizon did away with this perk when customers upgraded to the iPhone 5 a year and a half ago. AT&T hasn't announced when or if it plans to boot unlimited data customers onto a Shared Plan, but it has tried to smother them out. There's no personal hotspot access in conjunction with unlimited data and it blocked anyone clinging to such a plan from sending or receiving FaceTime video calls over LTE. It remained a WiFi-only app until the FCC threatened to investigate the fairness of such a move.
T-Mobile customers can't get that same Best Buy iPhone 5S deal, but the long-term cost is even cheaper with the self-proclaimed Un-carrier. It charges either $648 upfront or $27 a month for the phone plus another $60 a month for an unlimited talk and text plan with 2.5GB of data. That's slightly more data than AT&T, Verizon and Sprint and a significantly cheaper price. Better yet, T-Mobile's unlimited package isn't much more at just $70 per month.
Are AT&T Next, Verizon Edge worth it?
AT&T and Verizon have scrambled to match T-Mobile and its popular Jump program that allows contract-tied customers to upgrade to a new phone at any time for an extra $10 a month.
It's much more pricey for AT&T Next ($32.50 a month for 20 months) and Verizon Edge ($27.15 a month for 24 months) even though the phone is "free" upfront and can be upgraded after just 12 months into that 20 or 24 monthly cycle.
AT&T Next and Verizon Edge basically have customers escaping the full price cost of an iPhone 5S in exchange for its $650 broken up into monthly installments. That sounds like a great idea until you realize that the fine print requires turning in an unscathed handset when upgrading to a new device 12 months in.
iPhone owners who are willing to do a little more legwork can get a whole lot more money by avoiding AT&T Next and Verizon Edge and selling their used device on the internet.
iPhone 5S at full price
The best way to save money and still retain a strong signal from AT&T, Verizon or Sprint is to sell a previous iPhone and upgrade every year. This works best on a GSM-capable AT&T iPhone that can benefit international deal-seekers when unlocked. Since the phone costs $650 without a contract and is a lot more expensive overseas, bargain hunters on eBay and Amazon are willing to fork over money for a gently used iPhone.
An unlocked iPhone 5 with little wear, for example, goes for around $450 on ebay and Amazon. After your one year of service with this device, AT&T reduces the early upgrade fee for an iPhone 5S from the full $650 to around $450 in an effort to get you to sign up for a new two-year contract. What do you know, that's the exact price the handset sells for online.
Of course, this involves a little work, including getting your previous iPhone model unlocked (AT&T will do it for free once the contract is broken through the early upgrade to the iPhone 5S), which fetches a higher value than a carrier-locked iPhone handset. This also requires purchasing the new iPhone 5S before being able to legally unlock and sell the iPhone 5.
Having a new iPhone with the latest features and a fresh battery every year is worth the extra effort, especially when carriers are only willing to pay for $200 credit. That's less than half of the amount you can get from ebay and Amazon.
Best iPhone 5S carrier for speed
Apple's official iPhone 5S landing page claims that its new phone has "ultrafast LTE networks in more places." However, this shouldn't be confused with the next-generation LTE Advanced standard.
Instead, the 5S has the same Qualcomm 4G LTE modem as before, meaning speed tests show that it's comparable to the LTE speeds on an iPhone 5.
Our AT&T vs iPhone vs Sprint speed tests showed that AT&T had a stable connection in more places, while the sometimes faster Verizon network had higher peaks, but a lot more valleys. Sprint lagged behind in third. Its value resides in cheaper all-you-can-eat plans - great when it works in your neck of the woods.
T-Mobile is the interesting dark horse in this 4G free-for-all. It's a burgeoning LTE network now includes American cities you've never heard of; that's when a company knows when its 4G LTE has truly made it almost everywhere.
Almost. If it's not in your area, or the signal isn't strong in places you frequent, that's a problem. No one wants to drop back to 2.5G EDGE speeds.
Pre-paid iPhone 5S
The iPhone has become more accessible now that it's on pre-paid and no-contract networks outside of the four major US carriers. Catering to casual cell phone users who want to upgrade to the smartphone that everyone else has, Virgin Mobile offers the best deal right now at $439.99 for the new iPhone. Its plan is $35 a month for 300 minutes and unlimited data and messaging.
Boost Mobile is slightly more expensive with the iPhone 5S costing $549.99 upfront and service priced at $55 month, but this plan entitles customers to unlimited minutes in addition to unlimited data and messaging. Walmart's popular StraightTalk operator is even cheaper at $45 a month, but it requires paying the full $650 upfront for the iPhone 5S.
T-Mobile is one of the four major carriers, but it actually offers a hidden prepaid plan for $30 a month that includes 100 minutes of talk and unlimited texting and data. That's perfect for SMS addicts and mobile web surfers who don't do a whole lot of actual talking. Extra minutes can be added to this Bring-Your-Own-Device plan and the SIM card to activate the deal is just $10. It's the best contract-free method if you have a second smartphone or need a burner phone.
Our verdict on US iPhone 5s
Paying $199 for an iPhone 5S and then paying through the nose every month to a carrier like AT&T is still the best option when upgrading to Apple's new smartphone. Virgin Mobile and T-Mobile, meanwhile, offer a cost-effective deal for prepaid subscribers on a budget.
AT&T's LTE coverage is more reliable than T-Mobile's right now, even though the Un-carrier is consistently unveiling discounted plans that are changing the wireless industry as we know it. It's just too much of a risk right now when it comes to receiving a reliable signal from T-Mobile.
AT&T is also more consistent than Verizon and Sprint, and its GSM configuration means that it can handle simultaneous voice and data unlike its two rival's CDMA setup.
Our advice is to avoid AT&T Next and Verizon Edge programs at all cost. That's for people so lazy that they can't bother to sell their device themselves on Amazon... or just hate money.
iPhone 5S (US) review by Matt Swider