T-Mobile test drive box angled

Re/code

Mobile


Sure, T-Mobile is the smallest of the four major U.S. wireless carriers, and yes, it was the last to roll out both a high-speed 4G LTE data network and the Apple iPhone. And, just this week, it got whacked by the federal government for allegedly allowing, and profiting from, fraudulent charges on its customers’ bills. (The company says the charges are “unfounded and without merit.”)

But the underdog certainly has spunk. It has ditched subsidies and offered free data for streaming music, among other things. It calls itself the “un-carrier.”

T-Mobile’s latest gambit: A free week-long “test drive” of an iPhone 5s running on its LTE network, which it claims is the fastest in the U.S. The idea is to convince people that the network is speedy and has strong coverage. The company is calling the program a “7 night stand,” and is running full-page newspaper ads that say: “Like 7 minutes in heaven. But for 7 sweet days.”

The carrier loans you the iPhone, which comes in special, T-Mobile speed-test packaging, instead of the usual box. It must be returned in good condition after a week. You order it online, and return it to a T-Mobile store. If it’s damaged, you will pay $100. If you don’t return it, you pay $700 plus taxes. Details are here.

T-Mobile 7 Night Stand

I decided to take T-Mobile up on the offer, and toted the T-Mobile loaner along with my personal iPhone 5s, which runs on Verizon’s LTE network, the first to be widely deployed in the U.S., and quite widespread. This was a test-drive, not a scientific test. I didn’t compare other phone models or other carriers. And I only tried the T-Mobile phone in two cities that were already on my schedule: My home base of Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

I performed lots of functions on both iPhones, ranging from making voice calls to steaming video and music, surfing the Web, and texting and emailing. The T-Mobile variant did as well as the Verizon one on all these things.

But the acid test, for me, was to run the widely used speed-test app, Ookla’s Speedtest, on both phones in each location. I did 10 tests on each phone in the same place, at the same time. I focused on downstream speeds. Then I averaged them.

For the East Coast match, I was in my suburban D.C. home, whose address is rated by T-Mobile as having “very strong” LTE coverage, and which is also covered by Verizon’s LTE network.

For the West Coast face-off, I was at a major hotel right off San Francisco’s Market Street, a short walk from the city’s major financial and retail districts. T-Mobile says coverage there is “Excellent.” Verizon says the hotel is in an area fully covered by its LTE network.

The result: T-Mobile beat Verizon overall, in each location. T-Mobile averaged just over 10 megabits per second downstream, versus 6.8 Mbps for Verizon. In D.C., T-Mobile averaged 11.4 Mbps down, much faster than Verizon’s 7.6 Mbps. In San Francisco, T-Mobile averaged 8.7 Mbps down, versus just about 6 Mbps for Verizon.

These results are nothing to write home about, since LTE data speeds can often top 20 Mbps, and frequently measure in the teens.

Still, this was a reversal from another, more comprehensive, test I ran last year, in which Verizon topped T-Mobile (AT&T won that one, and Sprint was dead last.)

T-Mobile Test Drive iPhone screen

There are some caveats. Speeds on any network can vary by time of day, and even by slight changes in location. So your results may vary, even in the two cities where I tested. Also, Verizon’s network carries much more data traffic than T-Mobile’s, which can result in lower speeds

T-Mobile’s performance was much more uneven than Verizon’s. My T-Mobile results included multiple results under 1 Mbps, and multiple ones over 20 Mbps. The Verizon results clustered much more closely to the average, and were never slower than 2.5 Mbps.

Finally, Verizon beat T-Mobile on upload speeds, averaging about 5.1 Mbps versus 4.2 Mbps for T-Mobile.

Still, at least in my case, T-Mobile’s test-drive gamble worked for the carrier. I’m not switching, since I am grandfathered into a very favorable Verizon plan; I give great weight to the consistency of Verizon speeds, and have a Verizon family plan. But you might, if you’re not as satisfied with your current carrier.




11 comments
chadsch
chadsch

I test drove T-Mobile's network throughout the Bay Area, including the North Bay, East Bay, and San Francisco. If you had signal, their LTE network performed better than Verizon's - especially during peak hours. I received speeds close to 40 Mb/s in some neighborhood. Their latency is also much lower than Verizon's. Web browsing felt like it was connected to a fast wifi connection.


However, they still have not implemented the 700 MHz spectrum purchased from Verizon in the Bay Area. This means that coverage in dense buildings, bars, etc is poor. Some places I frequent in Russian Hill had no service, and I had to step out in the street to receive texts. My Verizon iPhone 5S had at least two bars in these locations. I'm told T-Mobile will begin building rolling 700 Mhz in early 2015. 


It was incredibly nice to not worry about data caps. Streaming video, iTunes Match, Rdio, etc without care is how we should (in a perfect world) use mobile devices. 

VernonDozier
VernonDozier

Thanks, Walt. 

I really appreciate you taking to task things I would normally be be estranged with.  

Still, with the recent FTC suit, it's easy for someone to remind John Legere that the Statue Of Limitations are 7 years except in cases where there's an investigation of death involved.  The FTC suit has merit.

Gee Deezy
Gee Deezy

"Also, Verizon’s network carries much more data traffic than T-Mobile’s, which can result in lower speeds"   Uhhh, no.

Walt, usually you say brilliant things, this wasn't one of those times.

If I sign up with a provider, I pay for good speed.  I don't want to hear "well our network is so popular, its slowed down by all the traffic!"

mikito palo alto
mikito palo alto

This just confirms for me that t-mo is the best carrier out there. I have a family plan with 5 iPhones for just $110 (+ those pesky taxes, fees, and the monthly payment on one of those phones = around $150 all told). I'm not locked into a contract, have unlimited data (1 GB at LTE speed, 3G speeds for anything over, which rarely happens, and now won't every happen because of the new "free" music streaming). Plus, my family travels a lot and we've enjoyed zero cost messaging and data from any country we want to go to. I get mms messages chock-full of pictures from my kids in Paris, London, Mexico and Costa Rica. We have group chats internationally with abandon, knowing we don't have to worry about roaming costs. If I need to call them, it's about .20 a minute when they're abroad. 

Today, I learn that not only am I enjoying the best deal in wireless, but I'm also getting better and faster service than those who are paying double... This is a no brainer. Seems to good to be true. T-mo is really a game changer for me. It's the Apple of the wireless world. Fearful of what may happen if they every get acquired by Sprint, but I think they've changed the landscape forever.

DrBob
DrBob

Only problem with Verizon is cost!


ATT let me go on their Mobile Share Value Plan which reduced my monthly bill from about $285 to $175 a month for 5 devices.


My brother has Verizon and they would not let him go on the cheaper plan unless he bought all new phones (financed by Verizon!) So he is stuck paying close to $300 a month.


So much for the 'MORE $$$ is Everything Plan'!

phil28
phil28

I've been carrying both a Verizon iPhone 5s and a T-Mobile HTC One. I have the latter because calls are 20 cents a minute in the rest of the world and data is free. I use the T-Mobile phone extensively in Asia and Europe and it saves me $300 each trip compared to Verizon. 


I've taken the time to compare the 2 phones across the US in states including California, Utah, Washington, New York, in cities, towns and thecountryside. The results astounded me. T-Mobile provides better coverage with a higher signal strength at least 75% of the time. The rest of the time it's about equal, but rarely is Verizon better.

Ambient80
Ambient80

Nice write up. I'd like to see a comparison of T-Mobile and some other big carrier in a more rural area. That's where T-Mobile seems to be the worst. I don't even think our state has any T-Mobile coverage (just roaming) so when they show these commercials here, it's a little silly.

Saykred Cow
Saykred Cow

@Gee Deezy Exactly.  That's complete nonsense Walt.  


Verizon has eliminated unlimited data plans from all new subscribers and existing customers when they upgrade.  This forces the majority of their users on hard capped plans with steep overages and financial penalties.


So most people on Verizon conserve data and DON'T use LTE unless it's a time they feel they need it.  There might be a handful of people who watch Netflix every day on their Verizon connection and they're probably millionaires.


T-Mobile on the other hand has unlimited LTE with no throttling or overages.  People can watch Netflix all day if they wanted to.  Video chat for hours on end.  etc.  That takes a lot more bandwidth and more people are doing it on T-Mobile because their plans make it easier to do so.  In fact, T-Mobile made it a specific point at their latest uncarrier event to state definitively that their users use the most data.  While verizon and at&t users use the least amount of data.  Was this inaccurate?


Walt, you have to break the psychological block where Verizon is the best at everything.  In this case, Verizon is not and they shouldn't get a pass for a network that performs worse than one that costs a fraction of what Verizon costs users a month.

Age8E
Age8E

@Ambient80 Agreed. Tech journalists often seem to conduct these tests only in major cities, which in my experience have been a strong point of T-Mobile's network for years. Trek out to the suburbs or more rural areas and they traditionally suffered from far spottier coverage. This writeup really doesn't shed any light on how much, if at all, T-Mo has improved upon that situation.

Saykred Cow
Saykred Cow

@Age8E @Ambient80 They've stated all their 2G coverage will be 4G by the middle of 2015.  Half done by the end of 2014.  It would be good to see a test drive at the end of this year and mid next year.

Ambient80
Ambient80

@Age8E @Ambient80 Aww, it deleted my response :(


Anyway, yeah I can't blame journalists too much. I mean, wold Walt really wanna spend a week in WV just to test a phone network? Unlikely. It's just amazing the spread of speeds you can see, even on the same carrier. LTE here in WV is nowhere close to the speeds seen in NY on LTE, both on AT&T's network. Now, I certainly understand that there are a LOT LOT LOT more people in NYC alone than in WV, but it's still a pretty incredibly change when they're both advertised as the same speeds.