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.




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