With the iPhone 5 hurtling toward a release on Sept. 21, many of you are likely thinking about ditching your current carrier and signing up with a new one. You've suffered through one too many dropped calls, and now you're ready to leap to the greener pastures of that phone company your buddy swears never lets him down.
But how, in the name of the 112th Congress of these United States, are you to decide which carrier to choose? Do you opt for Verizon, Sprint or AT&T? How can you come to a resolution on an issue that could very well determine your frustration and stress levels on any given day for the next two years?
Choosing a carrier, in essence, comes down to two conflicting considerations: The cost of the plan and the quality of the service. There are other issues, obviously -- international plans and compatibility, customer service quality, how funny their television commercials are -- but mainly, you're looking for the most reliable carrier that is also the cheapest.
Here are the steps one should take in deciding on a carrier for the iPhone 5 -- or, really, any new smartphone. Study up before you go shopping:
SEARCH FOR YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD'S BEST COVERAGE
The primary job of any smartphone -- aside, perhaps, from entertaining you while on the toilet -- is to connect to the Internet and the cell towers when you need it to. Obviously, you're going to want good reception in the locations you spend most of your time: your home, your office, your office's bathroom.
One good way to find out which carrier is the best in any given area is to ask friends about their experiences -- nothing beats real-world evidence. But let's say that you're like me in high school and you don't have any friends: You're moving, or are new to a town, or can't find anyone with Sprint or Verizon or AT&T. Where do you turn?
Why, to the Internet, of course! There are a few excellent websites that display, on searchable and highly zoomable maps, how strong each carrier's reception is in a given city, neighborhood -- on down to the block. OpenSignalMaps is an especially detailed view, overlaying a "heat map" of signal strength over Google's Maps and ranking reception from "Weak" to "Strong" for each carrier. CellReception.com, meanwhile, shows you the location of cell towers for each carrier on a map and has user-submitted ratings of each carrier in several major U.S. cities.
Surfing for antenna maps isn't the sexiest thing you can do on the Internet (by a long shot). But your research could reward you down the road, when you're urgently trying to refresh your turn-by-turn directions, have an important phone call to make, or will just be on the toilet for a while.
(N.B.2: The iPhone 5, unlike the iPhones before it, can connect to the faster 4G LTE networks where it's available. All three carriers are still developing their networks -- Sprint's isn't even ready yet -- but you can find whether 4G LTE is coming to your city with this map. Also note that no one is quite sure how these 4G LTE networks -- which are super-fast right now -- will react when millions of iPhones are trying to access them).
DETERMINE HOW MUCH DATA YOU NEED PER MONTH
Back in June, when Verizon's unlimited data plan officially ended, we explained in glorious detail how to check your monthly data usage, and why it's important. As you shop for a new carrier, it's important to go into the process armed with the knowledge of how many megabytes (or gigabytes!) per month you (and, perhaps, your family) will require. The three major carriers of the iPhone have now diverged in the kinds of data plans they offer and which one you choose could largely depend on the data you generally use in a month.
Speaking of which...
CHOOSE THE BEST KIND OF PLAN FOR YOU
Apple has a neat tool hidden on its webpage (click here) that allows you to compare plans on AT&T, Sprint and Verizon with a single click on a single site. The differences in pricing and plan structure are fairly obvious: Verizon is forcing all of its customers onto Data Share plans -- in which you and your family buy a set amount of gigabytes and share them amongst yourselves however you please. AT&T also offers these sharing plans, but it has also retained its individual plans and its unlimited plans for those grandfathered in years ago. Sprint, meanwhile, is all unlimited, all the time, for users old and new.
Again, your choice is going to depend largely on both the quality of coverage you can get from a carrier as well as your data needs. If you're burning through four, five, six gigabytes each month, you're probably better off on Sprint's unlimited plan; if you're part of a large family that uses data sparingly, Verizon's Sharing Plans can be a great way to save money; AT&T, meanwhile, offers reasonable plans for data-minimizing users. Again, depends on what your household and your smartphone habits are.
Finally -- and hopefully without complicating things too much -- remember that you can always pay full price for an unsubsidized iPhone and use it on prepaid carriers like Cricket, an increasingly popular route that can save you hundreds of dollars over the lifespan of your phone. The upfront cost is higher -- a 16GB iPhone 5 costs $649, compared to $199 subsidized with a two-year contract -- but, again, your savings come from the cheaper monthly plans, which run about $35 per month on Cricket for 1,000 voice minutes and unlimited text and data.
IT TAKES A LITTLE WORK!
There is no magical formula, macro or app that can determine which carrier will give you the best value and reception: You have to put in a little blood, sweat and typing to figure it out. If you get it right, though, your wallet will be heavier, your signal will be stronger, and each and every trip to the bathroom will be that much less frustrating.