To switch or not to switch: Test-driving T-Mobile's LTE network

T-Mobile is loaning potential customers an iPhone 5s for a week to try out its network. So I took them up on it.

T-Mobile's Uncarrier 5 event last month in Seattle was without a doubt the loudest press conference I've ever attended. Whichever rods and cones in my eyeballs detect the color magenta pretty much melted. John Legere was his magnificently foul-mouthed self, and his bombastic speech was accompanied by chair-shaking blasts of music and sound effects, concert lighting, and screaming fans (OK, most of them were T-Mobile employees, but there were thousands of them there, and they were loud). I don't recall actual pyrotechnics, but it wouldn't have been surprising.

But hey, if you're the scrappy fourth carrier, the one trying to shake up the industry and steal customers away from AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint by any means necessary, you have to pull out all the stops. (You even go way too far, and have to apologize the next day.) And T-Mobile had a lot to announce: a free seven-day trial for people to test its LTE network on an iPhone 5s, to see if they want to switch before they actually switch, as well as a "free the music" scheme, in which streaming music from apps like Spotify and Pandora no longer count againt your data plan.

When the dust settled and I'd nabbed a selfie with the CEO wearing magenta Chuck Taylors, I also had a iPhone 5s in a bright magenta T-Mobile Test Drive box burning a hole in my backpack. So I've been carrying both, to see how T-Mobile's LTE network stacks up to AT&T. I'm very familiar with the latter network, having been a subscribber for ten years without really loving the experience. Would I find T-Mobile fast enough to make the switch?

Coverage and speeds

Verizon and AT&T both beat T-Mobile to the LTE punch, but T-Mobile has been upgrading its network and boasts a wide coverage area. You can enter your exact address to get an idea of what coverage will be like, but while my map promised fully magenta "Excellent" coverage at both my home and work, in practice I only had a bar or two of LTE at either place.

My house in Oakland is at the base of a pretty huge hill, and it seems to wreak havoc on cellular reception. AT&T provided great coverage when I lived in San Francisco, but when I moved to Oakland last year I've found I get one bar at the most, next to no data, and sometimes my phone just says "Searching." I even installed a land-line (yes, in 2013!) just to be sure I'd have a backup way to make calls.

I was really hoping T-Mobile would be different at my house, but in practice it was about the same as AT&T. Every time I checked both phones together, they showed the same: one bar of LTE, or maybe two bars of 4G, and when I averaged 10 of those one- to two-bar LTE tests on each phone, I got 0.9Mbps down for T-Mobile and 1.2Mbps for AT&T.

At my office in San Francisco, also marked as Excellent on T-Mobile's map, I was typically seeing two to three bars of LTE, and speeds averaging a respectable 4.7Mbps down after 10 tests. Again, this is about the same as I was seeing on my AT&T iPhone.

But when I managed to find a strong LTE signal from T-Mobile around town, its speeds were impressive. My best test in California was at the Oakland airport, where 4 bars of LTE got me 23Mbps down and 9.25Mbps up. At my brother's house in the Chicago suburbs, T-Mobile beat AT&T, even though AT&T had an extra bar when I tested.

Music savings

So for me, the network performance is pretty much a wash, with a slight edge to AT&T. T-Mobile does come with some extra perks like free music streaming: If you use Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody, iHeartRadio, iTunes Radio, Milk Music, Slacker Radio, or Beatport SFX, all the music that you stream over the cellular connection won't count against your data plan.

While it's true that T-Mobile ditched overage charges, you still have a high-speed data bucket, and when that's gone, you can keep using data at a slower speed without paying more. But now you'll be able to stream music without it hitting that high-speed data bucket, and if your high-speed data is gone for the month, you can still stream music at high speeds.

If your current carrier dings you for overage or throttles your speeds, or you're just afraid to stream music over cellular because you're worried that'll happen, this could be huge. Streaming an hour of Spotify used 51.6MB, an hour of iHeartRadio was 60.5MB, and an hour of Pandora was only 35.4MB. But a couple hours a day, five or six days a week, and that adds up fast.

Bottom line

Will I switch because of this test drive? Probably not. I might ask AT&T for a MicroCell to improve reception at my house, but it works fine at work and around town. T-Mobile's free music streaming is a great perk if you use it, and I do love to stream music, but I use Rdio, which isn't currently in T-Mobile's program. (The carrier is taking feedback from users on which services, if any, to add.) And I'm not worried about using too much data when streaming Rdio, either, since I still have the "unlimited" data plan that I got in 2008 with my iPhone 3G. (AT&T does throttle my speeds after 3GB, but most months I only use around 2GB.)

Still, I really appreciate the fact that T-Mobile is putting iPhones where its mouth is and letting potential customers take its network for a spin before going through the hassle of porting their numbers and switching their whole families. Since performance varies from place to place on any cellular network, this chance to test wireless service where you live or work is genius--and something all the carriers should do.

This story, "To switch or not to switch: Test-driving T-Mobile's LTE network" was originally published by TechHive.

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