iPhone 4S pre-orders now open – which carrier should you pick?

by Phil Hornshaw

At about 3 a.m. this morning, Apple started accepting pre-orders for the next iteration of its iconic smartphone, the iPhone 4S. But for the first time ever, iPhone buyers have three choices of carrier.

That’s a pretty big deal considering that up until a few months ago, customers were stuck with AT&T, whether they liked it or not. Apple released an iPhone with a CDMA antenna earlier this year that allowed customers to choose Verizon rather than AT&T, but with the announcement of the iPhone 4S, Apple added Sprint to its list of carriers. This is the first product launch that has allowed users to pick from more than one carrier for the same device.

Choice is great, but it leaves a big question: how to choose? Each service has its pros and cons, and Mashable has put together a pretty solid comparison of all three carriers and their benefits to iPhone owners. We’re going to hit a few of the highlights so you can make a better-informed decision before you log your pre-order and sign-up for the next two years with your iPhone 4S.

Simultaneous talking and browsing – only with AT&T

First off, the biggest discrepancy between the three carriers is one of network capability. Sprint and Verizon both use a CDMA network, which is slightly different from AT&T’s GSM network. Simplified, the difference is this: CDMA transmits data and voice on the same frequency, while GSM separates the two. That means that on AT&T’s network, you can be on a call with a friend and decide to go see a movie, then, while staying on the call, pull open the Safari web browser, find show times, and relay them to your friend with no interruption. You can surf the web or use 3G data while talking on AT&T; you can’t do that with Sprint or Verizon.

Web browsing while chatting really isn’t that important. For most people, situations in which they need to check something on the Internet at the same time as talking are kind of rare, and 3G is a little slow regardless of network anyway. So if you feel you can live without the function, you probably won’t miss it.

On networks: AT&T is fastest, Verizon most reliable

Speaking of network speeds, AT&T’s is also the fastest. According to a test by PCWorld did of all three networks last year, AT&T clocked in at speeds of 1,410 kilobytes per second on average, while Verizon reached an average of 870 kbps and Sprint an average of 790 kbps.

AT&T does have some drawbacks, however. While the carrier had an exclusive deal for the iPhone with AT&T, many iPhone owners, well, hated it. AT&T is also well-known for network troubles (mostly because of the glut of iPhones) and dropped calls, which is part of the justification it has used in its attempt to acquire T-Mobile (though documents suggest it would be cheaper for AT&T just to invest in fixing up its infrastructure). Meanwhile, Verizon and Sprint, according to a PCWorld survey, rate high in customer satisfaction – 94 percent and 92 percent, respectively. Sprint also has the largest 3G network in the country.

Sprint wins in price

Finally, we come to price. This is where Sprint excels. Its base voice plan will run you slightly more than the other two carriers – $69.99 for 450 minutes per month, or $99.99 for unlimited minutes. At AT&T and Verizon, the choices are $59.99 for 450 or $89.99 for unlimited.

Sprint’s data plan, on the other hand, is much cheaper, and it’s the only carrier to offer unlimited 3G data, all at a price of $10 per month. Meanwhile, neither AT&T nor Verizon will offer unlimited data, and they’ll both charge substantially more: $55 for 5GB of data per month at AT&T, $50 for the same with Verizon. However, if you opt to turn your iPhone 4S into a mobile hotspot and allow other devices to use it for Internet access, you’ll need to pony-up an additional $29.99 per month. The mobile hotspot access is included in the 5GB plans for the other two carriers. But at lower tiers, Sprint comes out to be a winner, saving you about $10 a month in many cases and stacking up to better than $200 over the course of a two-year contract – which is the same as the subsidized price of the iPhone 4S’ 16GB version.

Obviously, which carrier you go with depends on personal preferences, brand loyalty, and how you intend to use your new iPhone. Each carrier has advantages, and if it’s possible, testing each of their networks where you intend to use your phone can save you a lot of headache further down the line.