AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon: The iPhone plans compared

iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S users now have three options for service, and the calculations aren't so clear-cut

When the iPhone 4S hits the streets next Friday, it will do so with a feature no previous model has possessed on launch day: competition. For years, AT&T had the iPhone all to itself in the U.S., but earlier this year Verizon joined the iPhone family and, with the iPhone 4S launch, Sprint is jumping on the bandwagon as well.

That means those looking to snap up the latest version of the iPhone have a choice unavailable to any that have gone before them. To help you make the savviest decision possible, here's our breakdown of the carriers' voice, data, and messaging plans. But be warned: These plans are constructed differently at each company, so it is sometimes difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison.

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Voice plans
As was already the case, AT&T and Verizon are neck-and-neck on their introductory plan for individuals, starting at $40 a month for 450 minutes and ratcheting up to $70 a month for unlimited calling.

Newcomer Sprint would seem to get the worst of this comparison, at least at first blush. The company requires the purchase of a Sprint Everything plan with an iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S. Those plans start at $70 a month for 450 minutes -- the same as the unlimited minutes price on the other two carriers -- and tops out at $100 a month for unlimited minutes. But don't count the company out just yet: Sprint has advantages in other categories, as you'll see below.

There's more disparity between all three companies when it comes to the family voice plans. AT&T's family plans starts at $60 a month for 550 minutes of talk; Verizon's basic plan is $70 a month for 700 minutes of talk; and Sprint charges $130 a month for 1500 minutes. Each carrier requires two lines for the family plan, in most cases with a maximum of five lines.

Text-messaging plans
Here is where Sprint starts to look less expensive. Those Sprint Everything plans that are mandatory with the iPhone purchase include unlimited texting as part of a $10-per-month fee for unlimited data.

Both AT&T and Verizon offer $20-per-month plans for unlimited texting; if you don't think that you'll be sending scads of messages, though, you can also pay as you go. AT&T recently scrapped its $5 and $10 introductory plans, which included 200 and 1000 messages, respectively; now, if you don;t pay the $20 for the unlimited plan, you'll pay 20 cents per text sent or received, and 30 cents per picture or video message sent or received. Verizon also charges 20 cents per text, and it charges 25 cents for a picture or video. In addition, Verizon offers a $5 plan for 250 messages and a $10 plan for 500 messages.

Because Sprint's texting plan falls within its broader, required data plan, it's not easy to say who wins the side-by-side matchup. If your texting falls closer to the "unlimited" side of the spectrum, Sprint might win on points, but Verizon has more options for moderate texters. Both AT&T and Verizon give you the option of not texting and not paying for it; Sprint does not.

Data plans
Most carriers require that you sign up for a data plan when you buy a smartphone. Again, Sprint charges $10 a month for unlimited data -- that's the same fee that covers the texting.

AT&T and Verizon offer cheaper voice plans than Sprint, but they make their money back on the data side. AT&T offers a base plan of $15 per month for 200MB of data; go over, and it'll charge you $15 more for each additional 200MB. Its 2GB plan is $25 a month, slightly better than Verizon's 2GB a month for $30. However, if you regularly use more data,but aren't quite ready to shell out for the Uunlimited options, Verizon offers additional tiers at 5GB ($50 per month) and 10GB ($80 per month).

Each carrier also offers hotspot capabilities, letting you share your iPhone's cellular data connection with other devices, like an iPad or MacBook. AT&T's hotspot option requires you already subscribe to its top-tier 2GB data plan; on top of that, you'll pay another $20 per month -- though you'll also get an additional 2GB of data. Verizon charges $20 a month for 2GB of hotspot data, which can be added on to any of its data plans, and Sprint offers a $30 option.

Of course, coverage is a comparison we can't really make for you. The advantage here depends on where you live and how you use your iPhone -- and if you, for example, live in the suburbs but work in the city, it can get even more complicated.

Verizon, of course, has the broadest reach of the wireless companies in terms of people served, with 106 million subscribers; AT&T comes in second with 95.5 million customers, and Sprint brings up the rear with 51 million customers. Before deciding which carrier offers the best service, you'll want to look at their coverage maps: You can see them at Verizon's, AT&T's, and Sprint's websites.

But as we've told you before, there's no experience like real-world experience: You might want to ask your neighbors which carrier they're using, and what kind of service they get. And you might check out services like the RootMetrics app, which crowdsources the process of testing neighborhood wireless coverage to create maps of which carriers perform best, and where.

Closing thoughts
Each carrier has advantages -- both tangible and less so -- that we haven't quantified here. For example, AT&T offers rollover minutes and free access to its nationwide network of Wi-Fi hotspots. Verizon, on the other hand, has tended to score the highest in customer satisfaction among wireless carriers. Sprint, as the newcomer, has the most to prove on the iPhone front -- but that unlimited data plan may give it a leg up in the market.

Because the charges, coverage, and other qualities of each carrier varies, the iPhone operator you choose might be different from your coworker who lives 10 miles away -- and you'd both be right.

But for comparison's sake, let's assume you're an individual, moderate iPhone user who talks 450 minutes a month, uses somewhere up to 2GB of data, and sends at least 100 text messages -- around three a day -- every month. Sprint, despite the initial sticker shock of its voice plan, would actually be the cheapest option, at $80 a month. AT&T would come in a close second at $85 a month, and Verizon would rank third at $90 a month.

Then again, maybe you talk more, text less, or have more phones floating around your household. In those cases, the dollar metrics will certainly change. What's more, you might be willing to pay more for a carrier that provides a stronger signal in your neighborhood than for one that constantly drops calls. Now that competition has arrived, iPhone users are going to have to do a little more homework.

This story, "AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon: The iPhone plans compared" was originally published by Macworld.