AT&T, Verizon and Sprint iPhone 4S plans: Which is cheapest?

@CNNMoneyTech October 12, 2011: 5:54 AM ET
AT&T, Verizon and Sprint iPhone 4S plans: Which is cheapest?

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- If you're getting the new iPhone 4S, you now have three options for wireless service: AT&T, Verizon and Sprint. Unfortunately, there's no app for choosing the right plan.

If you use just a little bit of data each month, you'll probably save money by picking AT&T. If you use a typical amount of data and texts, Verizon is probably your cheapest option, and if you're a data fiend, Sprint is likely the best bet.

chart-iphone-pricing-plans.gif

But, of course, it's not quite that simple.

AT&T (T, Fortune 500) offers the cheapest and potentially the fastest iPhone. Verizon's (VZ, Fortune 500) network rates highest among customers in terms of satisfaction and service quality. And Sprint (S, Fortune 500) offers the only iPhone with an all-you-can eat data plan.

It's a lot to take in. Take a deep breath, and we'll try to help you sort through this mess.

What are the plans? Determining how much you'll pay depends heavily on how much data and texting you think you'll use.

Sprint offers an unlimited data and texting plan with 450 voice minutes for $80 a month. If you download a little or a lot, text a ton or not at all, it's still $80.

AT&T and Verizon make it trickier to figure out. Both plans are potentially cheaper than Sprint's -- or much more expensive.

AT&T customers who never text, use 2 GB of data or less and use 450 or fewer voice minutes are the clear price winners. The cheapest available plan costs just $55 for those who use up to 200 MB -- a full $15 a month cheaper than any competitors' plan.

Verizon vs AT&T iPad 2 plans: Which is cheaper?

But texting doesn't come cheap at AT&T. The carrier recently eliminated all but its 20-cent-per-text and its $20 unlimited texting plans. That means customers who use less than 200 MB but send more than 75 texts per month, or use more than 200 MB and send at least 25 texts per month, would pay less with an alternate carrier's plan.

That's where Verizon comes in: For those who send a moderate amount of texts, Verizon is the price-tag winner. If you send 250 texts per month or fewer, download 2 GB of data or less and use 450 voice minutes, Verizon will charge you $75 a month -- less than Sprint's $80 or AT&T's $85 plans.

The trouble is, figuring out how much data you'll need is an inexact science.

A data plan with a 200 megabyte cap gets you about 1,000 Web pages, 300 photo downloads, 50 songs, 11 YouTube videos, or just under an hour of Netflix videos. A 2 gigabyte plan gets you 13,000 Web pages, 4,000 photos, 600 songs, 130 YouTube videos or between six and 12 hours of Netflix viewing.

Now that that's settled...

What are the phones? All three carriers will be offering the new iPhone 4S in black and white, and in 16 GB, 32 GB or 64 GB flavors.

Verizon and AT&T will continue to sell the iPhone 4 in the 16 GB and 32 GB varieties. All three carriers will offer the iPhone 4 with 8 GB of memory for $99.

AT&T will be the only carrier to sell the iPhone 3GS, which debuted in 2009. The two-year-old device will be offered for free with a new two-year contract.

What's all this about AT&T offering the fastest iPhone 4S? It's true. Sort of.

Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500) unlocked a capability in the iPhone 4S to take advantage of AT&T's new "4G" network, which operates on an enhanced 3G network standard called HSDPA. That network, which AT&T calls "4G," can potentially offer speeds of up to twice that of AT&T's standard 3G network.

Potentially. As in, not realistically.

In real-life, non-laboratory scenarios, AT&T's 4G-HSDPA speeds are often faster than it's own and competitors' 3G networks, but not by much. AT&T says its "4G" network offers speeds of between 700 kilobits per second and 1.7 megabits per second, while Verizon and Sprint's 3G networks run between 500 Kbps and 1.2 Mbps.

Thoroughly confused? It's okay. The good news is that whatever you choose, is not likely that your neighbor will be paying drastically less for an iPhone that is twice as fast as yours.

Review your options, pick a carrier and a plan, and enjoy your new iPhone. To top of page

Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.