T-Mobile vs. Sprint: Who offers a better early upgrade?

CNET breaks down the two best early-upgrade plans to see which offers the most bang for the buck.

There's finally some competition in the early phone upgrade program, and that's good news for you.

T-Mobile might have kicked off the trend to let consumers swap out their phones more frequently with "Jump," but it certainly wasn't the last. With Sprint introducing "One Up" last week, there's finally a legitimate alternative out there.

As the No. 3 and No. 4 national carriers, respectively, it's clear why Sprint and T-Mobile are offering up such a good deal: both are eager to pick off customers from larger Verizon Wireless and AT&T. Verizon and AT&T also offer upgrade programs, but as previously explained here , don't really offer a great deal.

The upgrade programs generally work the same way: customers pay for the device themselves under a monthly installment plan. After a year (or six months, under T-Mobile), customers can trade in their device for a new one, and continue their monthly payments. As always, the devil's in the details, and there are many nuances to consider.

T-Mobile executive Andrew Sherrard, for instance, calls Sprint's One Up "misleading and confusing," noting the seemingly temporary nature to many of the details of the plan.

A Sprint representative responded by reaffirming the company's commitment on the program itself.

So which program is better for you? As always, there's never a clear-cut answer. But CNET breaks it down so you can make an informed decision.

Price
T-Mobile's program, Jump, cost an additional $10 a month. The program applies to all of its plans, which range between $50 a month for the 500 megabytes of high-speed service (which will be throttled after hitting that threshold) and $70 for unlimited data with no throttling.

Jump enables a customer to upgrade their phone twice a year after the first six months. T-Mobile's program also requires an upfront payment on some of its higher end phones. For the purposes of an easy comparison, we'll use the iPhone 5S.

The iPhone 5S costs $99 up front, and customers pay $22.91 a month for the next two years. If the customer decides to upgrade, they pay the next upfront payment and continue with the monthly installments for the next phone. It's important to note that the $99 upfront payment that T-Mobile is offering is a promotion, and is likely to go up in the next few weeks.

Sprint's comparison chart from sales material obtained by CNET. Screenshot by Roger Cheng/CNET

Sprint's One Up program doesn't cost anything, but requires that you sign up for its Unlimited, My Way plan or its $110 My All-In plan, which includes 5 gigabytes of hot-spot data. The individual My Way plan costs $80, but the One Up program includes a $15 discount, bringing the monthly cost down to $65.

For the time being, One Up is offered up with no money down, so a customer can walk in and take an iPhone 5S home without paying anything (assuming you can find one). Instead, the customer pays a higher monthly payment of $27.

One Up only offers one upgrade each year, but in theory, customers should be able to trade in the device at no cost, and continue on with their monthly payments. Once the customer pays off the device, presumably after 24 months, the $15 discount disappears unless they re-enroll.

But Sprint has presented the no-money-down option as a temporary option, and a representative declined to say when it would end.

When looking at comparable unlimited plans, a customer pays a total of $1,192 over the first 12 months for Sprint, according to its own sales material (which includes activation fee and 8 percent sales tax for the $650 iPhone 5S), which claims that T-Mobile's unlimited plan costs $1,420. But if a customer were to take the cheaper $50 T-Mobile plan, that total would drop down to $1,180.

Features
T-Mobile argues that its program still offers a better deal because of the features it packs into its plan. Besides an early upgrade program, Jump also acts as insurance for the phone.

In addition, T-Mobile's unlimited plan also includes 2GB of tethering on a smartphone.

T-Mobile has its own take on the comparison. Unsurprisingly, it comes out looking a lot better. T-Mobile

Under Sprint's plan, insurance would cost an additional $11 a month, while 2GB of hot-spot data tacked on to its unlimited plan would cost another $20. There's also a 1GB option for $10 a month.

It's up to you on whether you need either of these features. But if you tack on insurance and the 2GB of hotspot data, as T-Mobile wants you to do, the 12-month cost of a Sprint plan is $1,512, compared with $1,344 for T-Mobile, according to a T-Mobile document (the numbers are slightly different because T-Mobile omitted the sales tax on the device).

Network
Price, of course, isn't everything. What good are savings and a new phone if that device can't even get a decent signal?

It's a neck-and-neck race, but Sprint for now has the lead in terms of LTE coverage. The company said earlier this month that it has reached 185 markets with its faster cellular network. Just a few days earlier, T-Mobile said it had reached 154 markets.

A microwave dish used as part of Sprint's network deployment in New York. Roger Cheng/CNET

But numbers don't mean a thing if you're not one of the cities benefiting from either of their LTE networks. T-Mobile appears to have the advantage in big cities such as New York and San Francisco. Check out its full list here.

Sprint, meanwhile, has struggled with bigger cities. Notably, it has only managed to cover the majority of the Bronx and Brooklyn, and is still working on the rest of New York. It does have other bigger cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas, but its work has been largely in smaller markets. You can check out the full city list here.

T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray breaking down the network speeds. Sarah Tew/CNET

Because their respective LTE networks aren't yet ubiquitous, the fallback network is important. It's here that T-Mobile has a bigger advantage. If LTE isn't there, customers end up on the HSPA+ network, which is itself fairly speedy.

Sprint's fallback network is the slower CDMA-powered service, which offers a significant drop in speed. The company dropped its use of an older 4G technology, called WiMax, a few years ago, forcing its customers to stay on the slower network as it deploys its next-generation network. Its current upgrade plans are supposed to improve speed and coverage for both its 3G and 4G networks, but it will take time.

Bottom Line
Both carriers offer competitive plans, and which plan is the right one depends on how you use your phone. If you need insurance and tethering, T-Mobile offers a good deal. If you only care about unlimited data for your phone, and happen to be in a market with LTE, Sprint is attractive. As always, coverage varies greatly, and both have their share of neighborhoods with great and poor coverage.

There are always lots of questions to ask when committing to a carrier. Here, at least, CNET has offered some unbiased answers.

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About the author

Roger Cheng is the executive editor in charge of breaking news for CNET News. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade. He's a devoted Trojan alum and Los Angeles Lakers fan.

 

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