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How T-Mobile's new data plans stack up

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon explains who benefits from T-Mobile's new data plans and who doesn't.

Figuring out the best deal on a wireless plan is no easy feat these days.

T-Mobile is adding a new wrinkle today as new plans announced this past week go into effect. It's doubling the data offered in its plans while in some cases raising prices. It's also throwing in a promotional twist just for families.

The changes to Bellevue, Washington-based T-Mobile's service plans are just the latest in a long line of promotions and tweaks as the carriers attempt to one-up each other.

While the wireless wars have generally led to better value for consumers, you're not necessarily always saving money.

To make sense of it all, I've taken a look at T-Mobile's new plans by way of a letter from a woman who's thinking of moving her family to either T-Mobile or Sprint.

Dear Maggie,

I'm considering switching my family of four to a new wireless carrier. It looks like T-Mobile and Sprint have some attractive offers. But figuring out how the plans work and how much I'll pay is so confusing. I can't determine which is the better deal. I need your help!

Stacey from NYC

Dear Stacey,

I couldn't agree with you more about how confusing these plans are. The good news is that you and your family of four are the target audience for T-Mobile's and Sprint's latest promotions and offers.

Let's break down T-Mobile's pricing, which is based on how many lines and how much data you need.

Unlimited talk and text come with the cost of each line, and you need to pay for your device. Then, if you want more data each month, T-Mobile charges for additional buckets of data, measured in gigabytes. Unlike the other three major wireless carriers, T-Mobile doesn't let families share their data. Each person has their own allocation.

Here's how pricing works. One line costs $50. If you want to add a second line, it costs $30. Additional lines after that, up to 12 lines, cost $10 apiece.

T-Mobile includes 2GB of data for each line of service. There are changes when you need more data.

It now costs more to add data, even if you're getting more bang for your buck. You previously had to pay $10 to get a 2GB bucket of added data. Now you pay $15, but the bucket is 4GB.

The breaks come for families. Under a new Family Match program, if you upgrade all your lines to the same amount of data (i.e., if you buy the same number of added-data buckets for each line), the buckets cost the old price, $10, but you get the new amount of added data per bucket, 4GB. And for a limited time, T-Mobile is offering something else to families that match the amount of data on each line. Those families can get a fourth line free.

Here's how the new and old plans compare:

As you can see, singletons with only one line get hit the hardest by the pricing change, particularly people who go beyond the maximum of two added-data buckets and opt for an unlimited-data plan.

But a family of four on T-Mobile's plan could pay less each month with double the data than they would have paid under the old plan, and save the most with an unlimited plan. Such a plan would cost $180 under the new structure, or $40 less than before.

So how does that stack up to what Sprint offers? The answer is a bit muddled.

Overland Park, Kansas-based Sprint also charges customers for specific buckets of data and then levies a separate fee for each smartphone connected to the plan. But that fee ranges from $15 to $20. For its higher 10GB and 40GB data tiers, Sprint eliminates the device fee. This means customers can connect any number of devices at no additional charge.

It's difficult to get a true apples-to-apples comparison between the two carriers, since Sprint and T-Mobile don't offer plans with comparable amounts of data. Sprint lets customers share data, T-Mobile doesn't.

With certain plans, Sprint offers a better deal. Its 10GB plan currently costs $100 a month. T-Mobile offers 2GB of data to four people on a family plan for $90 a month. But Sprint's four-person unlimited plan is more expensive at $250.

The bottom line
The best deals in the industry right now are geared toward families. Sprint appears to have an edge, unless you want unlimited plans for everyone.

In the end the limited promotions and convoluted plans are nothing more than marketing tricks to make customers think they're getting a better deal than they actually are. This means that figuring out whether you're getting a good deal is harder than ever.

Customers should be wary of any sweeping changes in carrier pricing, as the devil is always in the details.