Life with T-Mobile: A Lesson in Compromise

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 4 min read

My wife and I decided we were going to switch to T-Mobile on January 8, 2014. That was the day that the company announced they would pay you $350 per phone to leave Verizon, AT&T, or Sprint. We were stuck on Verizon, which had great coverage, but cost a lot and limited us to one phone upgrade every 24 months. T-Mobile offered us more data for less money, and offered a better upgrade phone cycle. We walked into one of the local T-Mobile stores the next day.

In the past 19 months have been good overall, and I wanted to share my favorite and least favorite things about life with T-Mobile.

My Favorite Thing: Phone Upgrades

This is the number 1 reason I wanted to switch. When you write about this stuff, you want to be able to keep up with the latest and greatest devices, and Verizon didn’t let me do that (if I was still on Verizon, I would have just become eligible to upgrade my iPhone 5 a few weeks ago).

I also simply want to be able to get the new iPhones when they come out.

At the time, T-Mobile allowed for phone upgrades every 6 months. Since there was no contract and you were just paying off the device over 24 months, part of the deal is that to upgrade, you must trade in your current phone for the new one. They will forgive the rest of the money you owe on the original phone and you start paying for the new phone from scratch. Yes, this is a way for them to keep you semi-locked to them for even longer without the need for a contract, but if you know you’re staying, then it’s a great way to get a new phone on a very rapid update cycle. The plan has recently changed so you can upgrade whenever you want (up to 3 times in a 12 month window).

This is really great if you have owned a certain type of phone for years and are curious about what the other phone manufacturers make. This is what made me comfortable buying the HTC One M8 last year and spending 6 months with it. I didn’t want to spend 2 year with Android, but I could do half a year. With the new deal, you could even try a phone out for a month and decide you want to go back to something else.

I discussed this plan with our mobile rep at Target when I worked there and he was always beside himself about how much money T-Mobile must be losing on me (Target sells Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint, so T-Mobile’s plans are foreign to them). I’m definitely an edge case, and I’m sure I upgrade my phone more than 95% of customers on T-Mobile, but that’s not my concern. All I know is that for me, this is the best plan for me.

Over the past 19 months, I have owned these phones:

  • Jan 2014 - Jun 2014: iPhone 5S
  • Jun 2014 - Oct 2014: HTC One M8
  • Oct 2014 - May 2015: iPhone 6
  • May 2015 - Aug 2015: iPhone 6 Plus

And I do this all by walking into a T-Mobile store every 6 months, pay about $40 in tax, and walk out 30 minutes later with a new phone.

Bad: Coverage

Cell phone coverage is a funny thing. One carrier may be great where you live, but it may be terrible where someone else lives. It’s inherently different for everyone, and that makes it hard to say objectively that one carrier has bad coverage while another one has great coverage.

With that disclaimer out of the way, T-Mobile has had simultaneously the best and worst cell service of any carrier I have used.

Service is usually very good at home, but troubles start when I bravely venture out into the world. At my desk at work, I have literally no coverage; my phone says: No Service. When I’m driving down Interstate 90 on my way to work, I have live with no internet for 3 years. T-Mobile just got LTE service on that 30 mile stretch a few weeks ago. When I visit family up in Wisconsin, I lose all coverage as well. I get booted to crazy services like Einstein PCS that are terribly slow and have no data.

This makes the situation sound worse than it is. I do actually have service in most places. I’d say 90% of the time I have an LTE connection. I have also found my network speeds to be incredibly fast when I have a connection. The random test shows me results ranging from 20Mbs all the way up to 60Mbs. The network is really fast (faster than my Comcast service, usually), it’s just a shame that there are a noticeable number of times that I simply can’t access the network.

Maybe this is why they are able to charge me so little for truly unlimited data…they know I’ll never be able to use it all the time!

Conclusion: I’m sticking with T-Mobile for now

If I could afford to spend $800 every year on a new iPhone, I would absolutely switch off of T-Mobile and go to AT&T or Verizon. T-Mobile makes it shockingly affordable to keep up with every new phone that hits the market whenever you want. I want that freedom more than I want a rock-solid data connection.

As far as I can tell, you have to make sacrifices on any carrier you choose. For me, T-Mobile allows me to make sacrifices I’m okay with in order to give me what I really want. I don’t recommend them to everyone, but if you’re interested in staying up to date with the latest and greatest phones, I don’t think any carrier makes it easier.