T-Mobile iPhone 5 review

News Marin Perez 15:38, Apr 25 2013

We review the iPhone 5 on T-Mobile and see if the UnCarrier is worth your money

We review the T-Mobile iPhone 5 and see if having Apple's best smartphone on the UnCarrier is something you should pursue. 

It's only been a few weeks since T-Mobile got the iPhone 5 and it's pretty much exactly the same as the version we reviewed a few months ago. Because of that, I won't dive too much into the hardware and software but I'll focus on the T-Mobile service and the experience. 

Hardware and Software

The T-Mobile iPhone is a beautiful handset with top-of-the-line software and the best everyday camera. Basically, it's the same conclusion we had in our full iPhone 5 review -- read that for a deeper take on why it's great.  

I actually kind of hate having to shove my iPhone 5 in a case because it's such a gorgeous design. It's thin, light and still feels like a premium product. I'm scared of breaking it though, so I have a case and you can check out some of our favorite iPhone 5 cases here.

The 4-inch retina display is pretty darn great but I do kind of yearn for a larger screen. It's not as bad as it was on the previous iPhones but I'm starting to think the sweet spot is about 4.5 inches for a usable portable device. Still, I have no complaints with the retina display on the iPhone 5. 

I've been using Android for the last year and a half but going back to iOS was a breeze. It's simple to pick up, the added gestures and features come naturally and most importantly, the app ecosystem is much better. I was tired of not getting to use apps like Mailbox or Vine on Android.

It's not just the availability, as the apps on the iPhone look like they're designed better. Part of that is the tools Apple gives you but compare the iPhone version of Instagram versus the Android version and it's not even close. It's not impossible to get good-looking Android apps but it's much easier to find them on the iPhone. 

With that said, I do miss a bit of the flexibility of Android. I want to be able to share with any third-party app I want from the camera, not just the built-in ones. I love Mailbox as my main email client, but iOS doesn't give it the hooks into the platform it needs to be as good as it could be. 

Finally, the iPhone 5 has the best day-to-day camera on the market. You can argue that the HTC One does better in low lighting, the Samsung Galaxy S4 has more software tricks and that the Nokia Lumia 920 can outshoot it in certain scenarios, but if I want to capture a good picture quickly, I still think the iPhone 5 is best in class. 

So yeah, the iPhone 5 is pretty great on any carrier. 

T-Mobile Experience and Service

T-Mobile is trying to be the UnCarrier and this means it will be killing long-term contracts and making mobile service more fair and transparent. It sounds great but how does it work in real life? 

I didn't want to do the T-Mobile down payment thing: You can walk into a store, get a credit check and then walk out with an iPhone 5 after you put down $99. You then have to pay $20 a month for up to 24 months but you can pay it off early if you have the money. If you quit using T-Mobile's service, you'll have to pay the remainder of the phone's cost. 

I decided to just bite the bullet and buy an unlocked iPhone 5 because I don't know how well T-Mobile will work here and I may be traveling internationally in the next few months and want the ability to easily put in a foreign SIM. Unless you're on a family plan or want hotspot, your choice of service on T-Mobile is a $50, $60 or 70 plan with 500MB, 2GB or unlimited data. 

So, I walked into a T-Mobile story, told them I wanted the $60 plan for my iPhone and walked out about eight minutes later with an iPhone 5 on T-Mobile's network. I didn't sign a contract but they did need my social security number.

This was the best carrier experience I've ever had in the United States. There was no upselling, my questions were answered quickly and I knew exactly what I was paying for. The only other time I've had as good of an experience is when I walked into a Carphone Warehouse to get Three service in London.

I know that I'm not the average user and that doing things like a family plan, hotspot or financing a device will add complexity but I'm still impressed. As for the T-Mobile service? That's not quite as impressive.

The iPhone 5 can use 4G LTE and T-Mobile has a 4G LTE network. Well, it kind of does. T-Mobile's 4G LTE network is only live in about eight markets and one of those isn't the San Francisco Bay Area, which is where I primarily have been using this. I did go to San Jose for a bit to find some 4G LTE and it's still tough to find.

The T-Mobile iPhone 5 won't have as fast of a network as AT&T and Verizon in most places.

It is capable of using the HSPA+ network for "4G" in markets like San Francisco and when it's working, it's pretty zippy. If you've had 4G LTE, you'll notice the speed dip but I'd be happy living off this if it were consistent. It's not.

The T-Mobile network has been horribly inconsistent where I live (Alamo Square, San Francisco). I'll get a strong 4G signal but when I walk a block or two, it goes straight to EDGE. Walking to downtown is mostly EDGE until you hit the heart of the city, then the 4G signal is pretty strong. God forbid you expect good service in buildings though, as many of my favorite haunts get no signal at all.

That's another reason I went with the unlocked model, as I wanted the option of switching to something like StraightTalk Wireless if the coverage wasn't up to snuff. Sure, that also won't provide 4G LTE but I'm confident in its overall consistency.

To sum up the T-Mobile iPhone 5 service: Expect a great experience buying and setting up the phone but be sure to check the coverage map to ensure that this is the right service for you.   

So, that's my opinion. What's yours? If you have a T-Mobile iPhone 5, let us know your experience in the comments. 

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Besides cost difference, is there any benefit / downside to the unlocked 5 vs. the T-Mobile 5, especially if we plan on staying with T-mobile? I guess I dont' know what the "under the hood" differences are... Thanks!

Not especially. I just wanted a little more freedom with my device. The T-Mobile one is locked to T-Mobile until you pay it off and then they'll unlock it for you. I probably should have done that because it winds up being about $20 cheaper overall but I didn't want to go through the hassle.

I'm very happy about the no-contract thing. T-Mobile has been terrible in my neighborhood. I'm switching to StraightTalk wireless and its AT&T backing next month.

Isn't Straight Talk no longer offering AT&T service? I don't see it anywhere on the site.

Oh no!

I just bought one and I never get strong signal unless im in the heart of my city. most of the time im down to one little baby bar. I was better off with my unlocked iphone 4s

Okay, so it looks like they're not offering AT&T anymore but if you still have an older AT&T-powered SIM (like I do), you can still connect. I'll just have to cut down my SIM to nano size

Doest the new iPhone5's ability to connect to AWS help the signal situation at all? Were you using an old unlocked model?

The T-Mobile iPhone 5 and the new unlocked one can use AWS and they've repurposed 1900Mhz spectrum for iPhone-friendly HSPA+ 4G. It doesn't matter if the network itself isn't that good though.

I'm with you. Downtown SF is solid HSPA+ 4G. I did get a slight taste of T-Mobile 4G LTE when I drove down to SunnyVale and got some great speeds: 15 down, 11 up. It's supposedly coming to SF in May, so I may stick with T-Mobile yet

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