The iPhone 6 is here. The shiny new smartphone -- and its bigger brother, the iPhone 6 Plus -- pack larger and sharper displays, a speedy A8 chip, an enhanced camera, and NFC support into a sleek, curvy design. But which carrier should you choose? The good news is that they're fighting hard for your dollars.
To entice customers to switch carriers, Sprint has introduced a new iPhone for Life plan that offers the iPhone 6 (16GB) for $20 a month over 24 months and a new iPhone every two years. How does that stack up against the plans offered by AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile? We do the math for you to see which carrier offers the best iPhone 6 plans. (For the sake of this comparison, we've left out the iPhone 6 Plus.)
Carriers Compared: Individual Line with ~3GB of total data* unlimited talk/text
|Device cost (upfront with two-year plan)||$199.99 ($0 with trade-in)||$199.99 ($0 with trade-in)||n/a||$199.99 ($0 with trade-in)|
|Device monthly cost (early-upgrade or installment plan)||$27.09 x 24 (Next 18)$32.50 x 20 (Next 12)||$20 x 24 (iPhone for Life+)$27 x 24 (Easy Pay)||$27.08 x 24||$32.49 x 20|
|Monthly line fee (2-3GB data)||$65 (2GB)||$50 (unlimited^) $65 (2GB on two-year plan)||$45 (2GB; Simple Starter)$60 (3GB; Simple Choice)||$60 (2GB)$50 (2GB on Edge)$90 (2GB MoreEverything)$80 (MoreEv on Edge)|
|Total monthly fee (two-year plan)||$80 (2GB)||$65 (2GB)||$72.08 (Starter)$87.08 (Choice)||$60 $90 (MoreEverything)|
|Total monthly fee# (early upgrade/installment)||$92.09 (18mth)$97.50 (12mth)||$70 (i4Life)$77 (Easy Pay)||$82.08## (Starter)$97.08## (Choice)||$82.49 (on Edge)$112.49 (MoreEv)|
|Cost over two years (two-year plan)||$2,120||$1,760||n/a||$1,640$2,360 (More Ev)|
|Cost over two years (early upgrade/installment)||$2,210 (both options)||$1,680 (i4Life)$1,850 (Easy Pay)$1,970 (Easy Pay with early-upgrade)||$1,730 (Starter. $1,970 with JUMP)$2,090 (Choice. $2,330 with JUMP)||$1,850 (on Edge)$2,570 (More Ev on Edge)|
|*Does not include taxes and fees#Line fee + device monthly payment##Includes $10 monthly enrollment fee for JUMP^Only available for iPhone For Life or Easy Pay options (or if you bring in your own phone)+iPhone for Life is a lease program, not installment or early-upgrade|
You can get the iPhone 6 on AT&T with a two-year agreement and upfront device payment or a month-to-month service and installment payments for the phone. According to the company, individuals have to get a line on the carrier's Mobile Share package, which offers unlimited talk and text with 2GB of data for $40 a month, with a $40 access fee per device. That's $80 a month in total.
Over two years on a contract, that will set you back $2,120 (including the $200 cost for the iPhone). For that price, you won't be able to upgrade to another device before your contract is over.
If you want the option to upgrade before two years, AT&T has two options for its early upgrade service -- Next 18 and Next 12. On Next 18, you can pay $0 down and $27.09 monthly for the handset, and get to trade in for a new device in 18 months. If you choose to hang on to your old phone after 18 months, you'll have to continue paying $27.09 for another 6 months. Next 12 costs $32.50 a month, and you are eligible for upgrade in 12 months. If you choose not to, you'll continue paying $32.50 for another 8 months.
On Next, though, you get a $15 discount on your monthly line fee, taking it down from $80 to $65. The early-upgrade option will run you $2,210 over two years, regardless of the duration you pick.
AT&T has the second largest currently deployed 4G LTE network, with more than 400 markets enabled, so you'll be assured of solid data speeds in most cities. However, in Laptop Mag's 4G speed showdowns across various cities, AT&T consistently came in third behind front-runner Verizon.
The new iPhone for Life plan sounds like a great deal, but really, it is just an installment payment program. In fact, it's more like a leasing program. You can only upgrade to a new iPhone every two years, and at the end of the 24 months, you'll either have to continue leasing your iPhone (by paying a monthly rental fee), buy the handset, or turn the phone in and start leasing another device.
Also, as its name suggests, you'll be tied to Apple for life if you take this plan, since the guaranteed upgrade every two years applies only to iPhones. You can't get other devices. If you want to upgrade before two years, you should get your iPhone via Sprint's Easy Pay program, and pay an additional $5 monthly fee to enroll in the early upgrade program.
Sprint offers unlimited data on a $50 Unlimited Everything plan (when you pick iPhone for Life, Easy Pay or bring your own phone), giving you more data than competitors. If you go with a two-year plan and pay $200 for the iPhone up front, you don't quality for the unlimited and must at least purchase the $65 2GB plan on the company's Family Share Pack.
That contract payment will run you $1, 760 over two years, while the iPhone For Life package comes up to $1,680. On Easy Pay with the $5 early-upgrade fee, the iPhone 6 will cost $1,970 in 24 months.
Through September 30, 2014, the carrier is also offering a free iPhone 6 (16GB) with any iPhone trade-in and two-year agreement. That shaves $200 off the two-year cost of $1,680. The old iPhone must be in good working condition.
While Sprint's Spark enhanced LTE network is capable of delivering blazing speeds, the service has only been deployed in 24 markets (as of June 2014). By 2016, the carrier aims to bring Spark to 100 markets nationwide. Sprint came in last in our New York City and San Francisco 4G LTE Showdowns but a strong second in Chicago.
MORE: Best iPhone 6 Cases
T-Mobile's two-year cost on its Simple Starter package is the second cheapest of the bunch, but the Simple Starter plan is a no-frills one that doesn't offer the benefits of the company's Simple Choice plans. Every Simple Choice plan comes with free international data roaming and free music streaming, making the Uncarrier a great choice for frequent travelers or music lovers. On both the Starter and Choice packages, the carrier throttles your data speed when you go beyond your limit (drops you from 4G to 3G) and doesn't charge overages that other carriers do.
T-Mobile's Jump early-upgrade deal lets you get a new device whenever you want (after 6 monthly payments). The catch? It costs $10 a month to enroll in Jump, though that includes insurance. Lines start at $50 for a 1GB data package. T-Mobile's 4G LTE footprint is growing and covers 269 cities across the nation.
If you pick Simple Starter, the iPhone 6 will come up to $1,730 over two years (add $240 for Jump enrollment). On Simple Choice, you'll pay $2,090 ($2,330 with Jump).
In our tests of the four major carriers' performance in major cities, T-Mobile came in second in San Francisco and NYC. Chicago proved more of a challenge, with T-Mobile turning in the slowest downloads but second-fastest uploads. The provider finished first overall in our just-completed Los Angeles showdown.
There are several ways to get the iPhone 6 on Verizon, so let's first consider just the line options. If you only have one device, the Single Line plan is your best option, offering 2GB of data and unlimited talk/text for just $60 a month. This is much cheaper than the same amount of data on the carrier's More Everything shareable data pack, which costs $90 a month. Even if you have two devices or are a group of two, the Single Line plans ($60 x 2 = $120) are better deals than More Everything ($50 for 2GB data shared + $40 x 2 for two lines = $130).
Once you've decided on the line, you have two options to get the iPhone 6 - $200 up front with a two-year agreement, or 20 monthly payments of $32.49 on Verizon's Edge. Verizon's Edge program lets you upgrade your phone every 12 months, and pay for your iPhone in 20 installments. The early upgrade package also shaves ten dollars off your monthly line payment, making the Single Line plan $50 a month and More Everything $80.
If you pick a single line plan, the new iPhone will set you back $1,640 with a two-year contract and $200 up front. That's the cheapest option out of all the choices available. On Edge, the single line plan will cost $1,850 over 24 months. The shareable data option More Everything will come up to $2,360 on a two-year contract and $2,570 on Edge.
Verizon is also offering, through Sept. 30, a $200 gift card towards an iPhone 6 (on a two-year agreement) for customers who trade in an iPhone 4, 4s, 5 or 5c and $300 for an iPhone 5s, so you could save $200-$300 on the overall price.
Verizon's LTE network has been deployed in more than 500 markets, giving it the broadest coverage in the nation. The carrier also came in first in our Chicago, San Francisco and NYC 4G showdowns, meaning it has the best-performing 4G LTE performance in those cities.
Looking just at the bottom line price over two years (excluding activation fee and taxes), Sprint's total of $1,680 makes it the cheapest iPhone 6 early-upgrade package of the four, thanks to its low $20 monthly tag for the iPhone 6. But the iPhone for Life plan is not without drawbacks. On that plan, you'll only be able to upgrade to a new device every two years, and after your 24 payments of $20, you'll have to continue to pay to "lease" your iPhone 6 or buy it. In addition, Sprint's Spark LTE network has been spotty in our tests.
While T-Mobile's Simple Choice plan is one of the more expensive, it does come with nifty benefits such as free international data roaming and music streaming, making it ideal for frequent travelers and music lovers. T-Mobile also lets you upgrade your device as soon as 6 months after getting it, granted you've enrolled in Jump and have made 6 on-time payments. The Uncarrier also came in first in our LA 4G showdown and second in our NYC and San Francisco tests.
Those who need reliable, widespread data coverage should consider Verizon, which has the nation's largest footprint and offers a trade-in deal (through Sept 30) that could get you the iPhone 6 for just $1,340 over two years. That is, if you don't mind being tied to a two-year contract. Verizon's two-year price is also the cheapest of the lot.