I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Which iPhone 4S should I get?

Good question.

AT&T, Verizon, or Sprint? (U.S.)

(This is U.S.-specific because it’s where I know the carriers. Sorry, rest of the world. You probably have better options and more progressive locking regulations.)

Pick the carrier that’s best for you. It’s that simple.

Even though everyone else complains about AT&T, Verizon and Sprint both serve my area poorly. Verizon phones can’t place calls in my house, and my AT&T iPhone can. Verizon’s data service is barely usable on my commuter trains, and AT&T’s works acceptably. Sprint’s coverage here is worse than Verizon’s. So this is an easy decision for me: I’m sticking with AT&T.

If they all cover your area similarly, it more of a toss-up. Under ideal conditions, AT&T has the best data speeds and Verizon has the best voice quality, but almost nowhere actually provides ideal conditions, so it really depends on which carrier sucks the least in your area.

All three carriers’ plans are priced in the same ballpark.

People often say that Verizon covers fringe areas better, but in my experience, AT&T is comparable — sometimes one works and the other doesn’t, but neither more often than the other.

I don’t have much experience with Sprint, but the little I’ve had suggests that it doesn’t quite provide the coverage and strength that Verizon and AT&T do. Sprint phones can roam on Verizon’s network if there’s absolutely no Sprint signal, but in practice, that doesn’t happen often, and the phones will prefer a weak Sprint signal to a strong Verizon signal.

Sprint is the only carrier offering “unlimited” data.

Verizon messes with your data uncomfortably — they recompress JPEGs to save bandwidth, and they watch the sites you visit to collect (and presumably sell) the aggregate stats.

Doesn’t the iPhone 4S work on any carrier since it has CDMA and GSM?

Not quite the way you probably want.

The iPhone 4S is a “world phone”: every model has both CDMA and GSM radios. But, importantly, any iPhone 4S you buy in the U.S. with a contract at a subsidized price (less than $649) is still carrier-locked. You can’t change carriers later.

So even though it has both radios, an AT&T-subsidized iPhone 4S can’t later be used on Verizon or Sprint, and vice versa.1

What about the unlocked ones?

Starting in November, Apple will sell an unlocked iPhone 4S that works on any GSM carrier with no contract and can switch carriers, but there are two big downsides:

The math makes the unlocked model a pretty poor deal for most people, unless you plan to use AT&T in the U.S., travel internationally a lot, and want to swap SIMs abroad instead of using AT&T’s international roaming rates.

You don’t get a discount on service by not taking the subsidy.

For mostly domestic use, even if you’re unsure about staying on the same carrier for the next two years, it’s still probably cheaper to take that risk and pay the early termination fee if you do need to switch in the future.

Black or white?

That’s up to you. I like them both, but I like black better.

If in doubt, go to an Apple Store and play with them both. If there aren’t any iPhone 4S models on display, just compare the iPhone 4 colors — they’re the same design.

16, 32, or 64 GB?

I regret only getting the 16 GB iPhone 4 last year. I fill it up constantly, especially when shooting video. The camera in the iPhone 4S shoots even larger photos and videos, so I’m not going to make that mistake again.

I also always run into limits when trying to sync a meaningful amount of music, podcasts, and photos from my library.

So after two years of limiting myself to 16 GB, I’m done. I’m going to 64 GB.

64 GB might be overkill for you, and it might not be worth the price. If you ever plan to shoot video, though, I’d strongly suggest getting at least the 32 GB model.

Preorder, phone store, or Apple Store?

Preorders have already started. If you can get one to ship in a reasonable amount of time, feel free to do it.

If you want to get one on launch day and the preorders are all giving long delays, don’t bother going to your local phone store: they usually have very few in stock until they’re plentiful everywhere. The most stock at launch is always at the Apple Stores. Go wait on the line if you want it on day one, and you’ll probably get one.

Good luck.

  1. Technically, the iPhone hacking community has found ways to unlock iPhones, but it’s pretty difficult and risky, it doesn’t work on all models and all software versions, and it’s not something that most people will have access to. ↩︎