Switching it all: From the HTC Evo 4G LTE on Sprint to the LG Nexus 5 on T-Mobile
After many, many years of loyalty to Sprint, Shauna and I broke ranks and jumped ship to T-Mobile when our contract was up. After just a week of being on a new handset with a new carrier, I can see what a world of difference it makes to not only change the hardware, but also change the carrier supporting it. Here’s why I changed and how it has worked out so far.
Why I left Sprint
Sprint’s network has been going downhill for a very long time. I didn’t even connect to LTE once for the first nine months of our contract. Even then, it was to briefly use the signal at airports in Norfolk VA and Atlanta GA. I didn’t get to actually use the 4G signals until seven more months after that in Boston. It took until 20 months into our contract until Salt Lake City has 4G signals. That’s a lot time to be paying $10 per handset for “premium” data services that I couldn’t use on a daily basis.
Even then, the 4G was usually unusable. I often had to disable it to get a data connection at all. Coverage was still extremely spotty at best. When it did work, I usually saw connections of 8Mbps/2Mbps, hardly anything to write home about. When I used the 3G (or 2G) network, connections were often so bad that a simple check-in on Foursquare could take 5 minutes or longer.
Because of the poor signals I got on the Sprint network, my battery life suffered. In an area with poor coverage, I could easily zap a full battery in 3-4 hours. I would often get to just below 15% when my phone would unceremoniously decide to power off because the drain from trying to find a usable signal was too high. This often necessitated both bringing along a charger and finding a place to use it whenever I would leave a WiFi coverage area for more than a quick run to the grocery store.
For all of this data agony, we paid $160/mo for two handsets. Sure, we had unlimited usage, but we didn’t need it. Between us, we rarely used more than 40 cell minutes in a month. Data usage rarely exceeded 1GB each. Since all of our text messages were going through Google Voice anyway, there wasn’t any danger of overage there. We were paying a small fortune for something we didn’t use much and that didn’t work when we did.
Why I picked T-Mobile
With our usage patterns, T-Mobile has a prepaid plan that fits us perfectly. For $30/mo, we get 100 minutes, 5GB of 4G data (and unlimited 3G/2G data), and unlimited texting. If we need more minutes, they’re just ten cents a pop. And since it’s a prepaid plan, we can always jump ship to another prepaid carrier if we decide we don’t like it. With prices that cheap, we’ll pay half as much as we did even with buying our phones outright.
I’ve also found that T-Mobile seems to cause the least amount of weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth from people I know. Sprint is a well-known dumpster fire, so I avoided both them and any network that depends on them (like Republic Wireless and Virgin Mobile). AT&T seems to have about a similar amount of Haterade being poured out. While Verizon definitely has top grade coverage, you’re also going to pay through the nose for the privilege. Since that seems to matter most in rural areas (which we don’t frequent), that was right out.
How it has worked out
We activated our T-Mobile SIM cards in Las Vegas. I immediately noticed that I got much stronger signals everywhere i went, a drastic difference from Sprint. I also consistently got connections in the neighborhood of 35Mbps/15Mbps with about 1/5 of the ping time, almost as good as our cable modem connection at home.
The next day, we drove from Las Vegas to Sacramento by way of I-15, CA-58, and CA-99. The signal stayed strong the entire trip, and I was actually able to use the data connection in rural areas. Upon arriving in the outskirts of Sacramento (Cameron Park CA), I still got usable 4G and 3G signals that don’t drain the battery and were a far cry from what Sprint had been able to deliver.
Sprint had often shown a weak signal that was barely usable and often timed out. T-Mobile’s network still has a lot of connection issues in rural areas (or where the towers are saturated), but the signal to the tower was always available for phone calls and never weak enough to make battery life tank. I spent an entire day in South Lake Tahoe without needing to charge my phone. My Evo would have easily eaten it after its standard 3-4 hours.
We still have a drive on I-80 from Sacramento to Salt Lake City ahead, but it seems like the results are clear: urbanized areas offer superior connections, the signal strength is almost always stronger and thus doesn’t kill your battery, and rural connections are about a wash.
Why I left HTC
HTC makes some pretty amazing hardware. The HTC One M8 is a top tier phone. The Evo 4G LTE was really nice when it was released and still holds its own with midrange hardware being released today. But the hardware isn’t the problem. It’s the software.
Android phones have always suffered from the problem of not getting updates. My original Android phone, the Samsung Moment, got an update to 2.1 after many, many months of waiting. And that’s where it ended entirely. I thankfully could go with third party firmware to get it to 2.2, but it was always filled with quirks and required tweaks that were confusing even for me.
The Evo 4G LTE is no different. It shipped with Android 4.0.3 and relatively quickly got an update to Android 4.1.2. About a year later, we kept getting promised an update to Android 4.3.1. Despite a very brief public beta and a promise from HTC that they would totally give me a call to make it available to me, it did not materialize. Once again, I went with third party firmware to be running the latest and greatest version of Android. And, once again, I had to deal with quirks.
While CyanogenMod is a well-respected ROM and has a lot of very nice interface options, I ended up with a boatload of issues. Roaming ceased to function at all on the ROM, a major setback since Sprint depends on roaming for any level of decent service in rural areas. Memory usage went through the roof forcing most apps to get suspended and slowing down the device considerably. Occasionally, the power button would cease to function as a way to reboot or power off the phone. Since the “jewel” build of CyanogenMod isn’t all that popular, there wasn’t a lot of community support available and new releases were very slow in being released.
What I’ve learned is that software updates matter, and you can’t depend on the manufacturer to deliver. Even if third-party ROMs can fill the gap, you’re going to be making some trade-offs to do it and have to put up with reinstalling all of your apps (and setting most of them up again) each time you make a switch. As much as I like the option to tinker with my phone, I want to spend more time using it than fixing it.
Why I picked the Nexus 5
Google’s Nexus series has always offered pretty solid reference hardware, though never top of the line. The real difference, however, is that they get near-immediate updates when a new version is released. I had to update to 4.4.3 as soon as I got the handset, and the 4.4.4 update was available within a week. The preview of the next version of Android was available within 24 hours for those that wanted to play with it. This is a welcome departure from wondering if your handset will luck out with updates.
That said, there are also Google Play Edition phones from HTC, Samsung, Sony, LG, and Motorola. These devices are running “stock” Android, so they don’t need to rely on updates to customized software to get updates. In theory, they should get updates about as rapidly as any Nexus device, In practice, you’re usually going to be a little bit behind as the manufacturer tweaks their drivers for that particular hardware.
There’s also the matter of cost. A flagship phone from most manufacturers is going to set you back at least $600. Yes, you absolutely will have the latest and shiniest hardware. It most certainly will have at least an edge on the current Nexus device. But the top-end Nexus 5 32GB is just $400. Is it worth it to pay $200+ more for slightly better hardware and slightly delayed software updates? It sure didn’t seem that way to me.
While I was tempted to wait for the OnePlus One and its offer of top end hardware at Nexus pricing, a few things concern me. First off, it’s a monster sized phone. The Evo 4G LTE was already stretching my comfort levels at 4.7″. The Nexus 5 clocks in at 4.95″. The OnePlus One is a Galaxy Note-like 5.5″. There’s no way I could use that with one hand. I’m also a little worried about the software. It runs on top of CyanogenMod which, while nice, has a lot of its own quirks and has lead to numerous shipping delays. Which brings me to the final point: it’s not available when I need a phone.
To be frank, it’s very hard to offer as much bang for the buck as the latest Nexus device. It’s a great phone in it’s own right, but the quick updates and competitive pricing really push it over the edge.
How it has worked out
True to its Nexus lineage, the Nexus 5 gets rapid updates within a week or two of a new version being released. I’ve also found that since it’s a very popular handset, software tends to run a lot smoother on it and the community support is quite good. There’s a lot of developers who use the Nexus 5 as a reference device and it shows in how well the apps run.
Performance wise, I’ve found it to be quite snappy and able to handle anything I throw at it without delay. The camera takes pretty crisp pictures and is a few steps up from the old Evo. Battery life has been amazing even without accounting for the network quirks. Gaming on it draws a lot less battery than before, almost half as much. Maybe it’s better hardware. Maybe it’s better software. But it’s just better.
One thing I don’t really care for is the default Google Now launcher. It always has Google Now as your left-most home screen, and you can’t specify which one of the remaining home screens the Home button will jump to. I ended up replacing it with Nova Launcher to fix this issue, improve icon density (it allows 5 rows instead of 4), and add unread counts to icons (but, sadly, not to the status bar notifications like CyanogenMod does).
Since it supports both CDMA and GSM (in addition to a wide number of LTE bands), you can use it on almost any network. Shauna used her phone on Sprint to fulfil her contract (after her Evo’s charging port broke) and it was as simple as swapping a SIM card to jump to another network. This may not matter to most people, but it is a nice touch to know you can jump from carrier to carrier (i.e. when traveling internationally) without too much fuss.
Your carrier matters at least as much as your handset. Remember when first generation iPhone users were furious over being stuck on AT&T? Many of them jumped ship to other companies as soon as Apple built the hardware to support it. Having that level of control is critical for making sure that you’re in charge, not your cell contract.
Speaking of which, prepaid seems to really be the way to go if you want cell service on the cheap. Even if you go with a plan with more minutes, you’ll usually save money over a traditional post-paid plan. The most important part is to sit down with your usage history and figure out if you’re paying for unlimited (or a very high limit) when something else will do just fine. Once we did that, it was easy to see how we could cut our total costs by half.
When you’re buying a handset outright, ask yourself how much handset you really need. The Nexus series is still the best value for Android users. Buying a model or two back with an iPhone will probably do everything you need and still get you updates for a few years. Going off the beaten path with Windows Phone (which I hear is quite nice) could score you some awesome sale deals. It’s tempting to buy the latest and greatest, but it’s not always a really good value.