If you're one of the millions of Americans whose wireless contract will be up for renewal this year, you will have new options to consider.
A lot has changed in two years. We've seen the spread of 4G service. We've seen wireless carriers expand their offerings to include tablets, laptops and USB broadband devices. AT&T lost its exclusive on the iPhone, which is now available at Verizon and Sprint.
More changes are on their way.
Verizon and AT&T are poised to add shared data plans this year. While details of the new plans have not been announced, they could include two ways to share data. First, like family talk plans, data plans could allow family members to share a bucket of data between smartphones on one account. Further, a shared plan might also allow people to share data between their devices such as a smartphone and a tablet. Currently, Sprint and T-Mobile offer shared data plans, but the data can only be shared between smartphones. Stay tuned.
How much data?
If every carrier charged for the same amounts of data, it would be easy to decide between plans, but they don't. Currently, AT&T offers an extra gigabyte of data -- 3GB -- for $30, which is probably the sweet spot for people who use their phones for entertainment.
Consider this: A standard sitcom (22 minutes of video) will consume around 500MB of data; a full-length movie uses approximately 2GB of data.
But you do more than watch movies. You may send email, check listings and shop online, listen to music, use a few apps and post to Facebook, all of which use data. If you watched half an hour of video, listened to Internet radio for an hour and sent a handful of emails with attachments each day, you'd bump up against the 3GB mark by the end of the month.
See for yourself: AT&T offers a handy tool on its site to estimate your data usage. You can adjust sliders to reflect how much data you might use in a month.
Too much data
Overage charges and data throttling are the ways carriers deal with customers who exceed their data limits, whether that's a contracted allotment or a so-called unlimited amount. Verizon and AT&T charge $10 for each gigabyte of data you use.
T-Mobile takes a different approach. When you reach your data limit, the company will throttle data speeds, making downloading or streaming virtually impossible, until the end of the month. Sprint offers unlimited data, so there are no overage fees.
Virgin Mobile, a prepaid service (no contracts, customers pay at the start of each month) has a very different definition of unlimited. The company recently announced it would begin throttling data speeds on March 23 of this year.
It will offer its "unlimited" customers full speed data services through the first 2.5GB of data used in a month, after which users will be limited to speeds of 256Kbps or less until the next billing cycle.
Still, 2.5GB of data plus 300 minutes at $35 is one of the cheapest ways to go for an individual, but it sure isn't unlimited.
At rival prepaid provider Boost Mobile, unlimited means unlimited.
The company also offers a $5 discount for every six months worth of on-time payments, up to a total of $15 at the end of a year and a half.
While prepaid plans cost less, they don't have the phone selection available with two-year contracts.
Data applications run better on faster networks. And thankfully, the great 4G debate is over.
After two years of arguing about what constitutes 4G, the top three carriers have agreed that LTE -- long-term evolution -- is the best option.
Verizon had a six-month head start on its competitors and leads in LTE coverage, but AT&T began rolling out its LTE network last fall. Sprint says it will offer LTE in Houston, Atlanta, Dallas and San Antonio during the first half of this year. T-Mobile has stuck with its older HSPA+ network, the same one that AT&T is working feverishly to replace with LTE.
Check the 4G coverage maps of the carriers you are considering and ask your 4G friends about their experiences. It's true that Verizon's 4G LTE network suffered several big outages, but the company is working on providing more reliable coverage. You will have to select a 4G-compatible device to take advantage of faster speeds.
Ogden-based TopTenREVIEWS.com guides consumers by comparing products in the world of technology, including electronics, software and Web services. Have a question for TopTenREVIEWS? Email Leslie Meredith at firstname.lastname@example.org.