Apple iPhone 5 (T-Mobile) review

Finally, T-Mobile brings you an iPhone 5. And it's fast with great voice quality, as long as you're in a solid coverage area.
Photo of Apple iPhone 5 (T-Mobile)
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The iPhone 5 has finally come to T-Mobile, and if you’re in the market for a smartphone from Apple, pay attention. T-Mobile’s iPhone is the same iPhone 5 that you’ve seen elsewhere, with better voice quality at a lower price. That’s a terrific combination for anyone currently shopping for an iPhone.

Revisiting the iPhone 5
Apple’s phones don’t vary much from carrier to carrier, as Apple doesn’t allow any bloatware or changes in design. So take a look at my reviews of the iPhone 5 for Verizon Wireless and AT&T. T-Mobile gets the same metal-and-glass design, the same 4-inch screen, the same 8-megapixel camera, and most importantly, the same iOS 6 operating system, with its easy-to-use grid of icons and unbeatable array of apps.

It’s worth noting the iPhone’s particular strengths and weaknesses versus newer, leading Android phones like the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S 4, though. On a broad level, iOS is very easy to use, but much less customizable than Android is today.

In terms of hardware, the smaller screen is an obvious difference; at 1,136 by 640 pixels it’s lower-resolution than the 1080p screens on competing phones, although it’s hard to perceive the difference between the iPhone’s 326 pixels per inch and the Galaxy S 4′s 440ppi. The 4-inch screen size makes it more comfortable for one-handed use than some of today’s larger phones, but people who prefer big touch keyboards or lots of real estate for webpages will be frustrated.

The phone’s 1.3GHz Apple A6 processor doesn’t match the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 models on raw benchmarks like Geekbench, but the iPhone 5 matched the Galaxy S 4 on the Browsermark Web browser benchmark and got close to Snapdragon-powered phones on the GLBenchmark graphics benchmark. The smaller screen helps with performance, of course, as the iPhone is only pushing about a third as many pixels as the 1080p phones do.

The one area where the iPhone falls definitively short is on battery life. Its 7 hours, 36 minutes of talk time and about 3 hours of HSPA+ video streaming is far short of the 10 hours, 50 minutes of talk time and 4 hours, 48 minutes of streaming on the Galaxy S 4. Bigger phones allow for bigger batteries.

Call Quality and Internet
Here’s where we get to the differences with the T-Mobile version, because this is a new iPhone, just invisibly. Unlike on previous GSM iPhones, the T-Mobile iPhone unlocks HSPA+ 42 support on the 1700Mhz AWS band. Combine that with support for 1700MHz LTE as well, and you get an iPhone able to hit T-Mobile and AT&T networks nationwide, as well as foreign HSPA+ networks if unlocked. 

If you’re buying an iPhone for T-Mobile, it is very, very important that you get one with 1700MHz HSPA+ support. All iPhones sold through T-Mobile should have the right bands, but I’ve heard that some Apple stores are still selling older units that don’t support T-Mobile’s frequency. Double check, because if you don’t have AWS, you’re in the slow lane.

Speeds were stunning, even without LTE. T-Mobile only officially has LTE in seven cities, but HSPA+ is nationwide. I got download speeds between 8-13Mbps in midtown Manhattan using Ookla’s Speedtest.net app, which fulfill anyone’s definition of 4G. Uploads on HSPA+ are slower, though, between 0.3 and 1.5Mbps. The company has said it will cover 100 million Americans with LTE by midyear and 200 million by the end of 2013.

Signal strength was good. I compared the iPhone 5 to a Galaxy S 4 in a weak signal area, and both phones lost their ability to make calls at about the same time.

This iPhone also supports HD Voice, which isn’t on any other iPhone. For now, to make an HD Voice call you’ll need to be talking to another HD Voice phone on T-Mobile, which means an iPhone 5, Samsung Galaxy S III, Samsung Galaxy S 4, HTC One S, HTC One, or Nokia Astound.

Calls made from the iPhone 5 to a Galaxy S 4 with HD Voice had unusually rich voice tone, especially in the treble, although there was a touch of scratchiness high up in the audio range. Without HD Voice, calls showed a little bit of compression garble and background noise leakage in noisy areas. The speakerphone is nice and punchy, with just a touch of background hiss.

Overall, this is a fine voice phone, but not quite up to the Galaxy S 4′s level in terms of clarity and noise cancellation. Compared to other iPhones across carriers, though, T-Mobile’s model wins because of the clarity of HD Voice.

Service Plans
T-Mobile’s real selling point is its service plans. Let’s start with the price of the phone itself. T-Mobile sells the iPhone for $579 outright, with no contract, or $99 plus $20 per month for 24 months. On the three other major carriers, no-contract iPhones generally cost $649 and the two-year-contract versions cost $199 plus an invisible subsidy built into your service plan. Cricket is the only carrier with a much cheaper no-contract iPhone, at $499.99, but it’s on a generally much slower network.

We crunched the numbers when T-Mobile announced the iPhone and found that T-Mobile’s model is consistently cheaper than the three other major networks. Over two years on the sample plan we examined, you’d pay $2,160 for a T-Mobile iPhone, as opposed to $239.76 more on Sprint, $479.76 more on AT&T, and $480 more on Verizon.

T-Mobile’s sticking point, of course, is coverage. While the carrier’s network in major U.S. cities is generally very good, T-Mobile’s network doesn’t cover as many rural square miles as AT&T’s and Verizon’s, especially in regions like northern New England, northern Michigan, west Texas, and the Great Plains. As always, it’s best to ask people who live near you how they’re doing with T-Mobile service. 

Conclusions
Apple’s iPhone line is more consistent across carriers than any other kind of phone. T-Mobile adds one major feature, HD Voice, and another compelling benefit, a low price. If you’re shopping for an iPhone and T-Mobile’s network runs well in your area, you’d be silly not to strongly consider this great new option.

The iPhone 5 falls short of Editors’ Choice status on T-Mobile, though. While it’s a great experience, simple and clean, the Samsung Galaxy S 4 (which we’ve reviewed for this carrier) and the HTC One (which we haven’t tested on T-Mobile, but have evaluated the Sprint model) offer better screens, more customizability, and a bigger window on the world.

Specifications
Phone Capability / Network GSM, UMTS, LTE
Screen Resolution 1136 x 640 pixels
NFC No
Dimensions 4.9 x 2.3 x 0.3 inches
802.11x/Band(s) 802.11 a/b/g/n
Video Camera Resolution 1080p Rear
720p Front-Facing
Battery Life (As Tested) 7 hours 36 minutes
Available Integrated Storage 16 GB
Processor Speed 1.3 GHz
CPU Apple A6
GPS Yes
Service Provider T-Mobile
High-Speed Data EDGE, LTE, HSPA+ 42
Weight 4 oz
Screen Type Retina
Operating System as Tested iOS
Physical Keyboard Yes
Camera Resolution 8 MP Rear
1.2 MP Front-Facing
Screen Pixels Per Inch 326
Bands 850, 900, 1800, 1900, 2100, 1700
microSD Slot No
Form Factor Candy Bar
Screen Size 4 inches
Bluetooth Version 4

Verdict
Finally, T-Mobile brings you an iPhone 5. And it's fast with great voice quality, as long as you're in a solid coverage area.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc