A laptop or desktop computer remains the most efficient way to get work done. But these days more of us are using smaller mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets, for work as well as play.
Accessing data over Wi-Fi through a cable or fiber provider is typically faster and less expensive than accessing it over a cell network using your cellular carrier.
But sometimes you’re without Wi-Fi or have unreliable Wi-Fi and need to use your phone for more than talk or text. Which cell carrier offers the best data service?
To answer this question, Computerworld just completed its third annual mobile data survey. The details are important, but in a nutshell the four big cell carriers for data from best to worst are T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint.
The above is based on combined ratings for download speeds, upload speeds, connection availability, connection reliability, performance relative to cost, phone selection, technical support, and customer service.
These overall quality ratings are different from popularity ratings. Among survey respondents, 36% use Verizon, 30% use AT&T, 15% use T-Mobile, and 9% use Sprint. Though smaller cell carriers exist, 90% of the survey’s respondents use one of the four largest carriers.
T-Mobile’s overall rating was influenced more than any other factor by its performance relative to cost. Its customers feel they get the biggest bang for the buck. T-Mobile has been a leader with flexible pricing, including its no-contract, no-phone-subsidy plans. T-Mobile also ranked highest with both download and upload speeds.
On the other hand, with data connection availability and reliability, two crucial areas, Verizon ranks highest. Fully 81% of Verizon customers are very satisfied or satisfied with connection availability, followed by AT&T at 66%, T-Mobile at 59%, and Sprint at 48%.
Connecting reliability includes the frequency of dropped connections or streaming interruptions. Fully 75% of Verizon customers are very satisfied or satisfied here, followed by T-Mobile at 63%, AT&T at 60%, and Sprint at 46%.
How do you use your smartphone? The survey sheds light on what others do.
The most popular mobile data activities are email, web search and browsing, GPS and maps, weather, seller ratings, transit information, reading news, and social media.
More people use smartphones for business. Of the respondents, 38% report using their smartphones more for business over the past year while only 10% report using them less.
Speed matters, and more people have the availability of higher-speed 4G connections, including LTE. Fully 60% of respondents typically connect with 4G, up from 55% a year earlier. T-Mobile customers report the highest 4G use, at 72%, followed by Verizon and AT&T at 63% and Sprint at 34%.
More people are using their smartphones for video, though it’s not among the most common activities. Only 20% of respondents use their mobile data connection to stream or download video, music, podcasts, or books. With data-intensive activities such as video, Wi-Fi is a better choice.
Most people stay with the same cell carrier. Only 14% switched during the past year. The most common reason for switching was price, which was followed by coverage and reliability, then plan options.
It’s getting easier to switch if you want to. Regulations took effect in February 2015 requiring carriers to let customers optionally unlock their phones to switch carriers or for any other reason. T-Mobile customers are at the vanguard in unlocking their phones or buying unlocked phones.
Family plans remain the most popular smartphone plans. Fully 48% of respondents are on family plans, 27% are on individual plans, 13% are on data-sharing plans that include other devices such as tablets, and 12% are on business plans.
Carriers are trying to phase out unlimited data plans. Of the respondents, 39% say they’re on unlimited plans, down from 42% the previous year. Sprint excels here, with 78% of its customers having unlimited data compared to 65% for T-Mobile, 31% for AT&T, and 27% for Verizon.
Smartwatches, including the Apple Watch, have gotten plenty of hype recently, but people are generally not buying into it. Only 10% of respondents bought a wearable smart device over the past year.
Of those who did buy such a device, 50% bought a fitness tracker, 25% bought an Apple Watch, 23% bought an Android Wear watch, 21% bought another type of smartwatch, and 2% bought smartglasses.