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iPhone 5 or Samsung Galaxy S3? And Why Sprint LTE Isn't Enough

There are so many factors to consider when buying a new smartphone and choosing a wireless service. The truth is that what's good for one consumer may not satisfy the needs of another

There are so many factors to consider when buying a new smartphone and choosing a wireless service. The truth is that what's good for one consumer may not satisfy the needs of another.

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer some buying advice for a consumer considering the iPhone 5 and the Samsung Galaxy S3. It's not an easy decision. These devices are both excellent choices. I also explain to a different reader why I didn't even consider Sprint's network when buying my iPhone 5. And I talk about the importance of network coverage in making that final decision.

Samsung Galaxy S3 vs. iPhone 5

Dear Maggie,

I have a question about smart phone selection. I've waited a long time to upgrade my Blackberry 9700 to an iPhone. (My wife and I are AT&T customers. I have an unlimited data plan. We both use Windows-based computers.) Last year when the iPhone 4s came out, I was disappointed that it wasn't the iPhone 5 with 4G LTE so I waited.

In the meantime, the Samsung Galaxy S3 arrived. Still, I went ahead and ordered the iPhone 5. I'm waiting for it to arrive, but I'm having second thoughts. I don't make or get many calls. I use the phone a lot more for productivity, travel, Internet access and entertainment. Because of this, I was really hoping the iPhone 5 screen would be bigger than it turned out to be.

The Samsung Galaxy S3 has a much larger display, has more configurability and expandability and seems to have most (if not all) of what I want. It is not straight-jacketed by iTunes. (A real plus in my book.) And, because of my Blackberry, I already have microUSB cables and chargers.

Still, as compelling as it might be on that side, there are some reasons that I am tending to stay with my iPhone choice. I have an iPad and I know I can keep many (if not all) of the same apps. This also means I already understand the user interface. Many of my relations (wife, kids, sister) all have iPhones. Since I work in IT and am reasonably tech savvy, I am not put off too much about learning Android. But I feel less confident about the other issues. Given my situation, are there enough compelling reasons to stay with iOS or would going to the Samsung Galaxy S3 be a better choice?

Thanks,

Tim

Dear Tim,

This is a tough decision. The Samsung Galaxy S3 is a terrific phone. And so is the Apple iPhone 5. In fact, CNET's Brian Tong said it was impossible to go wrong with either smartphone. In CNET's Prizefight between the two phones, the iPhone 5 only slightly edged out the Samsung Galaxy S3.

It's the battle you've been waiting for between the iPhone 5 and the Galaxy S3 before the Jelly Bean update. How does the cream of the crop match up? Let's get it on!

But there are plenty of reasons to choose the Samsung Galaxy S3 instead of the iPhone 5. For example, the market research firm IHS iSuppli just published a study in which it said that the display on the Samsung Galaxy S3 is superior to the new iPhone 5's display. According to the report, The Galaxy S3's display, which is just 1.1 millimeters thick, offers the full color gamut of the National Television System Committee or NTSC standard. By comparison, the iPhone 5, which measures 1.5 millimeters thick, offers only 72 percent of the standard color gamut.

Some people say this doesn't necessarily mean that the screen is really any better. CNET's own Jessica Dolcourt did a round up of the best screens on the market and she ranks the Samsung Galaxy SIII at the bottom, while giving high marks to the iPhone 5. You may need to check out the displays for yourself to determine which one is best for you.

Keep in mind, Android phones are more configurable than iOS devices. And that's still the case when you look at the iPhone 5 compared to the Samsung Galaxy S3. This means you'll have a lot more flexibility in customizing the Samsung Galaxy SIII than you would the iPhone 5. Given that you are an IT guy, I imagine you aren't afraid to play around with your device. My guess is you won't have any trouble adapting to the Samsung Galaxy SIII. The Ice Cream Sandwich user interface is not that complicated to use. And the interface will only get better once it's upgraded to Android 4.1 Jelly Bean.

I also agree that it's very nice to be able to use any microUSB cable and charger with your smartphone. I've had a lot of devices pass through my home over the years, and it is nice when I don't have to hunt through my drawer to find just the right charger for each device. It also means that I can leave chargers in different places. I have one that I keep in my bedroom. Another I have in the living room, and a third one I leave at the office. This way, I'm never without a charger when the battery goes low.

I used to be able to do the same thing with my iPhone 3GS, since it used the same charger as my iPod. (Plus I had previously owned an iPhone 3G and kept that charger.) But the fact that Apple has changed the charging input in this version of the iPhone and the fact that it's not a standard microUSB is a pain in the butt. It doesn't seem like a big deal, but I think you're smart to consider this practical aspect when deciding which device to get, especially if you're already on the fence.

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It sounds like you aren't necessarily a fan of iTunes, which again will give you more freedom to go with an alternative to the iPhone. When I was deciding which new smartphone to get, I was also deciding between the iPhone 5 and the Samsung Galaxy S3.

As I've mentioned in this column previously, I was sucked into iTunes very early. All of my music, which I like to listen to everyday on my commute to and from work, is in iTunes. It's been too much of a pain to convert it over to the Samsung Galaxy S2 I've been using for six months, so I've been musicless on my smartphone since my old iPhone died. So for me, I want iTunes back on my device. And that's why I decided on the iPhone 5.

But if you're not a fan of iTunes and you aren't locked into the software, then by all means go Android. As for your concerns over sharing apps with your iPad, it may not be as big of a deal as you might think. You are correct that some of the apps you have for your iPad will work on your iPhone 5. But not of all of them will.

And depending on the apps you use, you can also download those same apps on the Galaxy S3. If many of the apps you use are free, it shouldn't be a big deal. Re-downloading apps isn't that cumbersome. For example, apps like the Internet radio service Pandora or e-reader app Kindle are free and you can access your same account regardless of whether you're on your Android device or an iOS device.

Of course, things get trickier when you have apps on your device that cost money. But the good news is that many of the apps that you have pay for on an iOS device are free on an Android product. There are some apps that are not offered on both platforms. But the most popular apps will likely be available to you on Android.

You may even discover some that aren't available for iOS. For example, Google Maps and Navigation are superior to Apple's new mapping service. And I'd argue that mapping and navigation are probably more useful than many of the other apps on a smartphone. So even though app consistency might be an issue, I don't think it should be a deal-breaker for you.

Then there's that other issue you brought up about your friends and family also using iPhones. Should you get an iPhone 5, you can text other iPhone users via iMessage and automatically bypass the text messaging service from your carrier. That is a nice feature. But you can download other apps on your Android device that allow you to do the same thing. Again, I don't think that should be a deal-breaker for you. It's a minor benefit.

So what should you do? My advice to you is to check out the iPhone 5 since you've already ordered it, and it's on the way to your house. In the meantime, stop into an AT&T store and check out the Samsung Galaxy S3. See how you feel about the look and feel of the devices once you have them in your hands.

But honestly, based on what you've shared about your preferences and your needs, I don't see any compelling reasons for you to stay with the iPhone 5. Either way, I think you will be much happier than you are now with your current BlackBerry. I hope this advice was helpful, and good luck!

Why no love for Sprint's LTE for the iPhone 5?

Dear Maggie,

In your column about which iPhone to buy, you mentioned the options from AT&T and Verizon, but left out Sprint. I'm on AT&T's unlimited plan and do a fair amount of streaming audio. Is Sprint really not a viable option for 4G LTE? Is their system really not that good? I'm leaning toward Verizon, but hate the thought of having to keep track of data usage and the extra cost. Your columns are great!

Thanks for your help!

Frugal Consumer

Dear Frugal Consumer,

Thanks for bringing this up. I have nothing against Sprint. And in fact, I would love to see strong competition in the mobile market. It would be wonderful if consumers didn't even need to consider network coverage or network reliability when deciding which carrier to choose. But the truth is that those things still matter. And as wireless operators transition from 3G to 4G service, these issues will become even more of a deciding factor for potential subscribers. Personally, I'm crossing my fingers that Sprint, T-Mobile and some of the other smaller providers on the market can really give AT&T and Verizon a run for their money.

The reason I didn't consider Sprint for the iPhone 5 is because the carrier is woefully behind AT&T and Verizon in terms of its LTE buildout. Currently, the carrier only offers LTE in 19 cities, most of which are in Texas, Kansas and Georgia. If you live in those areas and you don't travel much, then Sprint's coverage might be fine. But if you are like me and you don't live in any of these areas and you travel often and even frequent places where Sprint's regular 3G coverage is spotty at best, then Sprint isn't a great choice.

As I have said many times in this column, network coverage is the most important factor that you should look for when considering a wireless operator. Earlier this month, Sprint announced that it will be rolling out LTE in more than 100 cities where it already offers 3G service "in the coming months." Cities included in this list are Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Washington D.C., and cities in Puerto Rico. This is great news. But unfortunately, I don't think it's enough to satisfy my needs.

I live in New York City, which has historically gotten great Sprint coverage, but I spend a lot of time at my family's house in Delaware. Even though Sprint's coverage map says it offers service in this area and even though it has a retail store just outside of town, the service is terrible in the town where my father lives. I dropped Sprint a long time ago because of these issues. And despite my best efforts to get Sprint executives to do something about the coverage in my favorite little piece of the world, the company hasn't improved its coverage there.

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For me, the lack of coverage in a town I visit often is a deal breaker. That said, there are plenty of people who live, work, and visit areas where Sprint has great coverage. And those people should definitely consider Sprint a possible alternative.

The reality is that AT&T and Verizon Wireless have the footprint that I need. And I chose Verizon because it is the furthest in its LTE deployment. As I mentioned in my previous article, Verizon covered 230 million potential customers in 337 markets with its LTE network at the end of the second quarter of 2012. This is more than all the other carriers building LTE combined.

By the end of the year, Verizon expects to cover about 260 million people in more than 400 markets. By contrast, AT&T's LTE network covers only about 80 million people in the U.S. today, and it will add only another 70 million by the end of the year.

Sprint is working hard to expand its network. And in another year, maybe its network will look more attractive compared to the other carriers. The company has said it will serve more than 250 million potential customers with LTE by the end of 2013.

But I'm looking to buy an iPhone 5 today. And I don't want to wait two months or two years for my carrier to expand its network to support the faster network speeds I need today. The contract I sign for my new iPhone 5 will last two years. If Sprint is able to catch up and provide a service that is as good or better than Verizon and costs less, then I will definitely consider switching. Until then, I plan to suck it up and pay Verizon more than I'd like to spend on wireless service, because I know it's going to provide the fastest and most reliable LTE service for me where I need it.

This issue of network coverage is crucial to keeping competition alive in the wireless market. And I'd argue that this is a great example of why consumers need to pay attention to what's happening at the FCC when it comes to policies around wireless spectrum and data roaming.

It's no coincidence that AT&T and Verizon Wireless own most of the lower frequency wireless spectrum and also have the largest network footprints in the country. Lower frequency spectrum can transmit data over longer distances and penetrate through more obstacles.

This means that carriers using lower frequency spectrum can use fewer towers when building their networks to cover the same area. That saves them money. And because the spectrum can penetrate through buildings and other obstacles better, lower frequency spectrum can provide better in-building coverage. As a result, when you look at how carriers value their spectrum assets, there is almost a two-to-one difference in the book value of lower frequency spectrum (holdings below 1GHz) compared to higher frequency spectrum (holdings above 1GHz.)

AT&T and Verizon Wireless are well positioned with sub-1GHz wireless spectrum. By contrast, Sprint and T-Mobile are not in a great position here. High frequency spectrum is not worthless, by any means. It can pack in more capacity, but because it travels over shorter distances, carriers need to put the towers closer together. This makes building a network more costly. And for this reason, carriers with a lot of higher frequency spectrum generally serve densely populated areas like cities more easily than suburbs and rural communities.

The FCC is preparing an auction for 2014 in which it will auction off lower frequency spectrum from broadcast TV stations. The big question is whether carriers such as Sprint, T-Mobile and even smaller players like Leap Wireless, which owns the Cricket brand, will get some of this lower frequency spectrum. If AT&T and Verizon Wireless once again end up with the bulk of it, it will make it difficult for smaller players like Sprint or T-Mobile to compete.

The rules and policies around this auction are being discussed now. Just last week, the FCC opened the issue for public comment.

Roaming agreements with larger operators could help smaller players fill these coverage gaps. But big carriers, such as Verizon, have resisted an FCC rule requiring them to offer reasonable roaming rates to competitors for data service. Verizon is even suing the FCC to block the rules. That said, Sprint and T-Mobile have joined the Competitive Carrier Association, a group formerly known as the Rural Cellular Association. This group represents more than 100 smaller regional carriers. So there's a chance that Sprint and T-Mobile could work with these carriers to extend their footprints to more rural areas. And the rural carriers could work with Sprint and T-Mobile for better urban access.

But one thing is clear, network coverage still matters. And unless smaller players are able to cobble together networks of their own or roaming agreements with other carriers, my options and yours will continue to be limited mostly to AT&T and Verizon.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET, offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

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