AT&T Report Card
While T-Mobile and Verizon jostle for the top position in our cellphone carrier rankings, AT&T finishes just a step or two behind. While it couldn't best its two main rivals in either performance or plans — though it came close in both categories — AT&T did top our customer-service rankings and offers the best selection of phones. So there's still plenty to recommend this carrier as your wireless provider.
Carrier Performance (45/50 points)
AT&T turned in a solid performance in our tests of wireless networks around the country. The carrier recorded national averages of 20.8 Mbps down and 9.1 Mbps up, which put it in third place behind Verizon and T-Mobile. AT&T offered the fastest average download speed in our San Francisco tests, while finishing in second place in Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston; only in New York did AT&T finish outside of the top-three carriers.
While AT&T may have finished behind T-Mobile for average download speed, it did beat the Uncarrier in our app download test, with an average time of 1 minute 26 seconds to T-Mobile's 1:28.
Plan Offerings (14/20 points)
AT&T has done away with the distinction between individual and family plans and simplified its access fee for devices to a single rate of $20 per device per month. That's at least made it easier to compare AT&T's plans to those of other carriers, though families will find the options a little wanting. AT&T's best family plan gives you a shared data pool of 10GB for $80 a month. Add in the access fees, and a family of four pays $160. For just $10 more, Verizon gives you a lot more share data, while T-Mobile offers unlimited data at that same $160 monthly price (though with limits on video streaming resolution).
The outlook has brightened for individuals now that AT&T no longer charges a higher access fee for low-data plans. In fact, we're particularly bullish on AT&T's 3GB plan, since it offers enough data for the typical smartphone owner for just $60 a month after you figure in access fees. True, T-Mobile charges $70 for unlimited data, though with that restriction on streaming video resolution. If you don't need unlimited data, AT&T's offering can save you $120 a year.
MORE: Compare AT&T’s Phone Plans to Other Carriers
AT&T joined T-Mobile and Sprint in offering unlimited data plans in January, but there’s a catch: You need to also subscribe to the telecom giant’s DirecTV or U-verse services. If you do, you can enjoy unlimited data for $100 a month, with additional lines costing $40. After discounts, a family of four could enjoy unlimited data for $180 a month. But given the TV service requirement, AT&T’s unlimited plan has decidedly limited appeal.
Since we first published this report, AT&T slimmed down its prepaid plans to a 3GB option for $45 a month and 6GB for $60. You can shave $5 off your monthly bill by opting for auto-pay. AT&T's $45 option matches a Sprint prepaid plan, though most discount carriers offer more data for less money.
Customer Service Rating (14/15 points)
Offering world-class customer service, AT&T is simply the best based on the results of our undercover support showdown. During our phone calls, we consistently received friendly, helpful, detailed and attentive assistance.
Digging into AT&T's website in search of answers to basic questions proved fruitful, and the convenient live chat feature similarly impressed us. The timely answers that came through social media were the cherry on top of an overall superlative tech support program.
Phone Selection (10/10 points)
When it comes to phone selection, the big carriers do all they can to give customers access to everything from the latest flagships to an assortment of budget phones. AT&T stands tall in this regard, offering every phone available on our smartphone checklist. That includes phones that are currently exclusive to the carrier, such as the Galaxy S6 active. AT&T also offers a number of pre-owned options and supports the widest range of unlocked phones, including the Onetouch Idol 3 and the OnePlus 2. If you don't like what you see, the carrier also lets you bring your own phone.
Special Features (2/5 points)
AT&T lets you buy your phone in monthly installments, with the ability to upgrade to a new phone after you made a set amount of payments. As of June 2016, AT&T trimmed down the number of installment plans from four to two. With AT&T's Next Every Year Plan, you pay for your phone over 24 months of financing, with the ability to upgrade to a new model after a year. AT&T Next is a 30-month financing plan that lets you upgrade phones after two years of payments.
AT&T allows unlimited talk and text to Canada and Mexico to subscribers with 15GB data plans or higher; other plans can add unlimited calling to Canada and Mexico, along with discounted calling rates to 225 other countries, for $5. Travel to Mexico with one of AT&T's Simple Choice plans, and you get unlimited talk and text plus 1GB of high-speed data.
AT&T has a number of me-too services that are better or cheaper through a third party. Its Family Map service helps you keep track of your kids' locations for $9.99 or higher per month, but other third-party services such as Life360 offer more for less.
AT&T Navigator costs $9.99 per month, though Google Maps offers the same features for free. AT&T Smart Limits lets you limit your child's phone use for $4.99 per month, but third-party parental control apps like Qustodio can do this for a one-time fee or free. Mobile TV costs $9.99 a month to stream some live channels including Fox News, ABC News and Bloomberg while playing on-demand episodes from NBC, Disney and others. AT&T Cloud gives you 5GB of free cloud storage, but other services like Skype or Google Drive give you 15GB for free.