Sprint Report Card
As it tries to gain ground on rival carriers, Sprint has pulled out all the stops, with enticing offers to switch to its cellular service. But all of the unlimited plans, cut-your-bill-in-half promotions and other special features can't disguise one simple fact about Sprint: Its network performance continues to lag behind that of the other major carriers.
That flagging network performance ultimately hurt Sprint in our assessment of nine cellphone providers. Despite a strong second-place finish in our customer support showdown and an array of appealing plans for individuals and families, Sprint finished behind the other major carriers in our cellphone provider rankings, largely because its network performance simply doesn't measure up.
Carrier Performance (38/50 points)
Sprint recorded an average download speed of 11.2 Mbps in our tests of six cities — far off the pace set by Verizon and also well behind the average speeds for T-Mobile, AT&T and even discount carrier MetroPCS. Sprint's average upload speed of 6.4 Mbps also put it in fifth place, and it was the only carrier among the Big Four whose average app download speed failed to break the 2-minute mark.
Since we conducted our testing, Sprint has shown signs of life in third-party results. RootMetrics gave Sprint third place in its speed testing, where it beat out T-Mobile. (T-Mobile has decried RootMetrics' methodology in the past.) Sprint didn't fare as well in OpenSignal's test of network speed, though it did have the best 4G latency, according to that testing firm's latest results.
Plans (15/20 points)
Sprint tries to compensate for its comparatively lackluster network with data — lots of it for both individual and family plans. Sprint's individual plan offers unlimited data for $60 a month with no monthly access fees. Both T-Mobile and AT&T offer unlimited plans as well — the former for $75 a month and the latter for $100 (though you also need to subscribe to either AT&T’s DirecTV or U-Verse service to qualify for unlimited data.) Sprint's unlimited plan comes with a key catch: you're limited to 480p resolution when you stream video, and music and game streaming are also at capped speeds. (T-Mobile's unlimited plan has a similar restriction on video.) You can pay an extra $20 per month per line to remove any streaming limitations.
Families will have to decide whether they want a lower bill or a lot of data. The carrier's shared 12GB data plan costs $140 a month for a family of four once device access fees are added to the $60 base rate. That's not much less than the $160 a month a family of four would pay for unlimited data with Sprint, though with restrictions on video, music and game streaming.
Of the four major carriers, Sprint offers the most attractively priced prepaid plans, starting at $35 a month for 1GB of data. Another $10 gets you 3GB of data, though it's worth noting you could get even more data for that same $45 a month at discount carriers like Cricket and Virgin.
Customer Service (13/15 points)
Proving it can top other carriers when it puts its mind to it, Sprint showed a strong finish for customer service, coming in second place behind AT&T.
In our undercover phone calls, we found Sprint's tech support agents to be friendly and knowledgeable. Searching for online answers to simple questions, such as removing photos from our phone, was also a breeze. Plus, Twitter and Facebook also proved to be solid resources for Sprint customers looking for answers.
Phone Selection (7/10 points)
The major carriers have a wide array of phones, and Sprint is no exception, though it did offer the fewest phones among the big carriers. That said, only AT&T offered more of the phones on our list of 12 top devices. Sprint was missing only the Moto G and the Galaxy S6 Active. Sprint uses a CDMA network, so, like Verizon, there are limits to the use of unlocked phones with its service.
Special Features (4/5 points)
In a bid to draw customers away from rival services, Sprint offers to pick up the costs of a contract for customers who switch from a competitor. Under Sprint's Cut Your Bill in Half promotion, AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon subscribers can get a lower monthly fee for the same amount of data if they come over to Sprint, though there's an activation fee for each line you switch over. For T-Mobile subscribers, the offer doesn't apply to anyone with unlimited data plans, just the 2GB, 6GB and 10GB tiered data plans. Sprint says it will pay up to $650 per device in the form of a reward card to cover the costs of switching, but you'll have to trade in your current phone.
Sprint's Family Safety Essentials gives you parental controls, a family locator service and distracted-driver prevention (which locks a phone when its owner is driving) for $10 a month. However, you can get most of these services for a lower fee or for free if you turn to third-party apps.
Sprint TV includes a handful of on-demand video channels for free, including Fox, The Weather Channel and Access Hollywood. However, packages that include live streaming start at $9.99 per month. NBA Game Time offers scores, highlights and other basketball coverage for free. Racing fans may appreciate the included NASCAR Mobile 13, which includes stats and rankings for the popular car league, along with live radio broadcasts of events. Sprint also allows Wi-Fi calling and text messaging, if your phone supports it.