If you want to save money on your monthly cell phone bill, you may decide to turn to a prepaid carrier with an attractively priced data plan.
Should you go this route, MetroPCS provides the most performance bang for your buck, based on our nationwide tests of nine different networks. Cricket Wireless or Straight Talk brought up the rear.
We took to the streets of six U.S. cities to test LTE speeds for different wireless networks. In addition to measuring the download and upload speeds of the Big Four carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — we also looked at five popular prepaid providers (many of which are actually subsidiaries of the major carriers).
In our tests, MetroPCS had the best download and upload speeds among the prepaid carriers we tested, turning in national averages of 22.1 and 16.0 Mbps, respectively. Our testing also including downloading Pokémon Go from the Google Play store and timing how long it took. MetroPCS was the only prepaid carrier whose average time to complete that task broke the 2-minute mark.
|Average Download Speed
|Average Upload Speed
|App Download Average (Mins:Secs)
More significantly, you won't be trading off performance for a lower monthly bill should you go with MetroPCS, which uses the network of its parent company T-Mobile. MetroPCS's national download and upload speeds weren't that far off the respective averages of 23.5 and 16.3 Mbps that T-Mobile recorded nationally. And at some individual test sites, MetroPCS turned in faster numbers than its parent network.
MetroPCS wasn't the only prepaid subsidiary to match the performance of its parent company. Boost Mobile and Virgin are both owned by Sprint, using that carrier's network for their wireless service. And both Boost and Virgin turned in numbers that were in line with Sprint's averages. (Virgin, in fact, had a faster download speed in our testing at 18 Mbps to Sprint's 17.7 Mbps average. Boost's numbers were a little bit slower.)
Two prepaid carriers lagged the field in our testing. Cricket Wireless turned in a national download average of 6.0 Mbps and an upload average of 11.9 Mbps. Straight Talk's numbers were even slower, with download and upload averages of 5.1 and 2.2 Mbps, respectively.
In fact, those two carriers had the worst download speeds in all six cities where we tested. In contrast, Virgin turned in the fastest download speed when we tested in Houston, just edging out parent company Sprint, while MetroPCS had the second fastest download average in our tests in Seattle, Chicago and Los Angeles.
One other noteworthy thing about Cricket's download speeds: they're well off the pace set by parent company AT&T, which posted a 13.8 Mbps download speed nationally. That's not necessarily a surprise, as Cricket's wireless plans stipulate that LTE download speeds max out at 8Mbps. Only in our Houston, Chicago and San Francisco tests did our Cricket phone come close to that maximum speed.
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Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.