2011 Complete Guide to 4G Mobile Phones in the US: Other Carriers and Phones, Metro PCS LTE, Bell 4G, and coming soon

Introduction

This is a guide to what is available on each network, and how the phones stack up. Find out why the term 4G had been neutered and what it was supposed to mean. This guide will discuss minor carriers and unlocked phones. Stay tuned for guides covering the other carriers, such as

The minor carriers the US with any sort of 4G network are

  • MetroPCS
  • US Cellular
  • Cincinnatti Bell

We will also be discussing unlocked HSPA+21 phones that you can use with any GSM carrier with matching capabilities. It is sort of 4G, so it gets a mention.


MetroPCS, wireless for all, including 4G LTE!
MetroPCS, wireless for all, including 4G LTE!

MetroPCS: small and cheap, but LTE 4G?

MetroPCS, with its slogan "wireless for all" is a flat-fee unlimited use carrier. it offers unlimited talk, text, and web for one price. Yes, that includes LTE service where you can get them. 4G plans are 40, 50, or 60 per month.

MetroPCS is actually the first LTE 4G carrier in the US, with LTE service launched in Las Vegas, Nevada, in September 2010, months ahead of Verizon, the only other LTE 4G carrier in the US as of mid-2010.

The problem with metroPCS is their 4G area is extremely limited: only parts of 14 metropolitan areas across the US, specifically:

  • Atlanta
  • Boston
  • Dallas / Ft. Worth
  • Detroit
  • North Florida
  • Central Florida
  • South Florida
  • Las Vegas
  • Los Angeles
  • Bakersfield
  • New York
  • Philadelphia
  • Sacramento
  • San Francisco

In almost all cases, your coverage will be limited to immediate areas around the center of the city, and no further. See metroPCS coverage map for exact coverage areas.

Furthermore, metroPCS has no 3G network except in very limited areas. It has a 2G network instead. So your speed is high, or low, nothing in the middle. When it's low, you will see like 100 kbps, which is painfully slow.

And one final strike against MetroPCS: it only has two 4G LTE phones, and one of them is not even a smart phone.

  • Samsung Galaxy Indulge (Android OS)
  • Samsung Craft (semi-smart phone)


Samsung Galaxy Indulge, 4G, Android, but rather limited
Samsung Galaxy Indulge, 4G, Android, but rather limited

Samsung Galaxy Indulge: sort of little brother to all the Galaxy S phones

Features:

  • 3.5 inch screen plain LCD
  • 1 GHz CPU
  • 4 row physical keyboard
  • 3MP back camera
  • $299 in store, no contract needed

Samsung Galaxy Indulge claims to be the first commercially available 4G LTE phone in the US market. However, it is a rather LOUSY phone. Due to MetroPCS network, it is rather slow in LTE mode, but it depends on where you are. Reports vary from only 3G-like performance to noticeably faster than 3G (1 to 4 Mbps roughly). Battery life is tolerable to miserable depending on who you ask. There is also no tethering available.

MetroPCS, on the other hand, is not going after the people who buy good smart phones. According to metroPCS, their audience is for people who need a little data all the time, like texting, Twitter, Facebook, and similar social network users.

If you are looking for a "great" phone and a "great" network, MetroPCS is not for you. On the other hand, the Samsung Galaxy Indulge is a phone for people who needs some Android apps, and a lot of little use of data and texting, and want one flat fee.


Samsung Craft, 4G, but not a smart phone!
Samsung Craft, 4G, but not a smart phone!

Samsung Craft: it's not even a smart phone

Features:

  • 3.3 inch AMOLED screen
  • 4-row physical slide-out keyboard
  • social networking apps built-in
  • Limited flash support HTML web browser
  • 3.2 MP back camera
  • $199 after $100 mail-in rebate, no contract

Samsung Craft claims to be the first available LTE phone in the US, but it's not a smart phone. Instead, it is a feature phone with a lot of social apps that sits somewhere between a regular feature phone and a smart phone, with proprietary software doing the various social networks and a web browser that partially supports Adobe Flash content. It will do what you want, if your wants are relatively modest, like Facebook updates.


MetroPCS conclusion: flat fee = yes, for all = no

MetroPCS data speed, even on 4G LTE, is relatively slow compared to even HSPA+ carriers such as AT&T or T-Mobile. On the other hand, metroPCS is not going after the sort of people who care about their data speed that much. If you have only very modest data needs, like Facebook / Twitter updates, and want an unlimited plan, then MetroPCS is worth a look. On the other hand, one of the cheaper 3G phones on metroPCS, such as LG Optimus M, or Huawei Ascend, may be a better choice on metroPCS.


US Cellular Logo
US Cellular Logo

US Celluar: announced LTE, but yet to have device or network

US Cellular, the other minor carrier, has announced in June that it will deploy LTE phones and network before end of 2011. However, thus far there has been no details. Following is a link to their press release.

http://www.uscellular.com/about/press-room/2011/USCELLULAR-TO-LAUNCH-4G-LTE-SERVICE-AND-DEVICES-IN-TIME-FOR-THE-HOLIDAYS.html


Cincinnati Bell: partners with "4G carriers" HSPA+

Cincinnati Bell launched its own HSPA+ network for its area, plus 4G roaming with "partner 4G networks" (AT&T or T-Mobile?) as well as its own phone, the Huawei Ascend X 4G

You can read their press release here.

Huawei Ascend X 4G, an HSPA+14 "4G" phone for Cincinnatti Bell
Huawei Ascend X 4G, an HSPA+14 "4G" phone for Cincinnatti Bell

Huawei Ascend X 4G: a budget "4G" phone

Features:

  • 1GHz CPU
  • 5MP back camera, VGA front camera
  • 4.1-inch display
  • HSPA+14
  • $99 after mail-in rebate with 2 year contract

Much like the MetroPCS Samsung Galaxy Indulge, the Huawei Ascend X is a budget 4G phone with mid to low-end features. In this case, this phone does not even do HSPA+21, but instead offers the lowest HSPA+ possible... HSPA+14, which is not that much faster than regular HSPA. Still, that sort of qualifies it for "4G", just barely.


Cincinnatti Bell Conclusion: wait for more phone choices

CB's choices are horrendous: one phone that's not even HSPA+21. You should wait for better phones to come along, unless you absolutely need a "4G" phone now. The company doesn't explain if other HSPA+ phones can be activated on their network, and whether they are compatible with AT&T or T-Mobile's HSPA+ (I'd hope for both, but I'd be dreaming!)


Unlocked 4G Phones: compatibility issues

In the US, while you can buy unlocked GSM phones, compatibility remains a problem.

So far, PC Magazine have gotten a Samsung Galaxy S II imported from South Korea to work on AT&T's network with minimal fuss. It will even work at HSPA+21 speeds. However, this phone's HSPA+21 won't work with T-Mobile (different GSM bands). Furthermore, this phone costs $800+ through specialty importers, and that is just... too high to consider for most, even if it's without a contract.

Read PC Magazine's review of Samsung Galaxy S II.

Furthermore, even LTE implementation's compatibility is in doubt. Verizon have publicly explained that their LTE network will NOT be compatible with AT&T's LTE Network, so LTE phone for Verizon's LTE network will not work on AT&T's LTE network, and vice versa. Apparently, this has to do with frequency bands, and Verizon simply don't use the same frequency band for their LTE as AT&T.


Conclusion

The 4G world can be confusing, with interchangeability problems across the various networks and carriers. You really need to consider what is your purpose for a 4G phone, and how much are you willing to pay.

The choice is yours.


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