PROS / AT&T has the largest selection of flagship-quality phones of any major cell phone service provider.
CONS / Its family plans are just as pricey as Verizon’s, despite offering slightly lower coverage quality.
VERDICT / It can't claim to be the best cell phone carrier on the block, but with a solid balance of price and performance, AT&T is a great alternative.
AT&T has been playing second fiddle to Verizon for years. Its coverage always lags one step behind its biggest rival. Its speeds don't average as high, but they're still dependable and outpace almost every other contender. The one area it does better than Verizon, however, is price.
Indeed, AT&T is the cellular world's poster child for "jack of all trades, master of none." If you're looking for the cheapest carrier, or the fastest, or the most widespread, there's always a better option. If, on the other hand, you're after a balance of speed and coverage, of price and performance, then it's worth a second look. It's not the best cell phone carrier in the country, but it's reliable, which is why it earns our Top Ten Reviews Bronze Award.
Coverage & Quality
AT&T's network is very, very good. It offers coast-to-coast coverage in both urban and rural regions, with a large LTE footprint, few dropped calls and fewer lost texts. Its speeds are impressive and consistent: AT&T finished second to Verizon in five out of six of RootMetric's test categories. The only category in which AT&T didn't rank second behind Verizon was in the Call category, to which it earned third behind Sprint.
Most people won't notice the difference between AT&T's coverage and Verizon's best-in-class cell phone service. Both are nearly universal, with noticeable gaps only in the most rural parts of the country, and both offer reliable uptime and consistent speeds. Verizon takes the edge cases that AT&T doesn't; second place is second place.
Our sister-site, Tom's Guide, conducted an analysis to find the fastest carrier. AT&T was ranked fourth overall but finished as runner-up to Verizon for an average download speed of 25.6 Mbps. AT&T also finished third in an app-download test, taking an average of 1 minute, 44 seconds to download Pokémon Go from Google Play.
Pricing & Fees
AT&T's network is slightly inferior to Verizon's, so it stands to reason that its prices would be lower. AT&T currently features two cell phone plans with unlimited talk, text and data: Unlimited Choice and Unlimited Plus. The latter costs $90 a month and includes a 10GB hotspot, HD video streaming and a HBO subscription. The Choice plan doesn't have a hotspot and only offers 480p streaming video, just like T-Mobile's lowest priced unlimited One plan.
These prices don't include the cost of a new smartphone. We think AT&T's rates are fair, considering the quality of coverage you enjoy, but it's far from the cheapest or best cell phone plan available. If you want an individual plan, AT&T offers a prepaid GoPhone plan that includes 6GB of data and unlimited talk and text for $40 if you enroll in autopay.
Unfortunately, there's a $25 activation fee for new lines and up to a $45 restocking fee if you buy a phone from AT&T and decide to return it within the grace period. Also, AT&T requires you to enroll in autopay to get the advertised price for its unlimited plan, and like Verizon, excludes all other discounts with the plan, with the exception of its military and veteran discounts. We didn't like that AT&T switches your mobile hotspot to 2G speeds after using the allotted 10GB. (Verizon and T-Mobile throttle to just 3G speeds.) Like other carriers, the unlimited data isn't truly "unlimited," and AT&T will start to slow down speeds after 22 GB of use, just like Verizon.
Factoring in network coverage, features and support, AT&T's value for money is on par with Verizon. Individual cell phone plans are slightly cheaper, but then, the network is more constricting. The result is a wash – if coverage is important to you and you don't live in the boonies, AT&T could save you some cash. Compared to T-Mobile, you get a more reliable network but with expensive monthly rates and a lack of features like free streaming video and music.
AT&T's device selection is excellent, especially when it comes to flagship phones. The big names, like the iPhone 7 and Samsung Galaxy S8 are, of course, present, but lesser-known flagships, like the HTC U Ultra, are absent. BlackBerry fans have access to the popular Priv, while Windows diehards can buy the Lumia 950.
The mid-tier front is more limited, as this cell phone company lacks major players like the latest Moto X or Google's Nexus phones, but the budget phones category is the real shocker: As of publishing, the number of options under $200 can be counted on one hand. If you're in the market for a cheap device, AT&T clearly isn't catering to you.
If you want to add a tablet to your plan, it costs an additional $20 each month. A smartwatch is $10 extra each month.
When you get down to it, not much separates the top two cell phone companies in the nation. Both have great coverage, strong LTE networks and fast speeds. They both offer a wide range of devices for selective buyers, and in terms of value for your money, are about equal. Consequently, AT&T is a great choice if you need dependable coverage, but want to save what money you can in the process. It might not be quite to Verizon’s standard, but it’s a solid runner-up.