PROS / AT&T has the largest selection of flagship-quality phones of any major 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 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, always one step behind its biggest rival. It doesn’t quite have the best network coverage, for example, but it easily nabs second place. Its speeds don’t average as high, but they’re still dependable and outpace every other contender. The one area it does better than Verizon in is price, but even there AT&T lags behind the competition, charging $5 more per month than T-Mobile for the same data allocation.
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 provider in the country, but it’s a close second, which is why it earns our Top Ten Reviews Silver Award.
Coverage & Quality
AT&T’s network is very, very good. It offers coast-to-coast coverage in both urban and rural regions, with few dropped calls and fewer lost texts. Its speeds are impressive and consistent: 84 percent of RootMetrics’ tested localities get 10 Mbps or faster speeds, no small feat when you’re considering rural as well as urban areas. Even its LTE footprint is solid, since virtually all its covered areas get strong LTE service.
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.
Pricing & Fees
AT&T’s network is slightly inferior to Verizon’s, so it stands to reason that its prices would be lower. An individual plan is $55 for 2GB of data and unlimited talk and text. Not including the price of a new smartphone, that comes out to $1,320 for two years of service. It’s pretty good, considering the quality of coverage you can enjoy, but it’s far from the cheapest cell phone plan available.
Family plans are rather pricey. You can get four lines and 15GB of shared data between them for $160 per month. Data overages are charged rather than throttled, so you pay $15 for each additional gigabyte per month instead of simply seeing your speeds slow down. There’s a $15 activation fee for new lines and a $35 restocking fee if you buy a phone from AT&T and decide to return it within the grace period.
Factoring in network coverage, features and support, AT&T’s value for money is about on par with Verizon. Individual plans are slightly cheaper, but then, the network is a bit more constricting. The result’s a wash – if coverage is important to you and you don’t live in the boonies, AT&T could save you some cash.
AT&T doesn’t offer an unlimited data plan unless you're a DirecTV customer, but it is one of two providers with data rollover. If you don’t use your entire data allocation one month, AT&T attaches whatever’s left to the end of the following month’s allocation. There are a couple caveats, of course – the rollover data only stays around one month, and you don’t dip into it until you completely drain your primary allocation. Still, it’s a welcome extra on every plan.
If you have friends or family in other countries, the company’s international cell phone plans are among the best, simply because they’re cheap. For $5 a month, you can get unlimited calling to Canada and Mexico and reduced per-minute rates to the rest of the world. Calling internationally is still an option without the plan, but you may rack up connection fees in the process.
AT&T’s device selection is excellent, especially when it comes to flagship phones. The big names like the iPhone 6s and Samsung Galaxy S7 are, of course, present, but so are lesser-known flagships like the HTC One A9 or variants like Samsung’s Galaxy Active phones. BlackBerry fans have access to the popular Priv, while Windows diehards can buy the Lumia 950.
The mid-tier front is more limited, as the 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.
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.