We know what’s on everyone’s mind right now: “That new iPhone 4S looks like a killer phone, the object of much desire. And I’d really like to upgrade. I wonder how much it will cost me? And should I really do it?”

There are a lot of factors that go into that decision. And since we’re all going through that decision process, too, we decided to make a guide to help everyone.

Some of the things you are going to need to decide about deals with your current service? What is the best service provider for you?

How’s Your Service?

When the iPhone was launched it was only available on AT&T. So that decision was easy. Now it’s available on three large carriers in the US. So you have options. That’s good. And bad. The best carrier varies widely based on your needs and your location.

Verizon beats AT&T – who would have guessed? We asked our readers to give us some feedback on their current carrier for the iPhone, how good it was, and what their future plans were. Across the board, AT&T scored lower than Verizon. Particularly in call quality and data connection quality. Verizon scored nearly 20% higher in each category.

Also in our survey, nearly 50% of the respondents are planning on switching carriers this year.

Get the Coverage Details

AT&T coverage is notoriously horrible in large cities. New York City and San Francisco, particularly. If you live in one of those areas and you are looking to jump to a new carrier, this is just about as good of a time as any.

There are a few tools you can use to check the coverage in your area.

CNET Coverage Maps – This is a resource that shows actual coverage based on thousands of samples. You can zoom in and find the coverage of the major carriers in your area and the areas you travel to both in voice and data quality. This same data is also available with Root Metrics CellCoverage app, a free Universal iOS app.

Cell providers publish their own coverage maps. These show unfortunately theoretical data on where coverage should be. Coverage? is a $1.99 Universal iOS app that combines all of those maps and overlays them on a Google map so you can see what official coverage is available in your area.

Decide on a Carrier

So, that said, let’s look at what your options and prices are if you want the iPhone in the US. For this we’re going to look at the cheapest option for a single iPhone 4S on each of the carriers that offer it in the USA. This generally means the lowest service level, fewest number of minutes, lowest data plan, pay as you go texts, etc. We will leave off any other options like enhanced calling options, insurance, etc.

What we found is pretty much what we thought we would. AT&T is the cheapest, by $15/month for the most basic level of service, with only 200 MB of data. Sprint is the only carrier that offers unlimited data – a great deal if you are a heavy data user.

Upgrade Now or Later?!?! Check Your Upgrade Eligibility.

Check your eligibility to see what your upgrade date will be. This will tell you if you want to stick with your current carrier, when you can upgrade for the lowest price. You can check with your carrier site or use the page at Apple to check when you can upgrade. Of course, you can always purchase the iPhone without an upgrade price, though it is a significant difference.

What About Waiting?

Hate to start the rumor mill early, but there will, most certainly be, a next iPhone. And it could come out anytime between 6 months and 18 months from now. It will also likely be a major upgrade and a new form factor. Probably true LTE 4G as well. There, I said it. Rumor mill restarted.

Should you wait? Depends on what kind of user you are. If you are a tech geek, we both know you aren’t going to wait. If you are happy with sticking with a phone for a couple of years maybe you will wait for the next one.

But the iPhone 4S is a great phone. If you have an iPhone 3G or non-iPhone, this is the best time to get one. The jump from an iPhone 3G to an 4S will be huge. You won’t believe what you are missing.

Trade-In Your Old iPhone

One other way you can save money, if you decide to go for the iPhone 4S is to trade in your old phone. There are a variety of services that do this, and most likely your new provider has partnered with one or two. So far the best deals we’ve seen are trade-in at Amazon, for an Amazon gift card. They are offering up to $360 for an 32GB AT&T iPhone 4.

Other services include EBay Instant Sale, Cell Plan Depot, Cell Swapper, and Cell Trade USA. Note that we haven’t tried any of these nor can we comment how good they are.

Our Recommendations

If you are unhappy with your current carrier and get the latest iPhone every time it’s released: Now is probably the best time to change horses. Early termination fees (ETFs) generally go down based on the number of months you are into you contract. With this iPhone coming later than normal, you will save a few bucks on your ETF. Pick the carrier you prefer and jump ship now.

If you want to stick with your carrier and aren’t eligible for the early upgrade: Well then you’ll likely end up paying more. $250 or so more. Check your options. On AT&T, many users are reporting that it will be cheaper to cancel their contract and get a new one than it will be to pay the upgrade fee. The ETF and your eligibility for a cheap upgrade are based on a lot of things, so you need to check with your carrier to see what the details are for you. Check your upgrade eligibility date as well. You might need to wait a few weeks, but that might save you hundreds of dollars as well.

If you are happy with skipping the iPhone 4S: Then by all means do so. Stay with your current carrier and you will, most likely, be out of contract by the time the next iPhone is released. You will then be at the best position to look for a new contract as you won’t suffer any early terminations fees.

Don’t have an iPhone, but want to get one now: It really comes down to this. If you live in a large city, you are probably best with Verizon. If you live outside a city, AT&T will probably save you a few bucks. But you should also check the coverage maps listed above to check who has the best coverage in your area.

So, Are You Going to Get the iPhone 4S?

We’d love to hear from you. Let us know if you are going to get the iPhone 4S and on what carrier. Or are you one of those strong will people and going to wait for the next iPhone?

Posted in: Blog, Hardware