Look beyond the obvious. That’s one very clear conclusion from the results of our PCMag Readers’ Choice Award survey for mobile phones and carriers.
It’s easy to think that Apple and Samsung are the only companies making phones and that you have to choose AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon as your mobile carrier. In reality, you have lots of choices in both areas. Based on your feedback in our survey, you might be much better off bucking the mainstream.
Nearly three quarters of our survey respondents (73 percent) use an Apple or Samsung phone and an even larger percentage (81 percent) use one of the big four carriers. Dig inside the remaining percentages and you’ll find seven other phone brands and nine other carriers that received at least the requisite responses required to be included in our survey analysis.
In most cases, these phone and carrier alternatives compete by providing better value and service than their more well-known competitors. If you want the phone with the hottest new features, it’s probably going to come from Apple or Samsung, but often the top phones offer more than what we need and at a higher price. You can find many cheaper phones with large screens, good performance and long battery life. They might not have a dual aperture camera like the new Samsung Galaxy S9+ or face identification like the iPhone X and others, but their features will certainly be adequate for most users.
There are two types of alternative mobile providers. Some, like US Cellular, have their own networks that aren’t as built out as the largest carriers, but may be just fine where you live. The other type of carrier is an MVNO (short for Mobile Virtual Network Operator). These companies use other carriers’ networks, but set their own prices and provide their own service. Since the MVNOs use the large carriers’ networks, they can provide similar coverage, so you don’t have to worry about getting lost without a signal any more than if you went directly to the big-name host carrier. In the case of Google’s MVNO, Project Fi, you might actually be better off since it gives you access to multiple carriers’ networks.
This is not to say you shouldn’t also consider the largest players. Apple and Samsung make excellent phones that have won many PCMag Editors’ Choice Awards. And many of our respondents were perfectly happy with major carriers. But if you’re thinking about getting a new phone or you’re ready to switch carriers, go beyond the obvious and explore all your options.
The PCMag Readers’ Choice survey for smartphones and mobile carriers was in the field from February 16, 2018 through March 11, 2018. For more information on how the survey is conducted, read the survey methodology. Each person who completed the survey was entered into a drawing to win an Amazon.com gift card valued at $350.
You can win! Sign up for the Readers’ Choice Survey mailing list to receive invitations for future sweepstakes.
Mobile Operating Systems
When choosing a smartphone, it’s come down to a choice between phones running Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. There used to be others, but BlackBerry moved its devices to Android last year, and Microsoft conceded in late 2017 that there wasn’t enough app developer interest in Windows Phone. Android has consistently been our readers’ favorite in our survey and this year is no exception. Android wins the PCMag Readers’ Choice Award for the fifth straight year.
Android’s overall satisfaction rating improved from an 8.5 in 2017 to an 8.6 this year while iOS dropped from 8.4 to 8.3. (All satisfaction ratings are on a scale from 0 for extremely dissatisfied to 10 for extremely satisfied). We see greater separation between Android and iOS in the likelihood to recommend rating, a very important measure of customer satisfaction. Android improved from 8.9 to 9.0 this year while iOS declined from 8.5 to 8.4.
We also saw satisfaction with reliability diverge. Last year, our survey respondents gave iOS and Android identical ratings of 8.6 on this measure, but this year there was separation between the two with Android improving slightly (8.7) and iOS declining (8.5). Bugs seem to have become more commonplace in recent versions of iOS, prompting Apple to put more focus on iOS’ stability and performance in its next major release, iOS 12, according to several recent reports. Bugs aren’t unique to iOS, of course. Google regularly releases patches to Android.
Respondents did rate iOS higher than Android in satisfaction with setup, 8.9 to 8.8, but both are very good ratings. And note that the satisfaction with setup question is only asked of respondents whose phones are less than a year old.
Apple’s iOS also scored additional wins in satisfaction with messaging (9.0 to 8.7), the quality of apps (8.7 to 8.5), listening to music (8.7 to 8.5), taking photos (8.7 to 8.5), shooting videos (8.4 to 8.2), and payments (8.3 to 8.2). On the other hand, Android bested iOS at satisfaction with productivity activities such as managing contacts (8.4 to 8.3), managing calendars (8.4 to 8.2), and managing email (8.7 to 8.5). Android also rated better in satisfaction with availability of free apps (8.8 to 8.5) and maps and directions (also 8.8 to 8.5).
Many of these satisfaction differences aren’t huge and, in fact, there were several satisfaction measures on which the two platforms had identical measures including satisfaction with the availability of apps (both 8.9), web browsing (8.4), watching videos (8.5), gaming (7.8), reading ebooks (7.9) and use as a mobile hotspot (8.3).
While Microsoft has discontinued Windows Phone, we did get enough diehards responding to include it in our results. Windows Phone’s overall satisfaction rating of 8.4 fell right between Android and iOS and the platform had the highest ratings in productivity-related satisfaction measures. However, respondents acknowledge the flaw that spelled the platform’s doom: satisfaction with the availability of apps rated a dismal 5.4. Given that Microsoft is not moving forward with Windows Phone, we weren’t surprised that likelihood to recommend only managed a 6.8.
WINNERS: MOBILE OPERATING SYSTEMS
Available as the platform for nearly every non-Apple phone on the market, Android again earns the Readers’ Choice Award, as it’s done every year since 2014. Android users are more satisfied than their iOS counterparts with their platform’s reliability as well as many other key measures of smartphone use.
Once again, little OnePlus is playing David to Apple and Samsung’s Goliath in the smartphone market. In 2015, OnePlus received our Readers’ Choice Award for smartphones. In the following two years, the company didn’t have enough respondents to be included in our survey. This year, it’s back again and once more, bypasses Apple, Samsung, and six other smartphone brands to win the award.
OnePlus tends to only offer one phone at a time. The current model is the OnePlus 5T. It’s not a bleeding-edge phone; it’s a solid, affordable midrange unlocked Android phone. Whether respondents owned the 5T or one of its predecessors, they’re gaga about their handset.
OnePlus earned an overall satisfaction rating of 9.4 and a likelihood to recommend rating of 9.5, both very impressive marks. In fact, OnePlus’ only rating below 9.1 was an 8.7 for satisfaction with taking photos. (There were several measures for which OnePlus didn’t receive enough responses to be evaluated.)
If OnePlus doesn’t fit your needs, the next company on your list should be Google. Known more for its search engine than its smartphones, Google has been releasing solid phones for several years in the Nexus and Pixel lines. Last year, Google won our Readers’ Choice Award and while it didn’t repeat this year, its overall satisfaction rating of 8.8 and likelihood to recommend rating of 9.0 were second only to OnePlus, as was its satisfaction with reliability rating of 8.8. Samsung and Microsoft also received ratings of 8.8 on this measure.
Interestingly, satisfaction with reliability didn’t correlate with the percentage of phones needing repairs in the last 12 months. Fourteen percent of Google phones needed repair, the worst percentage in the survey. New Google phone users reported their initial experience with their phones to be a positive one: The company had the highest rating for satisfaction with setup at 9.1.
Samsung, with its variety of Galaxy and Note models, had the third highest overall satisfaction rating, 8.6, up from 8.3 and tied with Microsoft (which has stopped making phones). Samsung saw a nice uptick, perhaps a sign that customers are starting to forgive the company for the Note 7’s fiery debacle. All of the company’s key measures improved from last year. Satisfaction with reliability and satisfaction with setup both went up from 8.5 in 2017 to 8.8 this year and likelihood to recommend went from 8.6 to 8.9.
Respondents still aren’t happy with Samsung’s service, however. Satisfaction with technical support decreased from 7.1 to 6.9 and satisfaction with repairs went from 6.9 to 6.7.
Apple was right behind Samsung and Microsoft in overall satisfaction at 8.5 and the company, along with Motorola, was second only to Google in satisfaction with setup at 8.9. However, respondents are still less likely to recommend iPhones (8.5) than they are Samsung, Google, or OnePlus.
Because of the popularity of Apple and Samsung’s phones, we asked respondents to identify the specific model of phone that they use. Looking at phones purchased in the last year, respondents seem to prefer phones with larger screens. The iPhone X, iPhone 8 Plus, and Samsung Galaxy Note 8 all had overall satisfaction ratings of 9.1, higher than any of the companies’ other models.
Before you make your next phone purchase, you owe it to yourself to check out OnePlus. The company’s phones may not have the most cutting-edge features, but they’re solid, affordable phones that, according to our survey respondents, do one thing better than any other phone brand – thrill their customers.
Phones by Carrier
There was a time when companies put out different phones for different carriers, but these days, for the most part, they’re offering the identical model on each network. Still, certain features, such as their modems, may not be as well-suited to one carrier as they are to another. Therefore, we also offer Readers’ Choice Awards to smartphones by specific carrier for every carrier for which at least two brands received enough responses.
Last year, Samsung phones running Android on the AT&T network scored only an 8.4 overall and came in third place—even behind the already discontinued Windows Phones. This year, Samsung went up a couple of notches to 8.6, and that was also enough to best Apple iPhones on the same network.
Consumer Cellular: Motorola and Apple
These two phone makers were the only ones to make the cut with Consumer Cellular last year as well. Then, it was easy to see Apple had bested Motorola. This year, the race is too close to call. They both earned 8.6 overall satisfaction scores, but the rest of the areas were completely neck and neck—for example, Apple had lower recommendation score (8.5 to 8.6) but yet it earned a higher Net Promoter Score (which is calculated with the same survey question). We proclaim them both worthy.
Apple and Samsung are the only two that make the cut with Sprint year after year, and they like to switch places. Last year it was Apple in the lead by a tenth of a point for the win. This year, Samsung jumped up from an 8.3 to an 8.7, which was also just enough to stay ahead of the iPhone’s overall 8.6.
Last year, this category at T-Mobile belonged only to Google phones; this year not enough Google phones from T-Mobile users were in our survey. Apple, last year’s No. 2 with an 8.8, managed the same score and takes home the gold for 2018.
Verizon Wireless: Google
Finally, some consistency! Google phones on Verizon won last year with an 9.0, and this year went down a 10th to 8.9—still a great score, and more than enough to outshine the competition, most of which used Android as well (Apple got an 8.4, down from last year’s 8.6).
There are four names in mobile carriers with whom nearly everyone in the US is familiar: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. But there are in fact dozens of mobile carriers available. Only about one in five of our survey respondents has chosen to explore their options beyond the big four, but nearly all of them have been rewarded with a much higher level of carrier satisfaction. This isn’t news. It’s been five years since a major carrier won a PCMag Readers’ Choice Award, and that carrier wasn’t actually one of the big four. It was No. 5: US Cellular.
Since 2014, the Readers’ Choice Award winners and all the other top performers have been MVNOs, which resell the major carriers’ services. Our survey respondents feel they offer better service and pricing than the companies on whose networks they run. Tops among the MVNOs this year are our Readers’ Choice Award winners, Consumer Cellular and Google’s Project Fi. This is Consumer Cellular’s fifth straight win and Project Fi’s third.
The two companies take diverse approaches to their offerings. Consumer Cellular has always focused on older Americans, offering competitive pricing and AARP member discounts. The company lets customers choose between having a phone run on AT&T’s network or having it run on T-Mobile.
Project Fi differentiates itself by allowing phones to use three different networks: Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular. Project Fi phones automatically switch between networks on-the-fly to give you the best of all three carriers and improve your overall coverage. Also, Project Fi users pay the same amount for data whether they use it domestically or internationally.
The two carriers are the only ones with overall satisfaction and likelihood to recommend ratings over 9.0. Consumer Cellular’s overall satisfaction rating was 9.2 this year, up from 8.9 last year, while Project Fi received a 9.1, down slightly from last year’s 9.2. On likelihood to recommend, Consumer Cellular earned a 9.4 and Google a 9.2.
Consumer Cellular received the highest ratings in our survey in a few other measures including minimizing dropped calls (9.2), reliability of data network (9.1), speed of data network (9.0) and coverage outside the respondent’s home area (9.0). It’s interesting to note that these ratings are better than those of their host providers, AT&T and T-Mobile. This could be because Consumer Cellular chooses the optimal network for each customer or it could simply be that customers have different perceptions of similar service.
Project Fi received the highest satisfaction rating for fees paid, a 9.4. Consumer Cellular (9.2) and Cricket (9.0) also had ratings of 9.0 or better. By contrast, Verizon Wireless had a rating of just 5.6 for satisfaction with fees and AT&T was barely better at 6.1, dismal scores in comparison to the smaller MVNOs.
Project Fi also topped the charts in satisfaction with coverage in the respondent’s home area (9.1), tied with US Cellular, a Project Fi partner, and just ahead of Straight Talk Wireless (9.0). Project Fi’s main flaw is evidenced in its rating for satisfaction with choice of phones, at 6.9. Only a few phones, primarily Google Pixel models but also one Motorola, support the Project Fi SIM card. If you want to use an iPhone on Project Fi, you’re out of luck.
For the past several years, the largest carriers have been among the lowest-rated service providers in our survey, so we were encouraged to see T-Mobile inching up the charts. This year, T-Mobile earned a rating of 8.4 for overall satisfaction, up from last year’s 8.1. The rating was tied with Cricket and behind only our two Readers’ Choice Award winners and Straight Talk Wireless. As you can see from the chart below, T-Mobile is the only major carrier that has shown marked improvement in PCMag reader satisfaction over the last five years.
WINNERS: MOBILE CARRIERS
This year marks the fifth straight year that Consumer Cellular has won the Readers’ Choice Award. While the company targets its advertising towards seniors, anyone can take advantage of Consumer Cellular’s competitively priced service.
Google Project Fi
Project Fi’s unique approach of taking advantage of multiple carriers’ networks continues to resonate with its customers, allowing it to deliver excellent coverage and speed at competitive prices. If you enjoy using Android phones, you should definitely give Project Fi a close look.