Hands-On with the T-Mobile Test Drive and iPhone

I’ve been a loyal AT&T customer since the very first iPhone came out in 2007. And by “loyal,” I of course mean “too lazy to switch to a different provider, despite not really liking AT&T.” I’ve long been looking for a way to see how other cellular services stack up, so trying out the T-Mobile Test Drive (which TMO’s own Jeff Gamet described recently) was a no-brainer for me.

Getting a T-Mobile iPhone 5s shipped to my house was darned easy using their online signup process, and I had the device in my hot little hands just two days afterward. They do put a hold on your credit card for $700 (plus tax) while you have the iPhone, so be aware that you’ll see that pending charge appear.

Anyway, here’s the equipment that came in the box:

As you can see, this is standard stuff. The only notable thing is that the iPhone didn’t come in an Apple box—it was stuck under some plastic wrap in the cardboard insert. The device itself looked completely new, but it was funny to find that the New York–area number assigned to my phone already had a spam telemarketer voicemail waiting for me! Well, I thought it was funny.

All pretty good so far, but here’s the downside: After I walked through setting up the phone, I immediately noticed that I was getting between no service at all and one bar of 4G in my house, despite T-Mobile’s coverage map insisting that I live in an area with good signal.

When I turned off Wi-Fi, loading webpages was impossible, and this happened on pretty much every call I tried:

Sad trombone.

After driving around for a bit, I did notice that the speed of T-Mobile’s network seems very comparable to AT&T’s in my area, so when the coverage was good, everything clicked along just fine. The fact that the service won’t work in my house is a deal-breaker, but naturally, your mileage may vary. I do note that T-Mobile offers free signal boosters for customers who meet their qualifications, so if your coverage is poor, that’s one route to take. 

I’m certainly disappointed in what I found, but that’s the purpose of the Test Drive, right? It was well worth my time to check it out, and I think it would be worthwhile for a lot of folks. The process couldn’t have been much easier, that’s for sure.

Bottom Line: If you’re dissatisfied with your current provider and like T-Mobile’s plan offerings, the Test Drive is an excellent, free way to figure out whether their service will work for you. Just be sure to return the iPhone to a T-Mobile retail store within seven days, or you’ll get stuck with the entire cost of the device. Also be aware of the other caveats of the Test Drive, which include a potential $100 fee if you damage the device or leave Find My iPhone turned on. Read the fine print, my friends!