Before today, using an iPhone on T-Mobile's network meant a compromise on speed: unlocked handsets would get service, but only on EDGE. Thanks to spectrum refarming efforts that started last fall, the operator has been able to suddenly "turn on" 4G (the HSPA+ kind) for that grey market segment. But with Apple now bringing the iPhone 5 officially to T-Mobile's newly launched LTE lineup, the UnCarrier's subscriber base no longer has to trade down.
Being the last of the major US carriers to be granted access to the Cupertino cult, T-Mobile trotted out the device with a decent amount of fanfare. Well, at least as much as can be mustered for a six month-old device. And, what can we say, an iPhone is an iPhone. Aesthetically, it's the same handset that's already available from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and a handful of regional carriers. That means a large swath of fortified glass on the front and a sheet of lovely metal on the rear. When it launches on April 12th with a $99 down payment, it'll be able to hop on T-Mobile's burgeoning LTE network on the AWS band. But, should that not be active in your hometown, it'll fallback to big-magenta's AWS-powered HSPA+ 42Mbps network.
T-Mobile iPhone 5 hands-onSee all photos
The biggest change to the iPhone 5 for T-Mo is the addition of HD Voice capabilities. We were able to give the feature a quick try and the results were pretty clear and lacked the tinniness often associated with cellphone calls. That being said, in the noisy event hall it was a little tough to get a full taste of the experience and there was a slight echo on the receiving end. Of course, you'll need two devices with HD Voice to take advantage and that's still a pretty small selection of handsets on the market at the moment.
The iPhone did shine on T-Mobile's uncongested LTE network. We ran Speed Test on two separate devices and pulled down an average of about 20Mbps with peak speeds of 28Mbps. Upload speeds were a pretty consistent 8Mbps and ping times stayed under 40ms. By comparison, the Verizon version of the iPhone 5 we had on hand only pulled down about 4Mbps, upload speeds reached 3.5Mbps and ping times were consistently north of 60ms. Of course, T-Mobile can brag about all their unused bandwidth, but as more devices start hopping on its LTE highway, we'd expect to see some dip in throughput.
The speed advantages were really clear when attempting a FaceTime call. The Carly-endorsed model produced crisp and clear results when reaching out a rep stationed in Cupertino with only minimal artifacts or pixelization.
Otherwise, though, this is the same phone you've come to love (or, maybe hate). The screen is as beautiful as ever and the OS as quick as we've come to expect from a relatively unmolested iPhone. (Once you've spent a few months updating apps and loading up media though, all bets are off.) The only hint of branding besides Apple is the tiny T-Mobile in the top left-hand corner of the screen. And, honestly, we wouldn't have it any other way.
Joseph Volpe contributed to this report.