You can now get the Apple iPhone on O2, Orange and Vodafone, but with zero difference between the handsets in terms of performance or customisations (operators aren't even allowed to ship them with dedicated apps pre-installed) it's all down to the network and the performance it offers which will help you differentiate what's on offer. So which one is best? We got handsets from all three operators and took them out and about to find out.
It's hard to determine what the network speed or coverage is likely to be in your area without us actually coming to your house, work or usual hangouts and making a call or surfing the web in that spot. As we don't really fancy coming and sitting on your toilet (no offence) there are plenty of ways you can track and check how different operators work in your area. After all there is no point signing a deal with Vodafone to find that O2 will give you better coverage where you live.
The quickest way to find this out on your own is to visit the operator's website and punch in your postcode to check coverage.
That will tell you the operator's coverage story, however it's also worth getting a friend that already uses the network you are about to sign up to, to come around your house and see what the network coverage is like. It might cost you a dinner, but at least for the next 18-24 months you won't be whinging that there is a dead spot in your upstairs bathroom that gives you zero coverage.
If they already have an iPhone, even better, there are a host of network speed test apps that will allow you to monitor the connection, but more about that in a minute.
With the iPhone's hardware and price virtually identical across the three networks in the UK, it will be down to the add-ons and services that the three offer that might help swing you one way or the other.
Vodafone's iPhone comes with two apps which you will have to download manually from the App Store once you've activated the handset. People Sync will, says the blurb, "bring all of your contacts together in one easy to access connected address book that's always available on your iPhone, Mac and PC". All you have to do is connect your previous handset to the Vodafone 360 service and it will port them across to your iPhone's contact book (it's cross network by the way). The second app is Vodafone Navigation, a dedicated satnav offering that is free to download and free for the first month. Be warned, however, you will get a £5 bill a month thereafter. Both Vodafone apps will only work on the Vodafone network. Vodafone doesn't currently offer an account checking app. Like O2 you are able to use BT Openzone Wi-Fi hotspots for free.
Orange offers an account app called "Your Orange" that allows you to check the status of your account at the press of a button, and a dedicated Orange Wednesdays app to get the most out of the 2 for 1 cinema deal that the operator has been running for years. The Orange Wednesdays app lets you check the latest releases, popular films or merely scan through via an A to Z listing. It will also let you know where the nearest cinema is and of course let you get the "241" deal, as Orange puts it, directly to your phone, so you can show the box office when you get there.
O2, having been an iPhone carrier for nearly 3 years, surprisingly only has one app for you to download. My O2 is, like the Your Orange offering, a chance for you to keep in check with your account. Beyond that, O2 offers Wi-Fi connectivity with The Cloud and BT Openzone allowing you to access over 7500 hotspots around the UK as apart of your monthly fee. All that is required from you is to punch in your O2 phone number or login details, thereby enabling you to surf considerably faster when connected than over the 3G network.
Network coverage test
As we said at the beginning of this article, trying to evaluate the network coverage of the whole of the UK is rather hard without your help. That in mind, that didn't mean we couldn't see how London fared, so that's what we did.
In our mini network test we took an iPhone 3GS on O2, Vodafone and Orange to five different locations in London.
Fenchurch St Station, Liverpool St Station, King's Cross, Marylebone Station, and Apple store Regent Street
.At each location (the four stations on the Monopoly board if you were wondering) we did a number of tests. First we loaded the Pocket-lint homepage in the browser. Then we made a call, and finally we ran a network speed test via a free app available from the App Store called Speed Check three times at each location. Speed Check lets you test the current download rate for the UTMS network, DSL operator or WLAN router. There are others available on the market, however Speed Check is simple, easy to use and gave us the data we needed - in this case download rate and upload rate.
For those not savvy with networks, the download rate is how fast you are able to download data while the upload rate is how fast you can request pages, upload messages to Twitter or send an email.
The results varied massively between networks with Vodafone performing amazingly at King's Cross for example but shockingly bad at Fenchurch street station. It's worth pointing out as well that the tests merely test the speed of the network at that time (in this case in the morning while people were at work) rather than whether or not they can cope with demand with lots of people calling home. The idea is, that we were trying to replicate what most commuters do: phone to say they are on their way home, download a YouTube video while waiting for the next train or pull up Google Maps to see where they've got to go next.
Best download speed was O2, while best upload speed was achieved by Orange.
Best download and upload was O2
Best download speeds were Vodafone, while best upload speed was Orange
Best download speeds were achieved by O2, while best upload speed was achieved by Vodafone.
Apple Store Regent Street
Best upload and download speeds were Vodafone.
Based on the Speed Check data we gathered the best network in the London area for downloading content to your handset was O2 with three wins out of the five we did. It proved consistently strong in our tests. The results surprised us considering the recent spat of network problems the operator has had.
Best for uploading data was Vodafone followed by Orange. While both won two tests apiece, Vodafone's scores where higher across the board.
Worst for download speed across all five tests was Orange winning none of the tests against O2 and Vodafone.
So to a winner.
Based on the overall consistency of performance on our tests it has to be O2. Followed by Vodafone followed by Orange. It the five tests we did with Speed Check it has the best numbers overall in both upload and download speed, which also proved true in our real life tests of downloading the Pocket-lint homepage, accessing Google maps, streaming a YouTube video and making a phone call. Combine that with the BT Openzone and The Cloud connectivity options around the city and it's a tough one to beat.
Now we turn it over to you. What's your connection speed like? Do you have good coverage in your area? We would love to know...