Should you switch cellphone carriers? «

    Should you switch cellphone carriers?

    T-Mobile chief executive John Legere was romping around the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, profanely berating bigger competitors AT&T /quotes/zigman/398198/delayed/quotes/nls/t T -0.77% , Verizon /quotes/zigman/262341/delayed/quotes/nls/vz VZ -0.37% and Sprint /quotes/zigman/18855261/delayed/quotes/nls/s S -0.66% , crashing parties and getting boatloads of media attention while offering up bigger and better bait to get consumers to switch to T-Mobile.

    His latest carrot: As much as $650 in credits to consumers who’ll swap their wireless contract with AT&T, Verizon or Sprint for a no-contract pact with T-Mobile — what the T-Mobile CEO likes to call getting “Legered.”

    That comes less than a week after AT&T offered $450 to T-Mobile subscribers to switch.

    Also see: Read this before you take $450 from AT&T

    “These two are now at war,” says Jeff Kagan, a veteran technology industry analyst. The offers come after the two companies tweaked their programs last summer to allow customers to upgrade their phones before the customary two-year contract period ended without paying the full price for the phone.

    But what’s all this fracas about, and should you consider these latest lures? The short answer is yes, if what you value most is price and mobility. If you care about broadband speed and reach, you may want to rethink that.

    One reason you are likely to find a cheaper plan at T-Mobile is because it doesn’t have the reach and depth of AT&T, Verizon or even Sprint. AT&T and Verizon account for a whopping 70% of the wireless market and are neck-and-neck in the No. 1 and No. 2 spots for subscribers, partly because they have the broadest and fastest coverage.

    With smaller wireless providers, you could potentially find calls dropping or not even connecting in certain areas of the country. Of course, that happens with other carriers too — AT&T subscribers have long complained of calls being dropped in their homes and offices, even in the largest cities. (To see how coverage in your area compares among the carriers, don’t just rely on the carriers’ own maps. Check out coverage maps at crowdsourcing sites like rootmetrics.com or opensignal.com.)

    Still, if you live in a major metropolitan area like Chicago, New York or Los Angeles, you’re probably going to get decent coverage with any one of the top four carriers, with potential spottiness in nearby suburbs, lake areas and mountains.

    If what matters to you isn’t just domestic mobile coverage but things like roaming and international calls and having the ability to download large emails and even movies, then you’ll want to carefully consider your choices. In that case, for instance, a $45 monthly AT&T value plan from Wal-Mart /quotes/zigman/245476/delayed/quotes/nls/wmt WMT -0.74% with unlimited minutes and unlimited text but only 1GB of data won’t work for you. (T-Mobile eliminated roaming fees abroad last year.)

    But if you find yourself always complaining about the two-year contract hold that wireless carriers have on you, you will want to look at T-Mobile’s as well as AT&T’s offerings. Calling itself the “uncarrier” for the past year, T-Mobile has touted its leave-us-if-you-want-to approach to wireless that many consider a long-overdue change in the industry. Now it’s helping get you off the hook of contract obligations with its competitors by covering your early termination fees.

    “These are changes the industry has been wrestling with and talking about the last two years,” Kagan says. “T-Mobile is not driving this change but raising the profile of the issue so that customers now understand it.”

    Here are the changes Kagan is referring to:

    T-Mobile’s switching plan — If you have a contract with AT&T, Verizon or Sprint, you can trade in your working phones or tablets at any participating Mobile stores, switch your number over and receive a credit based on the value of your device. Obviously, the newer and more advanced the device, the more credit you will receive, up to $300 that can be used toward a new device purchased at T-Mobile.

    But first you must qualify. You have to switch from a post-paid plan — a pay-as-you-go plan — to a qualifying Simple Choice plan. You are not able to sign up for a T-Mobile prepaid plan or a Simple Choice Family Plan without a credit check.