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T-Mobile may be America’s No. 4 major carrier, but it has some ardent fans out there. And it probably gained more today, now that it has unveiled its new handsets and “UNcarrier” plans.

T-Mobile-iPhone-5-002After years of waiting, the company is finally officially getting the iPhone. Come April 12, Tmo customers will be able to pick up the iPhone 5 for $99 down. (The 4S and 4 will also hit select markets.) But that’s not all. The carrier might be the last to get the Apple smartphone, but it’s the first to announce release plans for Samsung’s new flagship phone, the Samsung Galaxy S4, which will be available around May 1. These, of course, join the BlackBerry Z10 and HTC One.

In addition to these announcements, Tmo also went public about its new approach for the American cellular market: No more contracts. Customers pay for the phone outright, all at once or in installments. It’s a great marketing pitch, and it’s one way to distinguish itself from the other major carriers. But is it really all it’s cracked up to be? And are there any catches about the new devices?

Let’s take a look:

No WiFi Calling for iPhone 5 users: While this iPhone 5 will offer HD calling, it won’t have WiFi Calling. This is a handy feature that lets users receive and place calls with their U.S. phone number via WiFi, and it currently works on T-Mobile’s Android phones. Unfortunately, the iPhone won’t get any of this joy, at least not at launch, so take note if you’re a frequent traveler. If you can wait, however, there’s a possibility it may come later on. Playing coy, T-Mobile Chief Marketing Officer Michael Sievert said the company “loves its Wi-Fi Calling feature” and quietly smiled when asked if the feature will ever come to the Apple handset.

Tmo handsets are locked until they’re paid off: Waltz right in, buy your iPhone 5 or Samsung Galaxy S4 upfront, and T-Mobile will even unlock it for you. But if you’re on a payment plan, don’t expect any help breaking that open until it’s paid in full. (Once you do have an unlocked Tmo iPhone 5, however, it could be capable of running on both Tmo and AT&T’s LTE networks.)

T-Mobile-Samsung-Galaxy-S4-002The Galaxy S4 may or may not be priced the same as the iPhone 5: If you’re not an iPhone fan, you could go with the Galaxy S4 instead. The carrier hasn’t set a specific price for the handset yet, but some pundits think it could go for a similar price tag as the iPhone 5. However this latest Galaxy phone just got announced, meanwhile the iPhone 5 is in the middle of its product cycle, with a new version expected either this summer or fall. In other words, it could go either way, so don’t get too attached to the idea of a cheap S4 on Magenta just yet. 

T-Mobile is not always the cheapest choice: On the surface, T-mobile’s offer is an attractive proposition. Fifty bucks per month for unlimited minutes and texts, and 500 MB of data. Ten bucks buys an extra 2 GB of data, and another $10 puts you in unlimited data territory. Family plans go from $80 per month (for two lines) up to $210 per month (five lines, plus unlimited data). In all cases, customers get unlimited texts and mobile hotspot features included. So once you’ve paid off your phone — or if you start with a pre-paid device — it certainly looks pretty good. And even if you go with an installment phone payment plan, consider this: When you’re done paying for a device at any of the Big 3 carriers, your monthly fees don’t change. Not so with T-mobile. Your monthly payments go down immediately. 

But while you’re paying for the phone installments-plus-service, it may not be much better than the traditional carrier subsidized contract plans, depending on the options you choose. And at AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, the Early Termination Fee is capped at $350. With T-Mobile, you’re paying the phone off in full, whether you stay or leave. Sure, instead of sticking with the same device, you could trade it in and get “fair market credit.” But make no mistake — you’re still paying for it.

(What may take some of the sting out for iPhone customers is that it’s the price set by Apple, not some arbitrary carrier-set premium. In fact, it might even be better than that. See below.)

It’s possible to get an iPhone 5 cheaper at Tmo than Apple: Michael Sievert explains that if a user purchases a base model iPhone 5 at $99 down, and then kicks $20 toward the phone after the first month of service, that customer could pay the phone off at the amortized rate. That amounts to $579 for a $649 phone. Not bad — especially when you consider that it will be carrier unlockable at that point. 

Coverage is rapidly expanding, but it’s not everywhere yet: T-Mobile’s coverage isn’t exactly the most extensive, and even less so when you’re talking about 4G. To address this, the company is aggressively pushing out LTE — expanding to seven U.S. cities: Baltimore, Houston, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Jose, and Washington, D.C. — to reach 100 million U.S. users within a few months and 200 million by the end of the year. If you happen to live in a covered zone, this is exciting news. If you live in West Dinkyville, however, it may not mean anything to you. So check the coverage map. Check it hard.

Blow your data limit, and you’ll get throttled back to the stone age: There are no extra fees for blowing a data cap. So if you select one of the tiered data options to save money, you won’t have to worry about heavy fines or getting shut down for exceeding your bandwidth limit. That’s the good news. The bad is that your pipes will be intentionally clogged to an almost unusable point. If you’re too young to remember what dial-up speed was like, this is one way to experience the horror.

So there it is, some of the pros and cons surrounding the announcements. For more details, be sure to hit up this post for even more ins and outs of T-Mobile’s offerings. 

Are you considering a switch to Tmo with one of these devices? Or are you already a Tmo user? If so, tell us about your impressions of the carrier, its new plans or smartphone deals in the comments below. 

Image Source CNET