The iPhone landscape has changed somewhat over the last few days. Finally now we have a choice other than SoftBank if we want to own an iPhone. For some of us the fact that we needed at least 24 months remaning on our visa to sign up for their 2 year contract was the killer. For others it was the rumors of poor network coverage or just the desire to wait until the spec was a little closer to the Android phones. If you haven’t got an iPhone yet, it is easier now. But which provider is the best deal? Softbank or au by KDDI?
The short answer boils down to two key factors. If your decision is purely driven by money, the answer is Softbank. But, if you are a heavy user or you just hate waiting for web pages to pop up then I hate to say it but you should probably be going with au. Below I’ll walk you through some of the other differences and throw in another option to include, and help you come to your own verdict.
The price issue is simple. With au, it costs you an extra 500 yen each month on your “all you can chew data” set. Depending on a the model you choose it might also cost you more to purchase the iPhone itself through au. If you are transferring to au from another carrier and satisfied with the most basic iPhone (16GB) you will end up with a “free” phone at the end of a 24 month contract. If, on the other hand, you are an existing au customer and you want the high-end model (64GB) then you will be up for an extra 8,500 yen to purchase the iPhone itself even at the end of your 24 months.
There are a few other hidden costs that go both ways. au only gives you free SMS with other au subscribers (for Softbank they are all included for “free” in the data package). au has a wider variety of voice plans with discounts for people which are worth looking into for people who use their iPhone as a “phone”, too. Softbank’s standard rate per minute to non-softbank phones in 42 yen. au’s is the same but you can get it down to about one third of this if you wanted to (20 minutes per month is the rough cut off line for considering other packs). Both companies now offer free calls between 1AM-9PM to owners of other phones in the same network.
But what about the speed? If you listen to Son-san at Softbank he’ll point out that the theoretical maximum speed at Softbank is 14 M/bs (upload) and only 3 M/bs at au. It sounds like a no brainer to choose SoftBank. The problem is that SoftBank just doesn’t have the network quality to achieve those speeds with the density of users they have online. While it’s official “population coverage” is only 1% behind that of au, the reality is that the number of antenna covering each area is much lower than au (and DoCoMo for that matter). If you are lucky then you will sometimes get a very fast connection speed but the reality is that as soon as other people in the same vicinity are using the SoftBank network at once, the speeds drop dramatically. Think Shibuya or Namba. And for that matter, think remote Okinawa.
But the speed issue doesn’t end here. The real killer for SoftBank here is the latency difference. Have you been frustrated about how long it takes for a simple webpage to be displayed on your screen (PC or keitai!). Well that is latency, the time it takes your server to connect you to the pipe. The longer the latency is, the longer you have to wait until your key press is even registered by the internets. Softbank’s latency is much, much worse than au. If you think you are wasting your life away waiting for web pages to be displayed then you are destined to sign up with au. Here is a great youtube video showing what latency is and how stark the difference is between the two companies:
[youtube width=”640″ height=”480″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E5FwJD2z3mg[/youtube]
For those of you who can read Japanese, here is a link to a guy who has done tests for both speed and latency in three different locations.
|Keio Line Train
If you doubt the statistical relevance then take a look at this guy’s chart in the middle of his page with 10 readings taken in the same location.
There is one other key factor that is swaying my decision and it has nothing to do with speed or cost. It is network type. If you go home regularly or do a lot of travelling then you might not be that keen on paying the exhorbatant prices that either company charge you when you are roaming. (Both have similar roaming abilities geographically speaking and max out at 3,000 JPY per day if you remember to sign up for their unlimited data O/S plan). That said you are unlikely to want to stop using your iPhone just because you are out of Japan. Stopping short of restricting yourself to the Wifi in your hotel room, you will want a local SIM card. If you have a Japanese purchased iPhone then you will have to jailbreak your iPhone first. This enables to download a bunch of other interesting apps but every time you upgrade your OS your phone is reset to it’s pre-jailbroken set up. The fun doesn’t stop there. Remember that if you buy an au phone that it operates on the CDMA network. It is a different model (physically) compared to the SoftBank one which is designed for GSM. GSM is the most popular in the western world. That means more choice of networks to use when overseas. Worse yet, some countries don’t even have a CDMA network (eg. Australia closed their CDMA network in 2008 and New Zealand is closing it in 2012).
If you don’t want to deal with the issues surrounding jailbreaking then your other option is to buy a SIM-unlocked iPhone direct from Apple. While you don’t get the monthly cash backs (2,000 JPY or so) from the local carriers, you don’t have to worry about signing up for a 2 year contract (or convincing softbank that your visa will be renewed and you really can take on a 2 year contract). The best way of using a SIM unlocked phone in Japan is with bmobile. For 4,800 yen a month you can get 1 GB of data and 20 minutes of free voice. (1,000-1,500 less than softbank/au). Oh and better yet because bmobile is a MVNO on the DoCoMo network you get the best quality coverage in the country. Here is their link.
Your first thought might be “Is 1 GB going to be enough?” A friend close to B Mobile tells me that very few people max out their 1 GB. If you are a really heavy user then you can actually buy a DoCoMo SIM and achieve the same thing for about 10,000 yen a month. Before you buy a SIM unlocked iPhone make sure you read the fine print on Apple’s homepage.
Given that you can already buy a SIM unlocked iPhone 4 on amazon.co.jp it won’t be long before you can buy the 4S, locally, too. Here is a rough guide to international iphone 4S prices if you have a friend in one of the countries that offer unlocked phones. I’ve included sales tax because if you happen to be travelling to that country you can probably claim back the sales tax at the airport when you leave Japan:
There are a few minor services that au don’t offer just yet (eg. iMessage and FaceTime) and you’re iPhone will only check for new mail once every 15 minutes. But these problems will apparently be solved by January of next year. SoftBank was like this with their first model of the iPhone. Another minor issue is that due to the CDMA network that au uses it is impossible to use both data and voice at the same time. That means that if you are in the middle of a download on your iPhone and you receive a call, it will automatically stop the download to take the call. On W-CDMA (the network that SoftBank uses) you are able to continue downloading the file while you are talking. Not the end of the earth but worth mentioning.
So which option do you think makes more sense? Have you got a 4S already? Can you notice the latency issues with Softbank? Tell us about it? While you’re at it, tell us how much data you use every month!