TECHNOLOGY DEATHMATCH: Vodafone vs Orange vs 3 vs T-Mobile vs O2

Mobile phones, Technology Deathmatch

With Mobile World Congress 2009 just around the corner, it’s very easy to get caught up in all the new, exciting and utterly misjudged handsets the manufacturers are set to unveil. But before you dive in to pick up your phone, I urge you to take your time deciding which network you choose to subscribe to. After all, what use is your iPhone 3G if there’s only GPRS coverage down your road?

So, today on Technology Deathmatch, I move from hardware to, well, non-hardware in the kind of sidestep to left you’d expect watching Knightmare, only this time we’ve a much better chance of actually getting somewhere. So, without any further ado, it’s Vodafone vs Orange vs 3 vs T-Mobile vs 02…


Pretty fundamental stuff here – who’s looking after everyone in the UK and who’s ignoring the Scots, is basically how it works. Now, some of the networks seem a little cagey in giving out the details of their precise UK coverage.

They all give you a street search whereby you can put in your post code and find out what the network is like in your back yard but actual maps featuring gaping white spaces are a little harder to come by. Hats off to 3 and Vodafone who seem fairly upfront about the matter. Orange can have some cred for having a map out there on the web but the less said about O2 and T-Mobile the better.

Fortunately, I did manage to find one site with all five on but it is about a year out of date, so I’ll have to fill you in on any updates since. I recommend bigging it up for a better idea.



It’s just as consistent as the others in the easy south and central areas of the British Isles but Orange coverage does look to peter out a little early, just beyond Leeds in fact. It looks fine in the North East of England, the Glasgow/Edinburgh belt and other major Scottish cities but I’d give them a miss if you live anywhere else up there, including Cumbria and the North West of England.


Now, when I was pushing contracts on the old and the infirm at a previous telesales job we were always told to say that Vodafone had the best coverage in the UK. I should add that we weren’t selling Vodafone deals, so there’s a good chance this is actually true and the blood spatter red of the graphic above would seem to support that claim too.

Very healthy over England, bit of a gap round the Borders, slightly disappointingly sparse in Wales but not a lot worse until you head towards the western islands of Scotland. Pretty good work.


Until 2007, 3 had a roaming agreement with 02 so that their customers could use the iPhone carrier’s 2G network when not on 3G. For reasons that look clear from the graphic, 3 has since switched that deal to Orange instead.

Now, it may have been about what these networks were charging 3 for the privilege – or I’d imagine they’d just go and ask Vodafone – but then, it may not.

So, currently, 3 is looking pretty good. Not quite as good a blanket as Vodafone but if you can make out the white gaps against the lighter green you’ll see that, although Scotland’s a little splotchy, the city and suburban areas look ok.


O2 is the surprise of this one for me. Wales and Scotland look very bare indeed with just the Glasgow/Edinburgh belt and the east coast up to Aberdeen showing any kind of coverage. There’s plenty of the usual holes in the north of England including an odd one just near Middlesbrough.

Now, I’m ready to receive a more accurate up to date map from O2 themselves but forums of complaint on the web lead me to believe that’s not going to happen.


Again, doesn’t exactly look like one to be proud of but then perhaps that’s not really an issue for the network who’ve got the pay-as-you-go market largely sewn up. If this map is still accurate a year on, and unless T-Mobile would like to say anything to the contrary, then I suggest all who live in Scotland, Wales, or basically the North give this lot a miss.

Even if you do happen to come from one of the cities up there that do appear to be covered, it does leave you rather stuck should wish to get out of town for a while.

Mobile Broadband Coverage

Now, voice coverage is one thing but, as we know, it’s all about data for the networks of this Tuesday and only more so for the one’s of Tuesdays beyond. As it stands, it’s 3 who has the best 3G network in the UK with their coverage indicted in the picture below…


…and their plan is to grow that across the country and make it all HSDPA by September next year, but you can have a look at for yourself over here.

Vodafone doesn’t do such a bad job either, not quite as well as 3 but then it’s not part of their name.


No official maps for the others but we hear from the 3 site that T-Mobile are in the game to a slightly lesser degree. We’ll just have to guess from the other two that they’re giving it a decent go.

But, of course, it’s not all about the coverage. Load on the bandwidth is also an issue and just because you’re in 7.2 Mbps area, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get it. Apparently, this is something 3 suffers from where Vodafone doesn’t seem to have too many problems according to a comparison of mobile broadband services in the UK, who named the red team from Newbury number one in the field.

If you’re shopping for a dongle then I suggest you check out the full reviews. The only advice I’d give in the data coverage stakes would be not to expect any 3G if you live in the country and have a good look at the map if you’re in a urban area outside the South.


Ok, we’re gadget monkeys. That’s why I’m here, that’s why you’re here and sometimes the phone we want is going to be exclusive to one network or another or just not available on the carrier of your choice. So, who’s got what?


3 has historically stocked a wealth of horribly ugly phones but among the dross they do have certain important handsets to keep the punters happy.

Top picks – Nokia N96, Nokia E71, Samsung Tocco, Sony Ericsson C905, LG Renoir

Omissions – LG Secret, Samsung Pixon, Samsung Omnia, BlackBerry, HTC, Nokia Tube

Exclusives – INQ1, Skypephone,

There’s plenty of youth friendly options but not much for the more business minded – save the very cult popular Nokia E71 – and nothing that sexy.


It’s a strong, if slightly gutless, selection from Orange. All the major food groups are clearly represented but with a couple of the big hitters missing and all too obvious by the lack of an exclusive flagship phone. It doesn’t exactly make you run out and sign up in with their lack of ambition in this area.

Top Picks – Nokia N96, Samsung Tocco, Sony Ericsson C905, LG Renoir, BB Bold, HTC Touch HD, Nokia Tube

Omissions – Samsung Omnia, Nokia E71, Samsung Pixon, SE Xperia X1

Exclusives – none worth mentioning


Strong line up, as you’d expect. They picked up one of the hot releases of last year as an exclusive, they’ve got just about all the top consumer phones minus one or two areas and they are rumoured to be the ones to get the Palm Pre. Big, ambitious and really only missing the pulling power of the iPhone 3G.

Top Picks – BB Storm, Samsung Tocco, Nokia Tube, N96, E71, Sony Ericsson C905, Sony Ericsson Xperia X1

Omissions – LG Secret, LG Renoir, HTC, Samsung Pixon

Exclusives – BB Storm, Samsung Emporio Armani, Palm Pre (?)


It’s easy to think that if it weren’t for the G1, T-Mobile wouldn’t have much to offer but that’s not really true. They’ve got an excellent range covering essentially all the important phones. It’d be good to see a little more than just the one major exclusive but then, what an exclusive!

Top Picks – BB Bold, Nokia N96, E71, Samsung Pixon, Tocco, Sony Ericsson C905, LG Renoir, rebadged HTCs, Nokia Tube

Omissions – LG Viewty

Exclusives – G1


It’s all about the iPhone 3G for O2 but that doesn’t mean they’ve ignored the rest of the manufacturers. Again, they’ve covered all the bases with just a couple of fan favourites left forgotten as well as the the competition from the Storm.

Top Picks – Samsung Pixon, Samsung Tocco, LG Renoir, BB Bold, rebadged HTC Touch HD, Sony Ericsson C905, Xperia X1, Nokia Tube

Omissions – Nokia E71, Samsung Omnia

Exclusives – iPhone 3G


The last stop on this tour of all things mobile service is about your pocket and how much each of them makes you empty it. There’s a billion and one deals and tariffs out there but it seems fairest to look at the SIM only packages, as far as pay monthly goes, simply because some of the providers have better deals with the handset manufacturers than others. It changes from make to make and model to model, but, on the whole, this is how it goes.


I’ve always associated Orange with very out of date, unreasonably expensive deals but it seems as if they’ve changed all that since last I considered the animal loving network.

Their cheapest offer gets you 200 minutes of talk time and unlimited texts for a VAT adjusted £14.68 and, for purposes of comparison, our notional £20, or £19.57 here, will get you 600 minutes and unlimited messages. An extra fiver a month will add on 500MB of data.

If you do happen to go over your limit, then it’ll cost you a heavy 35p to other UK networks, 12p to landlines and other Orange mobiles, 12p per text and £3 per MB.

They’re consistently expensive as far as roaming charges go with 100 minutes of outgoing calls from France at £38 and the same from the States at £110.


O2 started this whole SIM only business and they’re still holding true with some damn good Simplicity packages.

The cheapest is £9.79 for 150 mins and 300 texts and our £20, again £19.58 here, will bag you a healthy 600 mins, 1000 texts and an unlimited data bundle thrown in for free.

Call charges over the top are 25p per minute for just about all of it with 10p for each text too. It’s £3 per MB but who needs to worry about that with unlimited data at your side?

A 100 minute call from France will cost you a slightly cheaper £35 but you’ll get more fleeced than any other network in America to the tune of £137 if you talk for the same time over there. Interestingly, it would only be £99 of you were 02 PAYG. There’s the reward for loyalty for you.


Vodafone offers probably the best/cheapest deal so far with 100 minutes and 500 texts for the price of a tenner although heavy talkers/texters may disagree. For £20 you can get 600 mins and as many messages as you want to send but sadly data really lets them down with 500MB coming at £5

If you make calls outside your plan with Vodafone, you’re very safe indeed with any call priced at just 20p per min and texts just 10p. That’s pretty much the best so far and even the data will only cost you £1 for 15MB. Just a shame they’re too tight to offer any of it for free.

Vodafone rather rubs its hands together when you go on holiday. They’re not much more than all the others on the Continent with it costing a familiar £38 for 100 minutes from France but they rake it in if you go to the US with both PAYG and monthly subscribers forking out a staggering £127. I’m with Vodafone and I still haven’t plucked up the courage to open my bill since CES.

To their credit, they do offer a Vodafone Passport package whereby you pay 75p for the first minute and then the rest of the call comes off your inclusive minutes. Sadly, this involves telling them where you’re going first and making sure you change your handset to the correct affiliate network once abroad but, personally, I’ve had the system for over a year and I always forget.


T-Mobile doesn’t go crazy cheap with pay monthly deals but for £20 it’s pretty much the same excellent deal as with O2 – 600 minutes, unlimited texts plus 1GB of data. Good stuff.

The charges outside your plan aren’t pleasant at all with all calls costing 30p per minute but I wouldn’t worry too much about the data and text rates as they’re unlimited, or as good as anyway.

I haven’t focused on PAYG in this comparison – there are too many deals that change too often – but T-Mobile pride themselves on offering the best of them. Between them and 02, is probably the top-up choice.

Roaming charges are a curious one with T-Mobile. All pretty standard from the EU but thanks to deals with T-Mobile US, 100 minutes of outgoing calls will only be a credit crunching £55. Proper bargain that.


3 has suffered for a long time with termination charges but since Ofcom had a few chats the other day they’ve managed to bag themselves a special rate slightly below the others that might just help them get more competitive in the tariff department.

They’re not too keen on SIM only deals and it’s more a case of picking a tariff and then a phone that doesn’t make it any more expensive. I wouldn’t like to insult them by quoting what you can get for £20 – ok, I will: 200 mins and unlimited texts – but they do put together hundreds of deals you’ll see for short periods in the papers involving free games consoles and such.

At the time of writing you can get yourself 750 minutes and unlimited texts for £26.25 and they do also do the cheapest tariff at £9 for a humble 100 minutes/texts combo.

Outside your plan, it’s a very reasonable 10p/min to landlines, 25p to mobiles and 10p for a text. Data charges were slightly incomprehensible


It’s very hard to find a direct order of who’s better and who’s worst and if you could, then we probably wouldn’t find all five of these major UK service providers still in business.

It’s impossible to find any one of them with a clean record among their customers. Orange has the stigma of being inflexible and having terrible broadband and customer service, Vodafone of being aloof and out of touch and I read a real slagging of O2 from members of East and West Kilbride over coverage issues. But all circumspect aside, this is how I see it:

Fifth – Orange

I’m putting Orange in last place because they’re just too damn mediocre. They have reasonable coverage, reasonable price plans, reasonable handsets and no apparent ambition whatsoever. There’s just nothing to shout about and the last exciting thing of theirs I can think of is Orange Wednesdays. Time they pulled their socks up.

Fourth – 3

Despite my fondness for the company and my sympathy with their plight as the new boys, I’m going to have to put them in fourth place as far as January 2009 goes. To their credit, they show bags of ambition, good coverage and there’s no reason they can’t scale the ladder. They don’t quite have the price plans or handsets to pull it off yet but they do cover the the youth market well.

Second Equal – Vodafone & T-Mobile

It’s just about impossible to separate these two what with T-Mobile’s chronic coverage and Vodafone’s lack of vision on data plans. To their credit they’re both very ambitious one more so in terms of handsets and the other in value but they just can’t quite take the crown.

First Place – O2

If it weren’t for the coverage, I wouldn’t have bothered with the comparison at all. They were the first to offer SIM only value, they have excellent tariffs but sadly, it is the iPhone 3G that ends up pipping the others to the post.

Check their street finder coverage, if you’re thinking about them and don’t even bother taking your phone if you’re going abroad but otherwise you’ll be looking good with your phone in your hand and laughing all the way to the bank at the same time.

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Daniel Sung
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  • I really like Vodafone better then Orange. And i agree with Daniel that the monthly SIM tariffs that Vodafone and 02 do with the 30 day “contract” are a bloody revelation. If you’re happy with your handset, they’re the way to go.

  • Interesting article but I think I’d agree with Rab on this one!

    I’ve been with O2 for 5-6 years now and whilst they offer great customer service, great simplicity rates, unlimited data and the iPhone; they are let down by frequent ‘Emergency Calls Only’ coverage outages and poor data coverage. Also, I find that their handsets are more expensive to buy than the other operators and the monthly plans linked to the handset are also at higher rates.

    In fact, I talked to the O2 cancellations dept today after requesting a PAC and they couldn’t match the best Orange and Vodafone deals I could find (Hence why I sought out this article comparing networks..!).

  • Hi all I’m on Vodafone, I think their coverage it awesome but the handset selection is rubbish, so I was considering moving to O2 as handsets are my thing until I found out they have scrapped their 12 month contract and every one has to go 18 months, that’s naff.

  • I have to say your conclusions that O2 was the best network to be on was really surprising. Up until that last section your article read to me as if Vodafone was going to be up there as they seemed to be strong in every category.

    According to you
    – the coverage with O2 is one of the worst of all the operators
    – O2 don’t even get a mention in your section on mobile broadband
    – you name another operator as having the best/cheapest deal in the current market

    There is no argument that the iPhone is a truly great and industry changing device but at the end of the day do you really think that alone makes up for all the other weaknesses your article highlights?

    • I don’t think that’s quite what I said, Rab. Yes, absolutely, T-Mobile and O2 have the worst coverage; shockingly bad. But O2 has the best and cheapest pay monthly deals. Vodafone can’t or doesn’t compete with that. It’s a huge factor.

      I only really looked at mobile broadband in terms of coverage because I wouldn’t be comfortable comparing the BB service from the five providers without having tested all their dongles out first. It’s something I’d be happy to do and I’ll try to arrange if you’d like to see a more in depth comparison.

      So, really it’s only the coverage and the roaming charges that let O2 down in a very bad way. Roaming charges I gave the least importance to because most consumers make 99% of their calls from the UK and, secondly, roaming charges are ludicrously expensive even if you’re with someone “cheap”. We expect that until better laws are passed on the subject.

      As for coverage, yes, it’s terrible. There were some interesting points in yesterday’s digital Britain report about how the Government is going to improve the situation but, sadly, I imagine for now that financially it’s not worth O2’s while – at least not until it becomes a matter of image.

      None of the networks were perfect but my advice to people, unless they wanted the BB Storm or such, would be to go with O2 as it stands. Check you’re in a good coverage area first. Make sure you’re not going to be travelling to bad coverage areas a lot but otherwise, go with them. That’s why I rated them top. Personally, I would spend more time enjoying my cheaper tariff and niftier handset. That was my choice but I understand they’re not everyone’s criteria.

      • I’m with 02. ‘Online Simplicity 20’. 600 Mins. 1000 Texts. Unlimited Data. £19.58pm.

        I can cancel the contract or change the phone I’m using it with whenever the flip I like.

        Writing this I’ve just discovered that I’m now getting screwed out of 200 extra texts for the money that they’ve since added to the tariff… so I’m now going to cancel and sign up again, because I can. 🙂

        • Yeah, the monthly SIM tariffs that Vodafone and 02 do with the 30 day “contract” are a bloody revelation. If you’re happy with your handset, they’re the way to go.

  • The reason T-Mobile and Orange have issues is that the GSM1800 bandwidth they use for 2G services is much lower power than O2 or Vodafone’s GSM900. More affected by buildings, smaller reach so holes are more common and interior issues more prevalent.

    Having been in the trade for over 10 years, anecdotally Vodafone is the best but with my business clients O2 and Vodafone are interchangeable in 98% of cases. Orange, Three and T-Mobile are virtual non starters.

  • I’m surprised there’s so much purple on the T-Mobile coverage map – I tend to find I lose signal whenever my phone ventures to such exotic destinations as “indoors” or “in my pocket”.

    I don’t wear lead trousers.

  • 3 and T-Mob share their 3G radio network, so same 3G coverage on both of these. This might push T-Mobile ahead of Voda.

    Full disclosure: I’m an O2 user 🙂


  • OK, are my eyes going funny or does the image of Ireland on Orange’s Network coverage map look like a wee dog with wings instead of legs? (Now was that 2 tablets or 4 I took earlier…)

  • Hey Dude, on 3 you can go on flat 12. You pay 12P per min for all calls and voice mails free, you just phone 333 and ask to be put on flat 12, it’s done straight away.

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