MetroPCS, is an American regional wireless carrier offering talk, text and Internet at 4G speeds without an annual contract. Last week?s announcement of T-mobile and MetroPCS combining made us wonder whether their network has improved since last year?s review.

MetroPCS provided BSN with one of their Samsung Galaxy Attain 4G LTE contract-free smartphones for this review. This unit is representative of what the majority of MetroPCS users have for 4G LTE handsets.

Last year we reviewed their Samsung Craft 4G LTE phone.

MetroPCS $40 per month 4G LTE plan covers the first 250MB of data, then additional charges apply as you download more. There are $40 – $50 – $55 – $60 – $70 per month 4G LTE plans. Their 4G LTE plans have an impressive list of features, including a $5 monthly add-on for unlimited calling and texting to over 200 destinations in Mexico. At $70 per month you have unlimited talk, text and data. That unlimited data is at what they claim is ?blazing-fast? 4G LTE speeds plus Video On Demand PLUS Rhapsody Unlimited Music.

The MetroPCS 4G LTE coverage map has expanded since we visited them last year , when coverage was limited to Sacramento County only. As you see in their Northern California map, they have really expanded their coverage ? from Modesto up to nearly Redding, California. Later we will show you speed tests from more rural parts of the coverage map.

Northern California Coverage for MetroPCS
Northern California Coverage for MetroPCS

They now have 4G LTE coverage in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Detroit, most of North ? Central ? South Florida, Las Vegas, Los Angeles north to Bakersfield, San Diego, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco ? Sacramento Valley.

The Galaxy Attain has Google?s Android Gingerbread (Ver 2.3). Many reviewers were put off because MetroPCS LTE phones are not using Android?s latest Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS – Ver 4.0x). However, the Android Developers site shows over 55 percent of all shipping Android devices are still running Gingerbread. Google claims about 23 percent of the devices have ICS and less than 2 percent with the latest Jelly Bean (Ver 4.1x) are installed on shipping products, so MetroPCS LTE phones aren?t as far behind as some reviewers imply.

Android versions shipping as of October 2012
Android versions shipping as of October 2012

The Samsung Galaxy Attain 4G has a Candybar form factor which measures 4.57-inches x 2.38-inches x 0.46-inches (116 mm height x 60 mm width x 12 mm thickness). The factory weight specification is 4.20 ounces (119 grams). However, on our ultra precise postal scale we measured it at 4.6 oz (130 g).

Samsung Galaxy Attain 4G has a 3.5-inch, 320-by-480-pixel QVGA, 165 pixels-per-inch (PPI) display. BSN found the display worked well except in bright outdoor sunlight. That is a problem with most mobile devices, except for the ruggedized military tablets like Orchard Inc Toughlet and InHand Hydra-T3 which use the Pixel Qi displays .

The Attain ships with two cameras: a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera and a 3-megapixel rear camera with LED flash. The front-facing low-resolution camera is pre-loaded with Google Talk to make video face-to-face chatting simple. The Attain has a real physical camera button, instead of on-screen icon to activate the cameras.

This phone uses a 1GHz single-core Samsung Hummingbird processor and 512MB of RAM. It didn?t seem to have problems with normal use. However, some games were very slow to open. Every once in a while the Attain seemed to stall out and required us to shut everything down. However, if it had one of the new Nvidia Tegra 3 multi-core CPUs and ran at 1.5GHz the out-right price of the phone would go closer to $500.

The Attain has a 1650 mAh battery, a microSD ? microSDHD slot with a capacity of up to 32GB. The claimed talk time is 3.5 hours, yet the best we saw was 3 hours and 5 minutes. Samsung claims stand-by time is 8.3 days (200 hours). However, with Gmail receive turned on we never made it past 20 hours. Even an old HP Palm Pre Plus with its 1150 mAh battery can do more than that for the same Gmail data configuration.

Battery stand by time ? Galaxy Attain vs Palm Pre Plus
Battery stand by time ? Galaxy Attain vs Palm Pre Plus
MetroPCS is offering the Samsung Galaxy Attain 4G LTE at $299. However, we have seen them offered in local MetroPCS stores for as low as $149 with special rebates offers.

4G LTE pricing
4G LTE pricing

With their $70 per month no-annual contract, you get unlimited talk, text, data, music, and video which is a real bargain compared to Verizon and AT&T. For an additional $10 there is MetroGlobal which offers unlimited International Calling to over 1,000 destinations worldwide.

Instead of building a robust 4G network with 20MHz-by-20MHz downlink-uplink spectrum, that can deliver 15+ Mbps download speeds claimed by other LTE operators, MetroPCS built a more modest LTE network, starting with downlink-uplink bandwidth of 5 MHz-by-5MHz spectrum. Just make sure MetroPCS?s regional 4G LTE coverage map fits your daily usage.

Tom Keys, chief of operations for MetroPCS said: ?We didn’t build this network or this device to be all things to all people. We did this is in a very methodical fashion. We didn’t try to get everything in the beginning.?

MetroPCS 4G uses AWS 1710 to 1755MHz spectrum
MetroPCS 4G uses AWS 1710 to 1755MHz spectrum

So how are the download speeds for the Samsung Galaxy Attain 4G LTE on MetroPCS 4G network in Sacramento Valley? Because the carrier’s network is in the AWS 1700 to 1750 MHz spectrum with 5 Mhz-by-5MHz bandwidth for downlink-uplink, they cannot compete with Verizon and AT&T’s fourth-generation LTE networks.

Verizon has MHz of nationwide contiguous spectrum bandwidth ? 10MHz-by-10MHz downlink-uplink. In some Metropolitan areas Verizon has 20MHz-by-20MHz downlink-uplink. Today, Verizon?s 4G LTE covers 75 percent of America?s population with 350 plus markets versus MetroPCS which has less than 25 markets.

MetroPCS? AWS 1700 MHz spectrum requires cell towers be placed closer together than the 700 MHz networks. Besides not going as far, 1700 MHz doesn’t penetrate buildings and normal things like trees and bushes, as Verizon’s and AT&T’s 700 MHz spectrum does.

If the combination of T-mobile and MetroPCS comes about, supposedly by 2015, their combined customers will be on a 20MHz-by-20MHz downlink-uplink LTE network.

Combined MetroPCS and T-mobile spectrum
Combined MetroPCS and T-mobile spectrum

Last year MetroPCS had just the one 4G LTE handset we tested. Now they offer eight 4G LTE handsets from five manufacturers priced from $79 to $349.

Now for the speed tests on today?s Sacramento Valley MetroPCS 4G LTE network with the Samsung Galaxy Attain. The simple way to show MetroPCS speeds are screen shots.

Ookla speed test at office: 0.45mbps download ? 1.53mbps upload - 153 milliseconds latency
Ookla speed test at office: 0.45mbps download ? 1.53mbps upload – 153 milliseconds latency

Most folks using 3G EVDO / HSDPA phones see an average of .8mbps downloads and .4mbps upload.

While on the road near Marysville, California which we doubt has a significant number of MetroPCS 4G LTE subscribers, our speeds improved.

Speed test near Marysville, CA
Speed test near Marysville, CA

BSN* Take

MetroPCS 4G LTE?s low monthly fees are something to consider if you want to get a phone for a family member who isn?t a gamer and most of the time just wants a phone for talking to people and who occasionally downloads data.

If you live in an area that offers MetroPCS 4G LTE and you remain in that are most of the time, then you should test their handsets and network. The safest way to do it is to purchase everything on a credit card. That way there will be no disputes if you find the MetroPCS approach doesn?t work for you. The biggest advantage they have is that no contract is required. So you are not locked into a two year agreement that will cost a lot of money to get out of.