O2 review: Premium network can’t quite catch its rivals

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O2 is the more venerable mobile networks, having been around in one form or another since the mid-eighties. It’s also the UK’s second largest operator, with its network handling not just O2’s customers but those of its Telefonica stablemates, Giffgaff and Tesco Mobile.

Of the three, O2 is positioned as a premium service, going up against EE, Three and Vodafone. This means benefits like the Refresh program for annual phone upgrades, along with perks such as a Priority offers program and VIP treatment at O2 venues. What’s more, O2 is investing heavily in its network, preparing to start rolling out 5G services later this year. So, how does O2 compare with the competition?

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O2 review: What do you get?

O2 sells contract and Pay As You Go (PAYG) handsets, not to mention SIM-only plans, but it does things a little differently. For a start, it has a range of Like New phones where you can buy a refurbished model of one of last year’s hottest handsets for a lower upfront price.

It also sells its phones with an unusual customisable plan where the bill is split between a two-year Device Plan for your phone and an Airtime Plan that covers data, calls and texts. You choose how much to pay upfront and the term of the Device Plan, allowing you to spread the cost over a number of months – up to 36 months – to make the contract more affordable or bring the term down to just three months. Your bill automatically lowers when you’ve paid off your Device Plan, and you can upgrade when you like, with the trade-in cost of the old phone helping to pay for the new.

As a bonus, the Airtime Plans are also flexible, so you can move upwards or downwards once a month, every month to save a little cash or get more data when you need it.

O2 isn’t the cheapest place to buy the latest handsets, and you’ll pay slightly more for an iPhone XR than you will on Three for the handset and equivalent plan over two years – and a whole lot more for a Samsung Galaxy S10, if current prices are anything to go by. On the plus side, you won’t end up paying the same price two-and-a-half years down the line because you haven’t got around to changing your contract.

There are some good deals on pay-monthly SIMs, with plans ranging from 1GB, unlimited minutes and unlimited texts for £11 a month (going up to 3GB for just £2 extra) to 50GB with unlimited calls and texts for £45. Calls and texts are also unlimited on all current plans, while you get free access to O2’s 15,000 UK Wi-Fi hotspots.

Monthly fee (1x SIM)

Data

Texts

Minutes

1GB

£11

1GB

Unlimited

1000

3GB

£13

3GB

Unlimited

1000

9GB

£16

5GB

Unlimited

Unlimited

18GB

£20

18GB

Unlimited

Unlimited

15GB

£23

15GB

Unlimited

Unlimited

25GB

£28

25GB

Unlimited

Unlimited

40GB

£25

40GB

Unlimited

Unlimited

50GB

£45

50GB

Unlimited

Unlimited

O2 review: Coverage and connection speeds

O2’s 4G coverage is now quite widespread, with 99% of the population able to get a signal while outdoors. However, RootMetrics’ latest coverage maps show that there are still some coastal and rural areas where using O2 would leave you with a 2G or 3G signal rather than 4G. And in some areas in the North and Scotland you may struggle to get any signal whatsoever.

What’s more, in the last RootMetrics test (conducted in the second half of 2018) O2 still lagged behind the rest of the big four network operators on data speeds and reliability. This isn’t a problem if you live in a large town or city, where you should still get high speeds. But if you want solid performance everywhere, EE, BT Mobile and Virgin Mobile are stronger. EE also offers faster maximum 4G speeds, hitting 60Mbits/sec in many areas and 90Mbits/sec in some urban spots, whereas O2 generally maxes out at 30Mbits/sec. The one region where O2 comes out on top is Northern Ireland, where its performance is more competitive.

O2 hasn’t taken this situation lying down and has invested in a new 2.3GHz band – and the future 3.4GHz band – to improve speeds now and when 4G+/LTE-A and 5G services roll out. O2 plans to run 5G services in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London this year, with services in other UK cities rolling out during 2020.

O2 review: Roaming

O2 has free roaming inside its Europe Zone, so you can use your normal minutes, texts and data just as you would if you were at home. What’s more, O2 doesn’t put any additional restrictions on data usage and allows you to use a data Bolt On if you go over your allowance, which should save you from any extortionate bills.

Outside Europe you can use the Travel Inclusive Zone Bolt On and use your allowances in a further 27 international destinations. Or you can opt for the Travel Inclusive Bolt On and get a daily allowance of 120 texts, 120 minutes and unlimited data (subject to a fair usage policy) for £5 a day. The zone includes Australia, New Zealand and the USA.

Three and Giffgaff often work out cheaper if you’re roaming outside the EU, however, and without the Travel Bolt On you could be looking at some serious damage to your bank balance. Charges in the US, Thailand or Kenya reach £2 per call minute, 50p per text and £7.20 per MB, though O2 caps its roaming charges at £43 while you’re outside the UK.

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O2 review: Other services and spending caps

Perhaps O2’s biggest selling point is its exclusive perks, including store offers for O2 customers, priority booking for O2-sponsored events and shows at O2 venues, not to mention VIP treatment when you go to an event at an O2 venue. These shouldn’t convince you to sign up for an O2 contract, but they’re definitely a nice extra if you do.

Like the other big UK mobile networks, O2 now supports spending caps, which you can set at anywhere between your included allowance and no more, to going £200 over. You need to contact O2 by phone or online live chat to add, remove or change a spending cap.

O2 review: Customer satisfaction

There’s good news for O2 on the customer satisfaction front. While several customer satisfaction surveys have it in a mid-table position, it’s won USwitch’s 2018 customer satisfaction award and had the third-lowest number of complaints per 100,000 customers of any network in Ofcom’s last report. Only EE and Tesco Mobile had fewer disgruntled subscribers.

O2 review: Verdict

O2’s a strong network with some premium features, and some of its mid-range deals are quite competitive in terms of how many Gbit/sec you get for the money.

All the same, it’s not as strong for family features as BT Mobile or Tesco Mobile, nor as flexible and affordable as Three or Giffgaff. On performance and coverage, it still falls behind EE. The network’s heading in the right direction, and with the right package, O2 could still be worth going for. But right now it’s a little too expensive without giving back enough in terms of features, speed or value.

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