- Review Date: 02/10/11
- Bottom line:
Our lab tests show that Verizon's iPhone 4 is just as good as the popular AT&T model, if not slightly better. If you've been lusting for an iPhone, but AT&T's network coverage doesn't work for you, the Verizon iPhone will be your savior. But if you didn't want an iPhone before, there's nothing new here to change your mind.
Beautiful ultra-high-res screen. Thousands of apps. Wi-Fi hotspot mode.
No 4G. Needs a bumper for best reception.
Most of the universe is already familiar with Apple's trend-setting smartphone. The new model from Verizon Wireless works just like AT&T's, except that's it's on Verizon's CDMA network. Yes, there are a few subtle differences—and I'll go into those in great detail in this review. But overall, if you've been lusting for an iPhone, but AT&T's network coverage doesn't work for you, the Verizon iPhone will be your savior. If you didn't want an iPhone before, there's nothing new to convince you here.
The best place to start is by reading our review of the iPhone 4 on AT&T ($199-$699, 4.5 stars), along with our review of the most recent iOS version, 4.2. In brief, though: this is a super-slick operating system with frequent updates and access to lots of apps. The phone includes a terrific integrated iPod for music and video. It's awesome for gaming, and great for Web browsing, as long as you can get by without Flash. The 5-megapixel camera is excellent, and it records HD video. And you can video chat with FaceTime. And like with the AT&T version, all existing iPhone apps work on the new device.
Physical Details, Call Quality, and Battery Life
I'll start with what's the same. Verizon's iPhone looks almost exactly like AT&T's iPhone 4: a slick black glass sandwich with the sharpest 3.5-inch display you've ever seen. The Mute switch on the left panel has been moved by about a millimeter, and there's no SIM card slot. The antenna is a little different: Both iPhone models have two strips on the right side. The AT&T model has one on the left, while the Verizon version has two on the left. Besides the Verizon name next to the signal-strength indicator on the top-left corner of the screen, those are all the changes you can see.
Under the hood, there are more differences, of course. Apple completely replaced the iPhone's GSM radio with an incompatible CDMA model, and had to fiddle with the antennas to make them work on Verizon's network. The Verizon iPhone suffers from a "death grip" just like the AT&T one does, although it's a little bit trickier. You have to grab the lower portion of the phone a bit tightly, covering both of the antenna gaps toward the bottom. Just like on the AT&T phone, the effect only shows up if you already have weak Verizon signal, which is why I didn't catch it in the first demos. I was able to get two bars of 3G to drop to one bar of 2G by gripping the phone. Adding a bumper, just like with the AT&T model, fixes the problem.
I'm worried that reception indicator is a bit optimistic in general, too. Tested side-by-side against a Motorola Droid 2 Global ($199.99-$559.99, 4 stars), the iPhone showed a similar ability to connect calls. But in an area where it couldn't connect calls, the iPhone still displayed one signal bar (where the Droid 2 Global displayed zero). This may create frustration if the bar indicator shows a signal where one isn't available.
Verizon's iPhone is a CDMA 850/1900, EVDO Rev. A device with 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi. That means it works on Verizon's cellular network here in the U.S. and roams in 40 countries, including Canada, Mexico, China, and India but in Europe, you're out of luck. It'll work on wireless networks where there's no CDMA signal, including making Wi-Fi calls using Skype.
Call audio is tuned just like the AT&T iPhone. With the same, consistent signal strength, the phones will sound very similar. That means it's loud and a bit trebly, without distorting at high volumes like the Droid 2 Global does. The speakerphone, just like on the AT&T iPhone, is clear enough and is a medium volume; I wouldn't use it outdoors. In my tests, the Verizon iPhone also worked well with a variety of Bluetooth headsets.
One of AT&T's iPhone selling points is that you can use the Internet and talk simultaneously, while this isn't possible with the Verizon model. I don't see the big deal. In my experience, people talk on the phone or surf the Web. It's true, though, that when you try to hit the Verizon iPhone's Web browser while you're in a call, it gives you an error message. If you're doing something like watching a YouTube video over 3G and a call comes in, your call pauses YouTube and the video resumes as soon as you hang up. If you're in a 2G Verizon area, surfing the Web and a call comes in, the call will go to voicemail.
For battery life, I was able to get 6 hours and 17 minutes of talk time and more than a day's worth of average usage, which is very good for a Verizon phone.
The Verizon iPhone 4 can be used as a wireless hotspot, which lets you connect other devices to the Web. (This feature is also coming to the AT&T iPhone in the near future.) If you want to use your Verizon iPhone as a hotspot, it'll cost you $20 per month; it's a good thing Verizon's data plans are, for now, unlimited.
You activate the hotspot mode in the Settings app, and you can tether the phone via USB, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth. USB lets you charge the phone from your laptop, but you can only hook up on device. With Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, you can connect up to five devices, including one Bluetooth device. Set up a password, and away you go.
In hotspot mode, the phone's status bar shows how many gadgets are connected. If you try to connect a sixth gadget, nobody gets kicked off; the sixth man just can't get an IP address. Tethering speeds remained consistent across the 45-foot length of our lab.
The Bluetooth option is intriguing, because it may use less battery life than Wi-Fi does. If you're using a Mac, connecting is very simple: turn Bluetooth on in the Finder, click "Set Up Bluetooth Device," and then pick your iPhone's name and "connect to network." Pow. You're online with less juice.
Bluetooth speeds were noticeably slower than Wi-Fi, though. I got an average of 763Kbps down when tethered via Bluetooth (with 115ms latency), and 1400Kbps down tethered via Wi-Fi in the same location (with 98ms latency).
The "no voice and data" monster does become a bit annoying when tethering. If you get a call in hotspot mode, you get the option to pick up the call. If you do, everyone who's connected to your hotspot stays connected to the local network, but they can't access the Internet; Web pages stall out. Internet connectivity comes back as soon as you hang up.
Speed Tests: Verizon vs. AT&T
The major difference here, of course, is the network. AT&T's network is faster but less reliable than Verizon's, according to our 18-city tests. AT&T's problems are magnified by the fact that many journalists live in the New York and San Francisco metro areas, where AT&T's network has notorious troubles.
We tested an AT&T iPhone, a Verizon iPhone, and a Verizon Droid 2 Global in our New York City labs by making a series of 10-minute calls. None of the phones dropped a call. But when editor-in-chief Lance Ulanoff used AT&T and Verizon iPhones side by side in Bellmore, NY, the Verizon iPhone was able to make calls but the AT&T iPhone wasn't. It's clear: network coverage is a very personal issue.
Lab testing using the Ookla Speedtest.net app showed how frustrating many New Yorkers find the AT&T network. AT&T's network is faster once you get a connection, but it can take so long to make that connection that the network feels slower overall. Our downloads averaged 2.4Mbps on the AT&T iPhone, versus 1.24Mbps on the Verizon iPhone. But in four out of our ten tests, we saw two seconds of latency on the AT&T network—that's the time to establish the connection, and it's about ten times as long as it should be. That latency is what makes you throw up your hands and say, "this Web page just isn't loading!"
Also, Verizon's speeds were also much more consistent than AT&T's. Verizon downloads ranges from 590Kbps to 1,830Kbps. AT&T's ranged from 1,170Kbps to 5,280Kbps. Yes, that's a much higher peak speed on AT&T, but there's more of a sense that you don't know what speed to expect.
AT&T's unreliability played out in our Web page download testing too. For two out of our three tests, AT&T's iPhone was slightly faster than Verizon's, as you'd expect on a faster network. But on the third test, CNN.com took 50 percent longer to load on AT&T than on Verizon.
The Droid 2 Global, by the way, achieved slightly slower speed test results but loaded the Web pages much faster than the iPhones did, using the Dolphin HD Web browser.
A Note About Coverage
Many of the early reviews I read of the Verizon iPhone try to make some sort of conclusion about which phone is better for making calls. The author typically goes to a variety of locations and tries to make calls, and says, oh, Verizon is better.
This isn't helpful. Comparing phones on the same carrier side by side is a way to compare their reception quality. Comparing phones on different carriers just gives you an anecdotal snapshot of the two carriers' coverage in a specific location that is useless to anyone who doesn't go to those same locations.
What matters, if you live in Des Moines, Iowa, is who's better in Des Moines, Iowa—not which carrier works better on the Long Island Railroad or the BART train. For true assessments of whether Verizon or AT&T is stronger in your area, you can turn to a few different sources: Root Metrics provides an independent coverage map comparing wireless carrier coverage. Consumer Reports breaks down wireless carrier coverage by city; and JD Power and Associates assesses call quality by region. Our own Fastest Mobile Networks feature didn't test phone calls, but we checked the ability to hold data connections in 18 different U.S. cities. That said, JD Power and Consumer Reports agree that Verizon has better voice coverage in many parts of the US.
If you're an existing AT&T or Verizon user, you know how well the network works for you. If your network doesn't work well, switch. If it does work well, don't try to fix what isn't broken.
Service Plans and Conclusions
Both Verizon and AT&T make the iPhone available on standard smartphone service plans. AT&T's plans are less expensive for light data users, while Verizon's make more sense for heavy users. Both carriers have three tiers of voice plans: 450 minutes for $39.99, 900 minutes for $59.99, or unlimited voice for $69.99. For data, AT&T gives you 200MB for $15, 2GB for $25 or 4GB plus tethering for $45. Verizon gives you unlimited data for $30 and hotspot usage for an extra $20, totaling $50 for the data portion of your bill.
When, back in June, we gauged six iPhone users at PCMag, we found they averaged 161-271MB per month; one user peaked at 450MB. You'd save $5 a month going with AT&T's plan rather than Verizon's, but that shouldn't be enough to make a difference in your choice.
The iPhone 4 goes up against a solid lineup of Android phones at Verizon, including the Motorola Droid X ($199.99-$569.99, 4.5 stars), Motorola Droid 2 Global and the HTC Incredible ($99.99-529.99, 4.5 stars). They're all quite good, and the Droid 2 Global offers a physical keyboard and global roaming capability, both of which the iPhone lack. That said, there's a simplicity and elegance about the iPhone OS (and a consistent level of quality in the App Store) which will definitely draw new smartphone users who are intimidated by Android's more free-for-all, user-configured nature.
Having said that, the iPhone is Verizon's best smartphone…this week. There are two big clouds looming over any iPhone purchase, though. One is Verizon's super-speedy 4G LTE network. If you live in a big city and you want the ultimate Internet speeds (especially for hotspot mode), you'll want to wait for the several Android-based, LTE smartphones coming this spring.
The second question is about the iPhone 5. Apple always introduces new iPhones in June or July. Trust me, it'll happen. The real question is whether that new iPhone will be for AT&T only (with Verizon's model following later) or whether Verizon is getting a brand-new iPhone in five months.
So should you buy the Verizon iPhone? If you're an iPhone die-hard who hates AT&T, well, sure. This is your savior. If you're a satisfied Verizon Droid owner: No. The iPhone 4 is good, but so are Verizon's other top-of-the-line smartphones. If you're looking at your first smartphone, the iPhone is a great choice.
The current Editors' Choice for full-touch smartphones on Verizon is the Motorola Droid X, which is a fine phone—as good as the iPhone in many ways, better in some, not quite as good in others. We consider it equal in quality to the iPhone overall. The Motorola Droid X has held the crown since it was released in July. AT&T's iPhone 4 also got an Editors' Choice when it was released last summer. With a crowd of LTE smartphones on the horizon, though, we're just not willing to give a brand-new EC award to one of last year's phones.
Finally, a note about the rating: The Verizon iPhone 4 gets four stars, even though the Droid X, HTC Incredible and AT&T's iPhone all received 4.5 stars. The difference is seven months, and innovation. When those phones were released, they offered breakthrough features and advanced the state of the art. While Verizon's iPhone 4 is an excellent smartphone, it's the same phone we've had on AT&T for seven months. It's just on a different carrier.
That's the whole point, isn't it?
Continuous talk time: 6 hours 17 minutes