There's something a little surreal about seeing "Verizon" in the upper left corner of an iPhone's screen. It signifies something monumental for those who have been waiting more than three years to get an iPhone that works on Verizon Wireless' network. For AT&T customers, especially those in overly congested areas such as New York City and San Francisco, it represents a digital life preserver, the opportunity to be rescued by a carrier whose iPhone 4 ($199) won't drop their calls and take what seems like an eternity to load a single web page in certain cities. Not to mention, Verizon adds a personal hotspot feature for sharing that 3G connection with multiple gadgets. So how much better is Verizon's network when you put the two iPhones head to head and--just as important--is the iPhone 4 really the best smart phone on Verizon's network?
When you put the AT&T and Verizon iPhones side by side, they're practically identical. And that's a good thing. Made of glass and stainless steel, the black-and-silver iPhone 4 still has the most elegant look and feel of any smart phone on the market--yes, even after more than seven months. Nothing in Verizon's lineup really comes close. Although CDMA phones tend to be heavier than their GSM counterparts, Apple managed to keep the weight on this iPhone 4 just as low (4.8 ounces) and the dimensions just as small (4.5 x 2.3 x 0.37 inches).
There are just a few aesthetic differences between the AT&T and Verizon iPhone 4. First, the antenna bands on the Verizon device force the volume buttons and ringer switch down a bit on the left side. Apple is releasing a new universal bumper case to accommodate both of its iPhones, while case makers will be releasing special Verizon iPhone 4 cases that accommodate the subtle design differences. You also won't find a SIM card tray on the right side of the Verizon version.
A critical part of the iPhone 4's design remains the 3.5-inch Retina Display. At 960 x 640 pixels, this screen is still the resolution champ, and IPS technology continues to provide fantastically wide viewing angles. We loved showing off videos we captured with the device's 720p camcorder. In a side-by-side comparison, the AT&T iPhone 4's display had a slight magenta cast in white areas, but the two screens are equally colorful and crisp. Nevertheless, some will likely prefer the larger 4-inch panel on the Droid X, which makes text easier to read without zooming in.
3G Data Performance
A lot has been made of the fact that the iPhone 4 for Verizon Wireless doesn't support the carrier's new 4G LTE network. But compared to AT&T, Verizon's "old-school" 3G EV-DO technology on this iPhone might as well be 5G. In midtown Manhattan, the speed delta was laughable. In fact, when downloading web pages, the best AT&T could muster was twice as slow as the Verizon iPhone 4 (22 seconds vs. 11 seconds for CNN.com and 16 seconds vs. 17 seconds for ESPN). When we downloaded the mobile version of Yahoo, the Verizon iPhone 4 took 10 seconds, compared to a scary-slow 1:30 for AT&T.
Then we fired up the Speedtest app, and the Verizon iPhone 4 was equally dominant, averaging 688 Kbps in New York City. The AT&T iPhone 4 turned in a high of 400 Kbps but in most cases barely broke 10 Kbps. Really. Uploads for the Verizon version averaged 578 Kbps, and the AT&T iPhone 4 ranged between 1.09 Mbps (great) and 5 Kbps (terrible).
Of course, data performance affects much more than web surfing and throughput numbers. On one occasion the Verizon iPhone took 8 seconds to fully load the App Store homepage, compared to more than 2 minutes on the AT&T iPhone. And the Verizon version found the nearest Pret a Manger in Maps in 3 seconds, versus 17 seconds for AT&T. Last but not least, we started Pandora to see how long each phone would take to load the app and start playing music: Verizon took 9 seconds, and AT&T took 1 minute and 28 seconds.
Central New Jersey was a different story, as the AT&T iPhone 4 averaged 1.6 Mbps downloads, compared to 1.1 Mbps for Verizon's device. Mobile site load times were also a lot closer, with AT&T loading CNN.com and ESPN.com a few seconds faster, and losing by a single second on Yahoo.com. When loading the full NYTimes.com homepage, Verizon took 12 seconds to AT&T's 16 seconds.
The bottom line is that AT&T's 3G network is superior in certain locations, but it's so overloaded in New York City at times (and other locations) that AT&T's iPhone 4 is almost useless in those spots.
iPhone vs. Other Verizon Phones
So what about other Verizon Wireless 3G handsets? We also pitted the iPhone 4 against the Droid X in a few tests. Both phones downloaded sites fairly quickly, but the iPhone 4 did a better job of holding onto its 3G signal. In a moving vehicle, the Droid X fell back to 1xRTT more often, which showed in our results. For example, the iPhone 4 took 17 seconds to load NYTimes.com, versus 34 seconds for the Droid X. But when both phones were at full strength, the Droid X was as fast or faster than the iPhone 4, taking 6 seconds vs. 7 seconds to load CNN.com, and 5 versus 11 seconds to render ESPN.com.
The bigger question is whether you can live without 4G speeds. During a hands-on preview of the upcoming HTC Thunderbolt for Verizon, the carrier's first 4G LTE phone, we saw download speeds of 3.7 Mbps and upload speeds just as swift. The Verizon iPhone 4 won't support 4G LTE.
This is an area where Apple is catching up to the Android crowd. For $20 per month, you can use the Verizon iPhone 4 as a personal hotspot for as many as 5 devices (something the AT&T iPhone 4 doesn't currently support). We easily found the utility under Settings, and it includes simple instructions for connecting via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and USB. Changing the password is a cinch. We like that the iPhone 4 displays a glowing bar at all times at the top of the screen showing how many devices are connected (even though it takes up some real estate). However, we wish Apple made the Personal Hotspot feature easier to discover by giving it an app icon shortcut.
The Verizon iPhone 4 averaged a pretty strong 678 Kbps downlink rate using Speedtest on our ThinkPad T410s, and a respectable 344 Kbps average upload speed. Web pages also loaded fairly quickly, with NYTimes, ESPN, and CNN popping up in an average of 14 seconds.
The Motorola Droid X offered a faster downlink rate in hotspot mode, averaging 800 Kbps. It was slightly slower on the uplink, though, at 300 Kbps, and its 16.8-second average website loading time trailed the iPhone 4.
While reliable, the Verizon iPhone 4 can't touch 4G phones such as Sprint's Evo 4G (3 to 6 Mbps downloads) and T-Mobile's myTouch 4G (2.3 Mbps average). And soon Verizon customers will be able to pick up a 4G LTE phone that will blow everything else away, regardless of the network.
During our four days of testing, we used the Verizon iPhone 4 as our primary phone, and we didn't experience a single dropped call in New York or New Jersey. On AT&T's network, we've experienced three drops in one minute.
As part of our testing we made one call to a landline and another to a wireless number from both the AT&T and Verizon iPhone 4, without telling the other caller which device we were using. Both callers said that our voice sounded garbled and muffled on the AT&T device, and that our voice came through more clearly on Verizon's iPhone. Voice quality wasn't perfect--the second caller noted some tinniness--but they much preferred speaking to us on Verizon. Voices on our end sounded somewhat harsh on Verizon but much clearer than on AT&T, whose iPhone 4 clipped many words.
The AT&T iPhone's advantage over the Verizon device is its support for simultaneous voice and data. In other words, if a call comes in, you can still look up something on the web or pull up a map. On Verizon you can't use data during a call, and if you're in the middle of loading a web page when a call comes in, your session will pause until you hang up. In addition, you can't use the Verizon iPhone overseas for voice or 3G data, which is a big consideration for international travelers.
Software and Interface
As expected, Apple has kept its intuitive and iconic grid-of-apps look intact, and you can easily create folders just by dragging icons on top of one another. And just as with AT&T's iPhone 4, you multitask by double-pressing the Home button and then swiping through recently opened apps. While we prefer Android's more dynamic and customizable interface in some ways--and especially its less intrusive notification drawer (vs. iOS' pop-ups)--smart phone newbies and veterans alike will have no problem getting around this device.
Specs and Performance
No surprises here. Apple's fast A4 chip never left us waiting as we switched between apps, played games such as Angry Birds, and surfed the web while streaming Pandora. Upcoming dual-core smart phones promise more speed, but everything ran smoothly on the Verizon iPhone 4. The $199 version includes 16GB of storage, which should be plenty for most users. But those who like to carry a lot of video, music, and apps will want to step up to the 32GB model ($299).
Others have tried, but no one can match the ease of use and high quality that the iPhone 4's FaceTime service offers. Using the device's front-facing camera, we made a video call over Wi-Fi to an AT&T iPhone 4, and the picture was almost as clear as a mainstream laptop. Colors were accurate, and we could even make out details in the other person's shirt. Just as with the AT&T version, you can press a button to switch to the back camera to show others what you want them to see. You can also reach out and see someone on a Mac or iPod touch. Just keep in mind that you can't make FaceTime calls over 3G.
It's not so much the number of apps Apple stocks now--over 300,000--that gives it such an advantage over Android and other competitors. It's the polished and easy shopping experience, paired with higher-quality premium apps. You just won't find anything like the console-quality Infinity Blade game on any other platform (at least not yet). And we had a blast trying to slice our amazingly detailed enemies on the iPhone 4's Retina Display. Other than games, iOS enjoys a much better selection of educational apps for kids.
After we backed up our AT&T iPhone, we easily transferred both free and paid apps we had previously downloaded to the Verizon device via iTunes.
E-Mail and Messaging
Thanks to a new unified inbox feature and well-executed threaded messaging, we like the e-mail experience on the Verizon iPhone 4. Attachment support also remains strong, and there are plenty of third-party apps to edit documents. What's still missing is a native instant messaging client, such as Google Talk for Android.
Camera and Camcorder
The iPhone 4's 5-megapixel camera continues to impress. We snapped colorful and crisp photos of children playing in the snow, and the shutter speed of Verizon's version is just as pleasingly fast as the AT&T model's. (The sluggishness of other smart phones causes you to miss many photo ops.) A backside illuminated sensor means you'll get much better photos indoors without having to necessarily engage the flash. And the optional HDR feature combines three exposures into one to make sure you get the best shot.
To test the 720p camcorder, we recorded some footage of Manhattan traffic on a rainy morning. The footage looked detailed and smooth, and the iPhone 4 did a better job than most smart phones when moving from darker to lighter areas and then back again. You don't really need a Flip camera with this device at your side.
Music and Video
We don't want to bore you with the obvious, but the iPhone 4 has an iPod inside, and it lets you download music over 3G and TV shows and movies over Wi-Fi. The action flick Red looked fantastic on the iPhone 4's display, but the 3.6GB file took more two hours to download. We wish iTunes had a progressive download feature like Samsung's Media Hub on its Galaxy S phones, which lets you start watching whatever you've downloaded almost immediately.
Apple's social networking service, Ping, continues to feel vacant. It doesn't integrate with Facebook or Twitter, and we're not that interested in following artists.
Apple rates the Verizon iPhone 4 to last 6 hours on a charge when surfing the web over 3G, and 10 hours on Wi-Fi. The rated talk time is 7 hours on 3G and standby time is 300 hours. In the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves loading websites every 60 seconds on 40-percent brightness, the Verizon iPhone 4 lasted 7 hours and 27 minutes. That's about two hours above the Android smart phone average and longer than the Motorola Droid 2 (7:07). However, the Droid X lasted slightly longer (7:42), as did the Samsung Continuum (7:46). You should have no problem getting through most, if not all, of a full workday when using the Verizon iPhone 4.
Verizon is so confident in the superiority of its network that it's willing to offer unlimited data for its version of the iPhone 4 ($199 with two-year contract), compared to 2GB on AT&T. Data on Verizon costs $30 per month, versus $25 per month on AT&T, but the delta is worth it. Both carriers charge $20 for unlimited text messaging.
It was worth the wait. The iPhone 4 on Verizon Wireless delivers the reliable data and voice coverage AT&T has failed to provide, making this device a dependable partner for work and play. Everything we love about Apple's smart phone is enhanced because you don't have to wait to get stuff done or wonder if your call will drop. In cities such as New York you can shop for and download apps, surf the web, start streaming YouTube videos, and a lot more much faster.
Some may prefer the larger screen and unique perks such as HDMI on the Droid X, but the iPhone 4 won't face real competition until 4G phones--such as the HTC Thunderbolt and dual-core Motorola Droid Bionic--start rolling out for Verizon. Others may want to hold out until the summer to see if Apple launches the iPhone 5 for Verizon at the same time as AT&T. Right now, though, the Verizon iPhone 4 is the best choice. When you add up the luxurious design, razor-sharp (if small) display, app selection, ease of use, FaceTime, and top-notch camera and camcorder, this smart phone stands alone.