The Verizon iPhone 4 is an interesting product for Engadget to review. Firstly, it's not exactly a new device (not in any outwardly noticeable way). From design, down to its CPU, RAM, and even cost, this iPhone is the same as the AT&T model... save for that one small but really important thing: it's got a CDMA radio inside. The device is also somewhat tricky to review based on its software, since we've all been using (and even took a deep look at) iOS 4.2 for quite some time. So for us the task is to make clear the differences between these two devices and their networks. Now that's a little easier, because we're sure you have the same questions as us. What are calls like? How are the data rates? Is service notably improved or different than AT&T's? Most importantly, if you're currently a frustrated iPhone 4 owner, does it make sense to make the switch? We're going to answer all those queries (and more), so read on for a full review of the Verizon iPhone 4!
As we said in the intro, there isn't much of a hardware story to tell here. If you've read our review of the AT&T model, you'll know that we think the design and build of the iPhone 4 is best in class by a longshot. Of course, editors at Engadget have had a lot more time to spend with these devices, and some of our opinions have changed slightly over time. For instance, when we first tested the AT&T model, we lauded the glass and metal housing of the phone, but we didn't realize how easily that design made the phone slip out of your hands... and potentially onto a hard surface where it can easily break. More than a few folks at Engadget have smashed the backs of their phones due to accidental drops. There's no denying that the iPhone 4 is beautiful to look at, but we highly recommend a bumper or case -- especially if you tend to juggle a lot of things at once.
While the phone does basically look identical on the outside, there are a few notable changes. The first of those changes -- and most pronounced -- is the shifting of the iPhone's antenna notches (the little black bands that intersect the frame of the device). On the Verizon version, there are four slits which are symmetrical -- two on the top right and left, and two along the bottom. Apple's Tim Cook told us that the move is all about making the new CDMA chipset play nice with the antenna design. There's no indication that any changes (or improvements) have been made to the underlying antenna structure. And conspiracy theorists take note: in low connectivity settings, we could get both the AT&T phone and the Verizon phone to dip slightly in bars if we covered the bottom half of the devices with our hands. We did not see any noticeable change in call quality or data quality.
Apple has also slightly shifted the mute switch and volume buttons to accommodate the antenna changes, and of course there's no SIM slot. That may not seem like a big deal, but if you already own an iPhone 4 and are switching, your case might not fit the new design (in fact, it's likely that it won't). Apple has issued a "universal" case for both models -- but that means you're shelling out more dough.
Overall, the phone is as handsome to look at and use as it was before... but what did you expect?
Just as with the external look and feel, nothing has notably changed inside the phone save for the radios. You still have Apple's powerful A4 CPU chugging alongside 512MB of RAM, the incredible 960 x 640 IPS Retina Display, and all of the rest of the iPhone 4's stock gear: 16GB or 32GB of storage, WiFi (802.11b/g/n), Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, and all the rest. Just like the previous version, you've also got the iPhone standard ambient light sensor, proximity sensor, accelerometer, and three-axis gyroscope. What it doesn't have, of course, is a GSM radio -- instead there's a CDMA (EV-DO Rev. A) chip onboard. Is it still a feature-packed powerhouse? In a word: yes.
And if you're thinking about the display and camera performance, in our tests it was, unsurprisingly, exact to the current AT&T / GSM model. It makes sense, but just in case you're wondering, it continues to take pretty handsome photos and great looking 720p video.
Phone / reception / sound quality
As you would expect, this is basically the main course when it comes to the Verizon iPhone 4. The troubles that AT&T has had with reception and dropped calls on the iPhone are legendary, and even if not 100 percent of the issues lie with the carrier, there's most definitely a belief that the company's GSM network simply isn't equipped to handle the traffic devices like the iPhone have created. It's probably not necessary to say that this has created an enormous amount of frustration amongst iPhone users in America -- to the point that the idea of bad or dropped calls on the device has become a bit of a meme in pop culture, leaving Apple the butt of a joke it certainly hasn't been laughing along with.
At the launch event for the Verizon version of the phone, carrier execs made a pretty big deal not only about the larger and more reliable network, but the fact that they were "ready" for the onslaught of new iPhone users and customers switching from AT&T. The indication is that Big Red has every intention of not getting caught in the same mess their competition has found itself in.
So, does the phone exhibit more favorable behavior in regards to dropped / failed calls? The answer is yes -- with a caveat. We had many, many perfectly connected and sustained calls while on the Verizon iPhone (many times during testing we actually had to switch from our AT&T device to the Verizon device just to complete the call). After a couple of days of use, the fear that normally sets in about five minutes into a connected call with an AT&T iPhone all but disappeared, and we found ourselves wanting to have longer talks and not worrying so much about the potential for dropped and interrupted calls.
But on to that caveat. While the phone did connect much more reliably and consistently, it wasn't impervious to broken connections and sound quality issues. In areas where we had a weak signal, or when moving around, we experienced call interference (our callers noted this as well), and in two instances, we did drop a call when moving from one place to another (clearly an area with less Verizon juice).
Let's be clear here, however. Calls were consistently connected and uninterrupted, far more often than our AT&T calls in the same time period in similar locations. There were sound quality issues (it seemed to be happening more on our outgoing audio than incoming), but they were few and far between according to our friends and family. Overall, our level of confidence in the phone's ability to handle one of its main tasks went way, way up during our testing. If you've been looking for relief from your woes of dropped or failed calls -- right now the Verizon iPhone is making a very serious case for itself. Keep in mind, however, that this network has yet to be hit with the traffic of millions of new iPhones, but given that Verizon is already pushing tons of Android devices into the market, we're not so sure that it's going to be the kind of mess it's been for AT&T.
So -- this will solve your calling issues for the most part, but is that the only part of the equation you need to think about? Not really.
There are a few things you'll need to know about how the Verizon iPhone handles calls differently from AT&T. Firstly, you can't do 3G data and voice at the same time (but you knew this, Engadget reader!). We didn't find ourselves missing the feature very much, and you're still able to send text messages (and receive them) while on the phone. We're not saying you don't or won't need the functionality, just that it didn't sting too much to see it go (though admittedly, we were on WiFi quite a bit of the time). When using data on 3G, calls take precedent, but if you're in Verizon's 2G territory and using data, your call will go to voicemail. Another thing to consider is how Verizon's network handles multiple calls. You can add up to two people to a call, but after that, everyone gets shot to voicemail, unlike the AT&T phone, where the numbers go way beyond that.
A bigger issue may be that while using the Personal Hotspot feature (more on this in a minute), your calls will kill your connection. That means that if you're loading a page on your computer tethered to your phone and you get a call, the page stops loading and doesn't resume until the call stops ringing, or you hang up. It's a seamless transition, but still a bit jarring. If you're a busy person who is going to rely on this feature for connectivity and rely on the iPhone for important calls, this could be a serious issue.
Then there's the issue of international roaming. While Verizon does claim about 40 countries where you can roam with your CDMA device, there are lots of holes in that map. As a backup, the company has a service where it will provide you with a GSM device if you're planning on traveling somewhere you'll need one. We highly doubt you'll get a GSM iPhone (though that would be a nice gesture for customers), but at least you'll have some connectivity overseas.
Overall, if you're already a Verizon customer, none of this will really be shocking. If you're just coming to the network, you probably need a phone that actually makes calls. There are some issues here that can be aggravating on a very minor level, but ultimately none of them equal the frustration of continually dropping calls. The Verizon device lives up to the promise that yes, really, you're going to be able to make a phone call with your iPhone 4.
Verizon on the left, AT&T on the right
So far so good -- voice calls are better, minor issues really are minor. It's an iPhone on Verizon's network. Ah, but it's an iPhone on Verizon's network -- and that means there are certain considerations you're going to have to take into account when it comes to data.
Let's put this as simply as we can: data rates on the Verizon iPhone 4 we tested were dramatically slower than those on its AT&T counterpart. How much slower? Well, even though network speeds fluctuate based on many factors, we didn't see the Verizon device peak much beyond 1.4 Mbps on downloads (and even that high was rare), and it barely hit 0.5 Mbps on upstream. On the other hand, the AT&T device regularly pulled down above 3 Mbps, and 1 Mbps or more going up. We'll admit that the Verizon speeds were more consistent, but the irrefutable fact is that AT&T's network is much, much faster, at least in our neck of the woods.
Of course, how much that's going to affect you is based on a lot of factors, and in our day-to-day, there wasn't a noticeable sensation of the device being slower. That consistency in data rates actually may have helped in some situations -- particularly when pulling down maps. We see our AT&T device stop and start quite a bit on major data pulls, whereas the Verizon phone seemed to latch onto a stream and not stop until the bits were uniformly situated on our phone. That said, there's no denying that YouTube videos and streaming content is going to appear more quickly on your AT&T handset.
Even though the Verizon iPhone is running iOS 4.2.6, there aren't many significant or noticeable changes, save for one new addition: Personal Hotspot.
The premise of Personal Hotspot is pretty simple -- it's a hotspot app that lives in your system preferences, allowing you to tether wirelessly (over WiFi or Bluetooth) or with your sync cable to the phone's 3G service.
Setup couldn't have been easier, as you simply turn on the feature, and pick a password for your network. Unfortunately, the network takes on the name of your device and doesn't allow you to assign a custom name. Connecting devices was essentially flawless -- we managed to get all sorts of gadgets online via our Verizon connection, and on the phone side, you're kept abreast of what's happening on your network with a notification that lives at the top of your screen (like when you're in a call and go back out to the homescreen).
The service itself seemed great, though shelling out another $20 for this functionality might not be worth it to everyone. Again, the speeds of Verizon's network aren't best in class, and pulling down full size images and webpages makes that painfully clear.
Just as with the original iPhone 4 we tested, we saw phenomenal battery life with Verizon's model too. On a day of extremely heavy use (lots and lots of phone calls, browsing, email, Twitter, text messaging) we saw well over 24 hours on a single charge. There didn't seem to be any significant hit to battery life over what we witnessed in our original iPhone 4 review. Just as with the AT&T model, backgrounding apps like turn-by-turn navigation proved to be the biggest battery draws, alongside some of the streaming video applications currently available. The bottom line, however, is that new users and switchers should be pleased as punch with the number they'll get from the device.
We mean it when we say this is an iPhone 4 on Verizon -- the available plans are exactly the same as for every other Verizon smartphone. That means you're looking at $29.99 a month for unlimited data, with an optional additional $20 a month charge for 2GB of tethering data. You'll also need a Nationwide voice plan, of course -- the cheapest with unlimited texting is the $59 plan that offers 450 minutes a month, so you're looking at a minimum of $90 a month (or $1,080 yearly) to keep your Verizon iPhone 4 happy and completely functional. (If you drop the texting it's $70 a month, or $840.)
Compared to AT&T, that's actually a good deal, since AT&T caps its data plans. AT&T offers 2GB of data for $25 a month and the same optional additional $20 surcharge for tethering, and the cheapest combination of voice and unlimited texting plans also offers 450 minutes for $59 a month, so in the end you're spending the same $90 a month or $1,080 yearly for less data, and the same $70 a month or $840 yearly if you drop the texting plan.
However, AT&T's tiered plans mean you can pay much less if you don't use much mobile data. If you're willing to live with a 200MB data budget, you can drop down to a $15 a month data plan, which puts you at $74 a month or $888 yearly, and if you further drop texting from that you're down to just $55 per month or $660 yearly. But again, you're making some big tradeoffs there.
A final note: We're told Verizon's unlimited data plans will eventually go away in favor of tiered plans, so if you're looking to get in, you'd better act fast.
If you haven't caught the theme of this review, let us spell it out -- this is very much the iPhone 4 that people have come to know and love. It's not the next generation Apple device, it's not a wowee-zowee LTE experiment, and it isn't a revolution in mobile computing. What it is, however, is a big chance to give a large portion of America's smartphone users a crack at a phone they've likely been lusting after for some time. It's also an opportunity to give relief to long-suffering AT&T customers in the form of a usable, reliable phone (not to mention a good way to kill many of the jokes the current phone's calls have created). While it isn't all rainbows and flowers (the data speed issues or the voice / data considerations could be a dealbreaker for some), it does kind of feel like Apple and Verizon did the impossible: they made the best smartphone in America just a little bit better.