The day of destiny is nearly upon us: on February 10th, you'll finally be able to get an iPhone that works on Verizon. For us in the tech media, that's one blown-out, seemingly never-ending rumor that we never have to write about again -- whew! -- but for you, this could very well mark the beginning of a magical journey. Of course, there are many, many things to consider that'll influence your decision to buy: what carrier are you on currently? Do you already have an iPhone? How much traveling do you do? Are you a vegetarian? The list goes on and on -- and we intend to help you figure it all out in time for launch day. What's more, we'll take a look at some of your best alternatives, too, because let's be honest: just because the Verizon iPhone is here doesn't mean that it's right for everyone. So without further ado, let's dive in and get this figured out.
With the amount of buzz this device has endured, you might think that it's the obvious choice over its AT&T counterpart. Well, that's not exactly true: turns out there are compelling reasons to buy both versions -- or an entirely different device altogether. Your circumstances will vary, of course; something as simple as wireless coverage in your neighborhood might be the ultimate deciding factor, for example, but in this guide we're hoping to break down some of the key reasons why you might be leaning Red or Blue in this smartphone election cycle.
As you might expect, the iPhone 4 on Verizon is very similar to the iPhone 4 that's already been deployed around the world since last June: same overall design, same gorgeous display, same fast processor, same memory, same storage capacity options, and same color choices (which, for the moment, is still just black). There are a few key exceptions, however. The biggest change is that the Verizon model uses a CDMA cellular radio in place of the existing handset's GSM radio, which means you can use it on Verizon's nationwide 3G network along with a few slivers of legacy 2G coverage here and there. Verizon's 2G network isn't great -- calls you receive will go straight to voicemail while you're using data services, for example, and it's very slow for a device like the iPhone that thrives on high-bandwidth connections -- but the good news is that you should very rarely encounter it. The carrier frequently touts the overwhelming size of its 3G footprint, and the claims are pretty legitimate:
In this map, only the pink and dark gray areas are 2G, while the bright red areas are 3G. If you live in a rural area or you do a lot of highway travel, that means that you're far more likely to stay in high-speed coverage than you would on AT&T, whose coverage map looks like this in the continental 48 states:
In this case, the dark blue areas are 3G; every other blue area is either EDGE or GPRS, which you can think of as "slow data" and "really slow data," respectively. As you can see, AT&T's got a considerably smaller 3G footprint than its red rival -- something Verizon has been quick and frequent to attack over the past couple years -- but it's not quite that cut and dried. Let's take a closer look.
GSM versus CDMA: does it really matter?
Thought the iOS-versus-Android battle was entrenched? Well, the GSM-versus-CDMA battle goes back nearly twenty years, and we have no chance of bringing it to a peaceful conclusion here. Don't worry, we're not going to try! Using very broad strokes, we can say that 3G GSM is more technologically advanced than 3G CDMA. On the 2G side, 2G CDMA has some key technical advantages for carriers over 2G GSM, but the consumer experience is basically neck-and-neck (check out our wireless primer for a little more detail on this stuff).
Of course, the level of technological sophistication built in to the network doesn't necessarily translate to the kind of experience you'll have with your iPhone, so let's talk specifics. As we pointed out in our review of the Verizon iPhone, the carrier's 3G data is consistently slower than AT&T's, so in a way, you're trading some speed for ubiquity. If all's well, you'll still regularly see download rates of 1Mbps or more, but AT&T's HSPA network can consistently deliver real-world speeds of over 3Mbps in some places.
GSM also has an advantage in its acceptance as a global standard, which makes life a little easier if you do a lot of international travel. For its part, Verizon points out that roaming CDMA service is available in over 40 countries and territories:
Trinidad and Tobago
Turks and Caicos Islands
Northern Mariana Islands
Virgin Islands, British
Virgin Islands, US
But that number pales in comparison to GSM, which is available in some capacity in nearly every country on the face of the planet. Notably, Europe is completely missing from the CDMA list (it was the European Union that had originally pushed for GSM's creation as a harmonized standard), so frequent visitors to the UK, France, Germany, or anywhere else in the Old World are probably going to want to avoid the Verizon iPhone altogether right now. We wouldn't be surprised if the next iPhone to land on Verizon did have GSM capability for world travelers -- many of the carrier's other handsets do this, like the Droid Pro and Droid 2 Global -- but for now, no dice.
For what it's worth, Verizon does offer a GSM handset rental program so that you can pick up a different phone that'll work pretty much anywhere overseas and have the roaming charges go to your regular bill. Unless you're only traveling once in a blue moon, though, it's not a great solution -- after all, you've got to give up the use of your regular phone (and with it, all of your apps and contacts) and still deal with the exorbitant roaming charges that domestic carriers levy when you're in strange foreign lands. It's kind of a lose-lose scenario. AT&T, on the other hand, offers voice roaming with your iPhone in more than 220 countries out of the box (data, too, in over 195), and you also have the option of unlocking your phone -- if you don't mind getting your hands a little dirty -- which allows you to use a prepaid SIM from one of your destination's local carriers and save big money on roaming costs. You won't be swapping SIMs on the Verizon model, since there's no SIM slot in the first place.
There's also an issue of reliability to consider. In our testing, we encountered significantly fewer dropped calls with the Verizon model than with AT&T's, where call connection issues have plagued the iPhone 4 and its predecessors for some time. AT&T consistently defends its dropped call rates with its own statistics and those of third-party firms that suggest it's doing no worse than any other carrier in most areas of the country, but we've got piles of circumstantial evidence with our own iPhones in New York and Chicago that suggest otherwise -- and the problem appears to be worse on the iPhone than on other AT&T devices. If you spend very little time actually calling people on your phone (and many modern smartphone users don't), it shouldn't influence your decision one way or another since you've got plenty of other factors to consider that are probably more important in your situation. Texting works perfectly fine on both networks, after all, and dropped connections aren't as big of a deal with data; web browsing, for example, doesn't require an always-on connection. And evidence suggests that dropped calls are less of a problem in uncongested rural and suburban areas, so this might be more of a deciding factor for you if you're in a city.
One of the hottest topics in this arena that AT&T's been using to differentiate itself is the ability to use voice and data services simultaneously on its 3G GSM network (technically, there's a new standard for CDMA networks that allows the same functionality and you'll start to see it on some devices this year, but the Verizon iPhone doesn't support it). The practical value in this is obviously questionable; very rarely do most people need to be browsing the web or working on email while they're on a call, though when you are and you do, the pain point suddenly becomes very real and very annoying. Frequent Bluetooth headset and car kit users are certain to run into this more than anyone. The good news is that Verizon's model will still let you use voice and data simultaneously when you're connected to a WiFi network, so that's something.
Interestingly, neither the Verizon iPhone nor the AT&T iPhone support their carriers' latest, greatest, and fastest networks. Verizon is in the midst of deploying LTE, while AT&T is deploying HSPA+ currently and LTE later this year; all three networks are described by their respective carriers as "4G" and can deliver speeds of well over 10Mbps in all cases. The existing AT&T iPhone is limited to 7.2Mbps HSPA, though as we noted above, you'll see real-world speeds well below that -- 3Mbps or so if you're in a good area. Verizon, meanwhile, uses a technology called EV-DO Rev. A that can theoretically hit around 3Mbps but hovers around the 1Mbps range in practice. Both carriers will be offering smartphones that support these new, faster networks throughout 2011 -- so if speed is priority one, the iPhone 4 isn't a great choice for you, regardless of carrier.
Hardware and software
If you take a quick glance at the two iPhone 4 models, they seem to be identical -- but the devil is in the details. It turns out that Apple has had to change the location of the creases in the metal edge (which doubles as an antenna), but the company is emphatic that it's done so simply to accommodate the change in radio technology -- not to attempt to fix the signal attenuation issue (the so-called "death grip") that the GSM version has had. For what it's worth, we did notice some signal drop in weak areas with the right grip on the Verizon model, so it would seem that claim is accurate, but regardless it didn't have a sufficiently pronounced effect to avoid buying the phone.
As we alluded to before, the Verizon model lacks a SIM slot because US CDMA networks don't use SIMs. The most notable hardware difference, though, is a very slight repositioning of the mute and volume controls (pictured above) that will render most bumpers and cases designed for the AT&T iPhone 4 unusable. If you're just getting into an iPhone for the first time, that doesn't matter since you presumably don't own any accessories -- but if you're considering switching from an AT&T model, bear in mind that you'll probably have to shell out a few additional dollars for a replacement case (unless you like to live dangerously and go case-free). The glass front and back carry over from the AT&T model unchanged, so bear in mind that a sharp drop has just as much chance of shattering something. The good news is that Apple has recently updated its bumpers to be universally compatible, so we shouldn't run into this nonsense in the future; third party cases, though, will be on a case-by-case basis (pun intended).
On the software side, Apple is really driving home the fact that the user experience is identical, regardless of what network you choose. For you -- the customer -- that's a good thing, because it means you can pretty much take the phone itself out of the equation and make your decision purely on which carrier works better for you.
Early upgrades available at launch
Global roaming capability
Simultaneous voice / data on 3G
WiFi mobile hotspot option
4G data (HSPA+ / LTE)
Rated talk time
Pricing is one of those things that's often best communicated with a chart, so let's have a look:
Price (on contract)
$199 16GB, $299 32GB
$199 16GB, $299 32GB
Price (off contract)
$599 16GB, $699 32GB
$649 16GB, $749 32GB
Smallest data plan
$15 for 200MB
Largest data plan
$45 for 4GB with tethering
Best price per GB
Hotspot / tethering
$20, includes 4GB total data
$20, includes 2GB hotspot data
Two-year cost (not including phone)
$1,320 - $3,240
$1,680 - $3,360
If you need unlimited data, your one and only option is Verizon -- and you probably want to act fast, because the company has indicated that it won't be sticking around forever. If your net payout over the life of the phone is your top concern, though, AT&T becomes a little more compelling simply because they're continuing to offer a "lite" data tier of $15 a month for 200MB -- a tier Verizon just abandoned to push the $30 option instead. Over the course of two years, it all adds up to a difference of over $300 between AT&T's cheapest and Verizon's cheapest options.
AT&T's lack of an unlimited data option is a little less painful than you might think because the carrier includes access to its fairly expansive network of WiFi hotspots at no additional charge, though 3G data is obviously more ubiquitous than WiFi could ever be -- and Starbucks' hotspots are free now, anyway.
Also, bear in mind that Verizon has just announced that it's reserving to throttle the speed of data services for its heaviest users, so "unlimited" might quickly turn into "technically unlimited, but painful to use" in the event that the iPhone (in cahoots with its Android-powered cousins) conspires to soak Verizon's bandwidth dry.
So let's summarize. If you...
...do a lot of international travel: AT&T
...make a lot of voice calls: Verizon
...do a lot of interstate travel: Verizon
...live in a rural area: Verizon
...want the fastest data available on an iPhone today: AT&T
...use a ton of data: Verizon
Of course -- and seriously, we can't emphasize this enough -- your mileage can and will vary from the norm. Before purchasing either iPhone, you should be familiar with how well AT&T and Verizon work in your home and office. Verizon offers a 14 day return policy with a $35 restocking fee if you want to give it a test drive, while AT&T offers 30 days with a 10 percent restocking fee. See Verizon's full return policy here, and AT&T's here.
Smart alternatives for every carrier
Hey, look, the iPhone is one of the greatest all-around smartphones ever made, regardless of carrier. But maybe it's just not for you. Maybe you've decided you need something that'll work internationally, and an AT&T iPhone isn't up you alley. Maybe you're worried -- despite its assurances -- that Verizon won't be able to deal with the influx of new iPhone subscribers on its network, data speeds will grind to a halt, and they'll start suffering AT&T-style dropped call woes. Maybe you just want something with 4G compatibility. We understand! Let's have a look at a few of the best iPhone alternatives that are out there today (or will be coming shortly).
Motorola's Atrix 4G is, for lack of a better phrase, the most powerful smartphone ever announced (we suspect that title is going to change hands many, many times over the course of 2011, but for now, it belongs to this bad boy). Amazingly, it's not the 1GHz dual-core Tegra 2 processor, the 1GB of DDR2 RAM, or the WVGA-beating 960 x 540 display that put it up top, though: it's the optional HD and Laptop Docks that transform the phone into a serviceable smartbook with its own Linux distribution and access to a full implementation of Firefox and all of your Android apps on the same desktop. Launches March 6th for $200 on contract.
The most impressive thing about the HTC EVO 4G, really, is that it's managed to stay very near the top of the American smartphone food chain for well over half a year. It's got a 4.3-inch display -- far roomier than the iPhone 4's little 3.5-inch screen -- along with a 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon core, Android 2.2, and access to Sprint's WiMAX network. It currently sells for $200 on a new contract.
Samsung's Galaxy S series of high-end smartphones took the Android world by storm in 2010, and T-Mobile's Vibrant was one of the better versions to hit the market. They're back for round two this month with the launch of the Galaxy S 4G, essentially a massaged version of the original Vibrant with compatibility for the carrier's high-speed HSPA+ network added in -- and that means you could see real-world speeds as high as 10Mbps or so in some places. The exact launch date and pricing haven't yet been announced, but it'll definitely hit in February for $200 or less.
Considering how much we like the EVO 4G, you couldn't possibly go wrong with a Verizon version that includes LTE, a better screen, and a nicer kickstand, right? Indeed, the Thunderbolt shares screen dimensions with its Sprint-backed doppelganger but uses a newer LCD technology that'll lead to brighter images with better viewing angles. We're expecting it in the middle of February, likely for $250 or less.
How, where, and when to buy
Official pre-orders for the Verizon iPhone 4 began (and ended) on February 3rd, but there will be plenty of other ways to get in on the action. Here are some of your options:
Best Buy: February 10th; first-come, first-serve. We hear that some locations will open at 7AM, but call your local store for details.
Apple Store website: February 9th.
Apple Store retail locations: February 10th at 7AM local time. Line up early! Additionally, you can reserve a phone for in-store pickup on the 10th starting on the 9th on Apple's website.
Verizon website: February 9th at 3:01AM ET.
Verizon stores: February 10th at 7AM local time.
And if you've purchased a Verizon device recently, not all hope is lost -- the company is running a limited-time offer that allows you to trade in your device after your iPhone 4 purchase by filling out a form and sending it in; if you bought the hardware between November 26th and January 10th, you can get $75 for your dumbphone or $200 for your smartphone. Get the details on the offer here.