iPhone vs. BlackBerry in the California outback

On a recent trip to the California desert, CNET Blog Network's Brooke Crothers had a chance to put Verizon (BlackBerry) and AT&T (iPhone 3GS) service to the test.

On a recent trip to the California desert, with access to both a BlackBerry Storm and an iPhone 3GS, I had a chance to test Verizon's vaunted claims about better coverage.

Anza Borrego Desert State Park, about two hours south of Palm Springs by car, is California's largest state park and covers roughly 1,000 square miles of desert. In other words, it's mostly raw, but stunningly beautiful, wilderness. Over the years, I have often made day trips (alone or with friends/family) to boulder up washes (aka arroyos) in the surrounding mountains (see photo).

Anza Borrego Desert State Park: looking east towards the Salton Sea: good coverage even here.
Anza Borrego Desert State Park: looking east towards the Salton Sea: good coverage even here. Brooke Crothers

The largest town in the area, Borrego Springs (the 2000 census put the population at about 2,500), is famous for having rock-solid 2G (and increasingly 3G) coverage for most major carriers. In fact, in the spot shown in the photo (embedded in this post), which was taken after an hour of bouldering up a wash just west of Borrego Springs, there is no hiccup in service.

But Borrego Springs, surrounded by a desert (figuratively) of dead zones, is the exception. Outside of town, in places like the outback of Coyote Canyon or in the desert east of the Shelter Valley area (part of Julian, Calif.), it's very hit or miss.

Map of Anza Borrego Desert State Park
Map of Anza Borrego Desert State Park Google Maps

Note that the trip was not made for the express purpose of testing Verizon and AT&T service, it was simply done on the fly as we traveled. But here's what I found. And, yes, it's not just the carriers, coverage can be phone specific, especially in the case of the iPhone.

About 10 miles outside of the park, Verizon was showing bars (and e-mailing wasn't a problem) on the Blackberry Storm, while AT&T was indicating no service on the iPhone 3GS. A Verizon win there.

Inside the park, approaching Borrego Springs from the south, Verizon came through again on the Blackberry Storm. But we had to get closer to Borrego Springs for AT&T to finally kick in on the iPhone. Not a huge Verizon win, but still a win.

In Coyote Canyon (a remote area), it was not a definitive Verizon win but, again, Verizon was always showing a bar or two, while AT&T was fading in and out (mostly out) of service.

In the desert outside of Shelter Valley (another remote area), nothing on either Verizon or AT&T.

So, my experience proved, more or less, that Verizon does have better service in this vast stretch of the southern California desert.

That said, Research in Motion has had two BlackBerry outages in the past week with e-mail either down or coming in drips and drabs. I use a Storm2, so I have experienced it first hand. Put that one down in the loss column for the BlackBerry.

Updated at 2:45 p.m. PST: to better reflect the specific coverage area in the headline.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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