On the road with the Verizon iPhone 4S

The iPhone 4S on Verizon proved to be a capable companion when traveling in California. But is it good enough to sacrifice simultaneous voice and data?

The iPhone 4S on Verizon offered a good balance between call quality and data speeds during travels in California.

Verizon iPhone 4S.
Verizon iPhone 4S. Verizon

Question: Which is more important, call quality or data speeds? Let me state my bias up front: The Web running on 3G is really important to me. On any device. Whether it's a MacBook connected to a MiFi hot spot, a 3G iPad 2, or an iPhone. That said, is it important enough to justify sacrificing voice call quality?

This week I spent a lot of my time obsessing about the Web performance of my new Verizon iPhone 4S during travel between the suburbs northeast of Los Angeles (Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks), Los Angeles (Beverly Hills, Burbank), and Silicon Valley (e.g., Sunnyvale, Woodside). But that doesn't mean I don't want a solid voice connection when I'm on a long call.

Here are a few brief impressions of the Verizon iPhone 4S.

Experience versus benchmarks: I benchmarked, via Speedtest.net, my 4S everywhere. I am not going to tediously cite every speed test because they didn't vary enough from place to place on Verizon.

In fact, I echo the sentiment expressed here in a recent CNET write-up about 4S data speeds. Verizon is, if anything, remarkably consistent. (That post said Verizon was the "most consistent" and provides plenty of hard numbers in San Francisco for the iPhone 4S on Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint.)

During my travels, download speeds usually did not exceed 1 or 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps). And upload speeds were typically half or less. Please remember this was just my experience and speeds can vary in locations only a few hundred feet apart, in some cases, and at different times of the day.

How did those data speeds translate into real-world experience for me? The Web connection almost always felt satisfyingly snappy for major news sites, video streaming, and social-networking sites.

And Verizon is considered "slow" compared with AT&T, particularly considering the latter network's HSPA+ capability, which roughly falls somewhere between 3G and 4G (LTE) speeds.

The lesson? Speed tests are helpful but not the bottom line. This thread on MacRumors I think is representative of my experience. While AT&T consistently benchmarks much better than Verizon that doesn't always translate to a superior experience.

Dead zones: Dead zones, I've found, are generally rarer for Verizon than AT&T. In areas I frequent in suburban Los Angeles (typically northeast of Los Angeles), the connection on both my AT&T iPhone 3GS (which I upgraded from) and my first-generation AT&T 3G iPad dropped six feet under in certain spots. Granted, these were only very select spots, but my Verizon 4S works in those AT&T graveyards.

Call quality: Needless to say this is paramount for many people. A mobile phone with great data speeds but crappy voice quality can be a deal breaker. Verizon lived up to its reputation for superior call quality in my travels compared with my previous AT&T 3GS experience--which had been extremely frustrating at times. I often (and I do mean often) had to end an AT&T call because the voice quality was too poor. (Or the call was ended for me when it dropped. I solved this problem in my office by installing a landline.)

And when I placed calls on my AT&T iPhone 3GS to people on, for example, an AT&T iPhone 4, conversations were at times impossible. Person on the other end: "Check this out...upcoming HP Ultrabook...will...and...thick...ports." Me: "What? What? What? Hey, call my landline!" That's slightly dramatized but not by much.

Simultaneous voice and data: This is something Verizon lacks on 3G. I had it on my AT&T iPhone 3GS and it is missed. Though it's not something I used a lot, at times it was crucial. For example, if I was on a long conference call and needed to use the Web. (And, yes, you can get around this on a Verizon 4S using Skype).

Note that if you have a Wi-Fi connection, simultaneous voice and data is possible for the Verizon iPhone too.

Battery life: I know there was a lot of noise this week about battery life on the 4S . I've found the battery life to be worse compared with my 3GS but not I-want-my-3GS-back worse. Depending on how I'm using the 4S, it shaves about 30 minutes to an hour off the battery life. That, of course, is a very unscientific statement, but that's what I'm seeing based on usage over, let's say, a week's time.

Let me be clear, however, on one thing. So far, I am not running out of juice during the course of the day (which seems to be the most serious complaint about battery life on the 4S). But it's always a good idea to shut down apps running in the background (by pressing the iPhone's hard button twice) and verifying what "Location Services" are running in Settings, among other more obvious tweaks like screen brightness.

Verdict: A lot of good, some bad. Voice is great and the Web experience very satisfactory. In short, nothing really to complain about. But the thought that I can't do voice and data at the same time is constantly needling me. Not to mention all of the reviews that rave about how the AT&T 4S data speeds blow Verizon out of the water. Hmmm...I'm still within my 30-day return window. Does voice trump data? Would I really see--in day-to-day, real-world usage--a big jump in data speeds if I switched back to AT&T? I'm not so sure, but I'm still asking myself those questions.

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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