Verizon iPhone First Take

After a long wait, Verizon Wireless finally gets the iPhone. Though the move to a new carrier is a big deal, Apple continues to face a very competitive field.

Yes, it's finally here. After almost four years of endless gossip, analyst forecasts, and so-called leaks, the Verizon iPhone is a reality . We're thrilled, to be honest, if only because we never have to write another rumor story again. The iPhone 4's arrival on a second U.S. network is significant, of course, but the smartphone market is a thousand times more mature than it was in 2007 when the first iPhone hit. So, though we expect Verizon to gain a lot of new customers, its iPhone faces heavy competition from rival carriers, and even from within Verizon's own lineup.

Before we break down the device, we'll offer the cost and release details. Big Red will match AT&T's pricing, which is $199 for the 16GB model and $299 for the 32GB version, but unlike AT&T it will offer unlimited data plans. Existing customers can preorder the black version beginning February 3, with full availability following on February 10. Verizon was listing the white iPhone 4 on its Web site earlier today but a carrier spokeswoman confirmed to CNET that the long-delayed model won't be released until later in the spring.

Design
Besides a couple of changes, the Verizon iPhone 4 barely differs from its AT&T counterpart. First off, Apple moved the ringer-mute switch further down the handset's left side to accommodate the CDMA antenna. Unfortunately, that means the current selection of iPhone 4 bumpers won't fit. And while we're on the subject, Verizon iPhone customers will not be entitled to a free bumper case.

Secondly, the Verizon handset's antenna has a new design. During her hands-on inspection , CNET's Bonnie Cha found that the gap that sits next to the headset jack on the GSM version has moved to the left side (where the ringer switch was). The gap on the lower left side made famous by "antennagate" is still there, but CNET has found that reception does not degrade if you touch the gap during a call (more on that later).

Hot spot
Honestly, we weren't expecting the Verizon iPhone to offer new features, but we love that it bests its GSM rival by offering a mobile hot spot that can support up to five devices. Though it's hardly a new feature--Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile currently offer handsets with that functionality--it is new to Apple. And it will make the Verizon iPhone a better mobile computing device. The bad news is that customers will likely pay an additional $20 per month to use it. That's cheaper than Sprint's $29 monthly charge, but more expensive than T-Mobile's $14.99 fee.

No 4G
The Verizon iPhone 4 will not support Verizon's 4G LTE network. That's disappointing, but hardly surprising. As we've said before, Apple is not a company to jump on a bleeding-edge technology. Verizon's 4G network has yet to be used by cell phone customers (only laptop users are on it now), and Apple will make sure it can deliver the polished user experience that it always seeks. Also, Apple will wait until LTE covers more territory. On the other hand, you can expect a 4G model on both Verizon and AT&T in the coming months. Sure, you'll have to upgrade to a new version, but Apple is a master at that game.

Other features
You'll get the usual goodies like the 5-megapixel camera with LED flash, the front-facing VGA camera, Bluetooth, a digital compass, Retina Display, e-mail, voice control, assisted GPS and Google Maps, the Safari browser, access to apps and media through iTunes, and FaceTime over Wi-Fi. The Verizon iPhone stands apart, however, by offering iOS 4.2.5 over the iOS 4.2.1 that's currently on the AT&T handset. We're still confirming what specific changes iOS 4.2.5 brings.

Voice and data
The CDMA iPhone will not be able to employ voice and data at the same time. We think that's a pretty big deal and it's no surprise that Apple and Verizon avoided this point during the launch event . The CDMA Development Group has announced that simultaneous voice and data on CDMA will become commercially available in the first half of this year, but no U.S. CDMA carrier has announced plans to implement the change. We'll be watching this one closely.

No global roaming
We're not pleased that Verizon's iPhone will not support GSM networks. You'll be able to use it in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and a handful of other countries outside North America, but world travelers will have extremely limited roaming capability. Bad move, Apple and Verizon.

Performance
We experienced satisfying call quality when Bonnie used the Verizon iPhone to call a landline handset. On both ends, the voice quality was sharp and natural, the signal remained strong, and we didn't experience any static, interference, audio cut-outs, or dropped calls. The volume remained loud, as well, and background noise was minimal even though Bonnie was calling from a crowded, noisy room. Even better, we didn't experience the attenuation issues we had on the AT&T handset.

Brief data tests also showed an improvement. According to Bonnie , the Verizon iPhone loaded Web sites like the New York Times a few seconds faster than an AT&T model could in side-by-side testing. That's promising, but it's no guarantee that Verizon will have consistently better service once its handsets are released into the wild. Consider that Bonnie was running her test in a room with dozens of AT&T iPhones and just a few Verizon models. After there's more parity between the two carriers, things could change.

All that brings up an important point, which is that users should not expect the Verizon iPhone to be a miracle device. As we've said before , there's a very good chance it will offer better performance, but don't expect it to cure your reception woes. It's still using a cellular network that will vary according to your location and how many people are using it at one time. The expectations for a Verizon iPhone are immensely--and ridiculously--high and the handset runs a risk of not living up to them. We'll make our own assessment once we get a review device in hand. Until that time, though, it's important to keep your hopes in check.

Outlook
There's no question that Verizon will benefit from getting Apple's popular device. The investment will cost the carrier , but it's also going to get a lot of new customers and Apple will earn serious cash selling millions of more handsets to a market that couldn't have them before.

Still, it's way too early to write AT&T's iPhone eulogy, and there's no way Apple can crowd out cell phone rivals as its iPod did with other MP3 players. Why? Because there are just too many other fantastic smartphones on the market for that to ever happen. Just last week at CES, for example, we saw an incredibly innovative array of new Android smartphones that offer features the Verizon iPhone can't touch. We had 4G handsets from Verizon Wireless and AT&T ; Motorola wowed us with its dual-core Atrix and Droid Bionic ; and we loved Motorola's laptop dock . Indeed, these devices will give Apple a serious run for its money. And even without them, there are plenty of perfectly satisfied smartphone users who don't have an Phone and don't yearn for one.

Innovation happens too quickly in the wireless world for one device to stay at the head of the pack for long. As CNET's reviews show, the iPhone is a very good device, but Apple is far from the only company with a great idea. Android is not backing down; Microsoft and RIM will continue to evolve; and we haven't heard the last of Palm yet. The iPhone is on a new carrier, but it remains just one player in a very competitive field.

 

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