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Editors' note: We updated this review on March 10, 2011 with additional testing results. On October 4, 2010, Apple added an 8GB version of the iPhone 4.
On October 25, 2011, we lowered the rating of the iPhone 4 following the release of the iPhone 4S.
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, mostly because we never have to write another rumor story again. And, of course, we're also happy to see U.S. iPhone owners get a real choice in carriers.
If you've been pining for this moment for ages, we feel your elation. But before you rush to the store, there are some important points to keep in mind. First off, the Verizon iPhone 4 is nearly identical to its AT&T counterpart. It stands apart in a couple of ways, but it's largely the same device with many of the same benefits and drawbacks. And like its predecessor, the Verizon iPhone 4 entails some serious give-and-take on the part of the user. You get that nifty hot spot, for example, but Big Red's CDMA technology takes away functionality as well.
Performance may also defy some of your expectations, which we know are huge. We can report that Verizon's network offers discernible improvements over AT&T's. The data speeds were faster most of the time, we had more success with placing calls in problem areas, and the calls connected faster. The changes, however, weren't life-changing and they weren't completely consistent. So while it is better in some regards, it can't beat AT&T on all fronts.
Verizon will match AT&T's pricing, which is $199 for the 16GB model and $299 for the 32GB version. You can get it only in black for now, though the elusive white model is due later this spring. Verizon will offer a $30 unlimited data plan to start, but it likely to switch to tiered data plans in the near future.
Honestly, we can't say much in this section since the Verizon and AT&T handsets are so much alike. There are a couple cosmetic differences, which we'll discuss, but Verizon's iPhone bears all the familiar Apple-style trademarks. It's the same size and weight (4.5 inches tall by 2.3 inches wide by 0.37 inch deep; 4.8 ounces), it has nearly identical external features, and you'll find that gorgeous Retina Display. We're still not fans of the sharp edges and glass back, but there's no denying that the iPhone 4 remains an eye-catching device.
Turn the handset on its sides and you'll notice some minor alterations. To accommodate the CDMA antenna, the ringer mute switch on the left side has been moved slightly closer to the volume controls. It makes no difference in usability, but the change means that most current iPhone 4 cases, including the bumpers that Apple gave out for free last summer, won't fit properly. Over on the right side, the SIM card slot has vanished because the handset runs on CDMA.
In another change, the gap that sits next to the headset jack on the GSM version has moved to the left side just above the ringer switch. Apple wouldn't discuss the specifics with CNET, nor would it confirm which portions of the antenna serve which features (on the AT&T phone, one portion of the antenna was for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and the remaining portion of the antenna powered cellular calls). We're not prone to conspiracy theories, but it wouldn't surprise us if Apple tweaked the antenna design following last summer's "antennagate" drama. But more on that later.
A feature you gain
Inside, the Verizon handset offers a few more differences, both good and bad. Big Red initially beat AT&T by offering a personal hot-spot feature that can support up to five devices. You can establish the connection through and Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or a USB cable and use all three methods at the same time. Though AT&T gained the hot-spot feature with iOS 4.3, the carrier limited the number of devices that can make wireless connections to just three.
Before you can use the hot spot, though, you'll need to activate the option with Verizon. The feature will cost an additional $20 per month, which is cheaper than Sprint's $29 monthly charge, but more expensive than T-Mobile's $14.99 fee. For that price you're limited to 2GB per month, after which you'll pay $20 for each additional gigabyte. On the whole, those charges aren't outrageous for what you get.
Once you're set with the carrier, the hot-spot option will appear in your Settings menu. Then, after you set a password and choose which connectivity options you'd like to use, you can get started. We tried connecting a number of devices including a laptop computer, an iPad, an AT&T iPhone 4, a LG Optimus S, a RIM BlackBerry Torch, a Huawei Ideos X5, and a T-Mobile MyTouch 3G.
For most devices, the connection process over Wi-Fi was quick and painless. The MyTouch 3G was able to find the hot spot, but for some reason it could hold the connection for only 5 seconds before dropping it. The Ideos, meanwhile, was not able to locate the iPhone, even when they were next to each other.
Though those hiccups weren't encouraging, they could be the fault of the other phones. What's more, once we tossed them aside, the hot spot performed well even at full capacity. Web browsing on the laptop, for example, was only a few seconds slower than what we normally experience on CNET's wired network. Uploading a Facebook photo took about 10 seconds (versus the usual 5 seconds), and we were able to load a number of graphics-heavy Web sites without any problems. We had a similar experience when using a USB cable for the PC; it was a bit slower than normal but nothing drastic.
Browsing on the iPad and phones was satisfactory as well. Like on the computer, it took a bit longer to perform tasks then when we were connected to CNET's Wi-Fi, but the speeds weren't painful. Connecting through Bluetooth was trickier; we weren't always able to establish a connection and then keep it once we had it. Battery life on the hot spot was respectable. When streaming a Netflix movie, the iPhone went 5.2 hours before dying. That's just a bit more than the T-Mobile MyTouch 4G running the same test.
Even with those few issues, the hot spot is user-friendly and it makes the Verizon iPhone an even better mobile-computing device. You don't get individual notifications when you connect a new device, and you can't see what is connected at a given time, but a status bar at the top of the display conveniently tracks how many gadgets are linked up. Yet, as with so many other things on the iPhone, the hot spot isn't the first or the best we've seen of its kind. It may do things differently, but it's not better. Remember that some handsets, like Sprint's HTC Evo 4G can support up to eight devices.
Features you keep
Outside of the hot spot, you can expect the usual iPhone goodies. You'll get the 5-megapixel camera with LED flash, front-facing VGA camera, Bluetooth, digital compass, e-mail and messaging, iPod player, voice control, voice memo recorder, assisted GPS and Google Maps, Safari browser, access to apps and media through iTunes, and FaceTime over Wi-Fi.
The polished interface also remains the same, though the Verizon iPhone currently runs iOS 4.2.6; the AT&T iPhone runs iOS 4.2.1. Apple said 4.2.6 is a version unique to the Verizon handset and that its only changes are support for CDMA and the hot-spot feature.
Though the phone is impressive, the smartphone market is a thousand times more mature than it was in 2007 when the original iPhone hit, and even in 2010 when the iPhone 4 first went on sale. We don't doubt that the Verizon iPhone will be successful, but it faces heavy competition from rival carriers and even from within Verizon's own lineup. Some offer features that the iPhone can't touch, and there are plenty of people who have interest in buying Apples device. The iPhone is on a new carrier, but it remains just one player in a very competitive field.
Features you don't get
Unfortunately, Verizon's iPhone lacks two very important features present on AT&T's device. Because CDMA essentially separates voice and data into two "pipes" (GSM uses only one), you won't be able to stay on a call and use the Web browser, Google Maps, or any app that requires a data connection (you'll receive a notification if you try and do so). If you're using the navigation feature or hot spot, they will pause when you get a call and resume after you hang up. On the other hand, you will be able to send and receive texts and browse existing content on your device when on a call.
We think that's a big deal, especially when you consider that Apple has made such functionality--you can talk on the phone and get directions to Starbucks!--a centerpiece of some of its ad campaigns. You can use voice and data at the same time if you're connected to Wi-Fi, but that remains the only workaround. There is, however, one benefit to this arrangement. We'll discuss it in the last section.
The good news is that the CDMA Development Group has announced that simultaneous voice and data will become commercially available in the first half of this year. Yet, just because the new technology is out there, it doesn't mean that Verizon will start using it right away. As of now, no CDMA carrier, Verizon included, has said that it will adopt simultaneous voice and data. And even if Verizon does pick up the technology change, its iPhone 4 won't be able to support it without the necessary hardware changes.
Also, 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 around 40 other countries outside North America, but world travelers will have extremely limited roaming capability. Bad move, Apple and Verizon.
Lastly, 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. Though nothing is confirmed yet, we expect a 4G model on both Verizon and AT&T within the next 12 months. Sure, you'll have to upgrade to a new version, but Apple is a master at that game.
A popular joke about the AT&T iPhone is that it's great device, as long as you don't have to make calls. Honestly, we never fully subscribed to that view, but there's no denying that for some iPhone users, particularly those in dense urban areas, AT&T has delivered a less than stellar iPhone experience. And as the problems continued, the belief that Verizon could deliver a better performance became so ingrained, that many consumers saw no other possible outcome. Yet, like so many other things in tech, the reality is more complex.
Voice calls and antenna
We divided our voice call tests into three parts. First, we made calls on the dual-band (CDMA 800/1900) Verizon iPhone without picking up AT&T's device. On our end, the audio was clear with little distortion or interference. The volume was loud, as well, and the noise cancellation feature continued to do a good job of screening out background noise. When we called a friend waiting at the airport, we could hear her clearly, even as announcements blared in the background over the PA system.
We then hung up and placed a call on the AT&T iPhone (to keep the test fair we called from an area where we know both carriers offer good coverage). During the call, we noticed few differences in clarity apart from a small amount of buzz that usually accompanies GSM networks. The volume was equally loud, as well, and the noise cancellation feature did the same job.
On their end, callers had mixed reports. A few people said we sounded no different, but one friend said the Verizon handset delivered tinnier audio quality on his end. The change wasn't significant, he said, but he noticed immediately. All of the people we called could hear us adequately, even if we were calling from alongside a busy street. Speakerphone and Bluetooth headset calls were about the same as on the AT&T handset, and we had no issues when using an automated calling system. Check out this blog post to see how the AT&T and Verizon iPhone 4 voice samples compare.
Apple iPhone 4 (Verizon) call quality sample Listen now:
For our last voice test, we took the phone to five locations in San Francisco that can be troublesome for both carriers. We went to an onramp of the Bay Bridge during the afternoon rush, a ground-level pedestrian tunnel under a street, the elevator in CNET's offices, an underground transit station, and an interior stairway in a residential apartment building. In each place we made a call to the same phone number at the same time. This post explains the test in more detail.
On the whole, the Verizon handset outperformed AT&T's device. It connected first in the pedestrian tunnel and apartment building hallway and showed more bars on the home screen. AT&T connected first in the transit station, but it was unable to connect at all on the bridge onramp. And even worse, it couldn't get a signal in the elevator. Dropped calls were not a problem on either phone during our testing period. Unlike on AT&T, Verizon's network doesn't let you drop off 3G. That's a not a bad thing, but we were not happy that you can't use the Field Test feature to check signal strength.
Of course, we had to see if the Verizon iPhone suffered from any of the attenuation problems that plagued the iPhone 4 last summer. Though Apple and Apple fans may deny there was a problem, we certainly experienced real issues when we touched the infamous gap on the handset's left side. Luckily, the Verizon iPhone didn't appear to suffer the same fate. We didn't experience audio cut-outs and we didn't see the bars drop when we put the phone in the death grip.
Though AT&T's HSPA 3G network technically is faster than Verizon's EV-DO technology, our tests produced varying results. To start, we compared load times for three Web sites--Airliners.net, NYTimes.com, and the full CNET site--on the AT&T and Verizon handsets. We tried from the same location at three times of day: late afternoon, early morning, and just before midnight.
In most instances, Verizon's 3G (EV-DO) network delivered faster speeds. The difference varied widely--sometimes it was short as 3 seconds, but it could go longer than a minute--and the AT&T phone was more likely to have its connection time out. The AT&T phone won on a few occasions, but only by 9 seconds at the most. Time of day also played a role, with the AT&T handset being significantly slower in the late afternoon.
Recorded times to load Web sites (in seconds)
For our next test we traveled to four additional trouble spots in San Francisco: the parking garage in the basement of CNET's building, Treasure Island, the Financial District during lunch hour, and the neighborhood just below Twin Peaks. In each location, we compared the number of bars on the display, used Root Metrics' CoverageMap (find it in the iTunes App Store) app to test upload and download speeds, uploaded a photo to Facebook, and accessed the Web page Giantbomb.com. The point was to combine real measurements with real-world use.
Here again, Verizon won most of the time, but the results were all over the map. When we tested data speeds using the Root app, Big Red's data speeds were significantly higher than AT&T's. For instance, Verizon's offered download speeds of 651Kbps at the Financial District location, whereas AT&T's offered download speeds of 116Kbps. The gap in other locations wasn't quite as wide, but the Verizon handset always won and it finished the data test first.
In the other tests, however, the differences weren't as sharp. The Verizon phone was quicker to access the Web page and upload the Facebook photo most of the time, but not always by a lot. On some occasions there was no difference, and in two tests (once on Treasure Island and once on Twin Peaks) the AT&T handset won. We cover the testing process in more detail in this accompanying blog post and video, so be sure to check it out. We also tested the browser speed on Wi-Fi and the handset's boot time.
|Phone name||Wi-Fi Web speed (in seconds)||Boot time (in seconds)|
|Apple iPhone 4 (AT&T)||10.7||35.5|
|Apple iPhone 4 (Verizon)||9.6||38.6|
|Samsung Nexus S||7.3||27.1|
Better, but not by much
Yes, the Verizon iPhone offered a better experience in our initial tests. And we suspect that in the first months after its release it will do the same for you. But as we said before, it's important to step back and remember a few things. Though we tried to make our tests as fair as possible, there was one aspect that we couldn't correct. We were, after all, using the Verizon iPhone during a period when just a handful of such handsets were in the wild. Sure, other Verizon smartphones were using the network, too, but our AT&T phone was competing with many more smartphone users, iPhones included, in the immediate area. So in other words, AT&T's faster network won't matter much if you're vying with a lot of people to use it.
That's why the Verizon iPhone's real test will continue to play out over time. As the carrier adds millions of data-hungry users (some estimates say that Verizon could add up to 13 million new customers in two years) we could begin to see more even performance results. As we approach February 10, Verizon definitely has a couple of things going for it. Its reputation for offering a strong network is well-deserved, it's been able to use Android handsets to gauge date use, and there's no question that it's learned from AT&T's travails with capacity. Also, because of the two CDMA pipes, voice quality on the Verizon iPhone is less likely to be compromised by data use.
Verizon very well could be ready for the data onslaught, but we still caution you to keep those expectations in check. If you've torn you hair out at AT&T, we certainly empathize, but don't look at Big Red's phone as a magic device. You're still using an imperfect cellular network and your experience can vary by several factors, including location and interference. We don't doubt that users in other cities will have different results. Unfortunately, though, we don't have the time and resources to compare the phones in every corner of the country. Your experience should be better, but then again it may not.
The Verizon iPhone 4 promises the same battery life as the AT&T phone. That's 7 hours of 3G talk time, 40 hours of audio playback, 10 hours of video playback, 6 hours of 3G browsing, 10 hours of Wi-Fi browsing, and 300 hours of standby. We ran three talk time battery tests and eked out an average of 7 hours and 5 minutes. Though that result is quite respectable for a CDMA phone, it is less than the 7 hours and 46 minutes of 3G talk time we got on the AT&T iPhone 4. For media use, we came away with 67 hours of music playback and 10.3 hours of video playback. Both times were better than what we experienced on the AT&T iPhone 4.
According to FCC radiation tests, the iPhone 4 has a digital SAR of 1.18 watts per kilogram.