When the first iPhone debuted in 2007, it and subsequent versions were only available on AT&T. Finally, in 2011, it landed on Verizon Wireless, with Sprint getting the iPhone 4 and 4S a year later.
Prepaid carrier Virgin Mobile was able to offer up the iPhone 4 and 4S starting only a few months ago. On its network, users won't get locked into a two-year deal, but the iPhone 4's price tag jumps to $550 (compared with $99 with a carrier agreement). Through Virgin, unlimited data, messaging, and minutes cost about $55 a month, while Sprint's unlimited data plan goes for about $110 for smartphones.
In addition to price, another difference is network performance. Virgin Mobile uses Sprint's network, and tests carried out in our San Francisco offices showed that for the iPhone its 3G speeds were slower than AT&T's and Verizon's.
Other than pricing, data speeds, and call quality (more on that later), Virgin's iPhone 4 is pretty much the same as all the others. You still get all the expected essentials, like the 3.5-inch Retina Display, access to the App Store, FaceTime calling, the 5-megapixel camera, and iOS 5.1. And you can get mobile hot-spotting for an extra $15 a month.
Again, there are no big physical changes in Apple's iPhone 4 for Virgin Mobile. The device has the same measurements (4.5 inches tall, 2.3 inches wide, and 0.37 inch deep), its glass front and back, the stainless-steel encircling border, and the flat profile. The well-known Retina Display, with its 940x640-pixel resolution and 326 pixels per square inch, is also identical to that on other carriers' models.
Just like the Verizon model, the Virgin unit accommodates a CDMA antenna, so the ringer mute switch is a tad bit closer to the volume rocker than on AT&T's version. Antenna locations are also in the same places as the Verizon model's, as indicated by the two antenna gaps that sit above the ringer switch and to the right of the sleep/power button. And, of course, there is no SIM card slot. Other user controls and hardware (the noise-cancellation microphone, the proximity sensor, the 30-pin connector, the microphone, the speaker, and both the cameras) are in the usual places as well.
In fact, the only way you can tell that this is a Virgin handset is by reading its name on the top-left corner of the banner.
Virgin's iPhone 4 comes with all the expected standard features, such as a 5-megapixel camera with 720p high-definition recording and HDR shooting, a calendar, voice and text memos, weather and stock apps, various clock features, Google Maps, YouTube, news and gaming portals, the App Store, iTunes, the Safari Web browser, notifications, a music player, a calculator, and a compass.
Out of the box, the handset came loaded with iOS 5.1, which includes goodies like the Photo Stream feature, which you can toggle on or off in the Settings menu. This enables you to automatically upload your photos to your iCloud account. Accessing your camera for your Photo Stream is also a lot easier, too, since you can open the camera from the lock screen. Other features include alternate map routes; FaceTime calling over a Wi-Fi network; iMessage messaging with other iPhone, iPad, and iPod devices; a reading list option in Safari; and customized alert tones. For more information, be sure to read our complete guide to iOS 5.
As I mentioned before, you also can turn your device into a mobile hot spot, the way you can Verizon's iPhone 4. You'll need to pay an extra $15 a month, and while that extra charge is annoying, it's still nice that your laptop or tablet can get access to your iPhone's unlimited data network. Unfortunately, it being a CDMA handset, you cannot access voice and data simultaneously.
I tested the dual-band (CDMA 800/1900) iPhone 4 in San Francisco using Virgin's services. Call quality was excellent. Voices were clear, especially at max volume, and there were no extraneous background noises or buzzing. My calls didn't drop and audio didn't clip in and out. Likewise, my friend told me that my voice was clear, and that I could be heard perfectly well.
Listen now: Apple iPhone 4 (Virgin Mobile) call quality sample
For comparison, listen to our call samples from the iPhone 4 on AT&T and the iPhone 4S on Verizon:
Listen now: Apple iPhone 4 (AT&T) call quality sample
Listen now: Apple iPhone 4S (Verizon) call quality sample
Compared with the Verizon iPhone 4S, however, voices weren't as crisp. I put all units on max volume, and the Verizon model sounded the best, as if the person were speaking closer to the receiver. At his end, my friend agreed with me, saying he heard me most clearly when I was speaking into the Verizon handset.
Our AT&T iPhone 4 performed the worst. Call quality was noticeably poorer -- my friend's voice sounded muddled and there was a subtle, continuous buzzing sound. In fact, I initially thought I had been put on speaker because the sound quality was so disappointing. Compared with AT&T's device, voices on the Virgin iPhone were fuller and didn't come off as tinny and harsh. Again, my friend aligned with me on this. He said my voice sounded incredibly staticky and hollow on the AT&T model.
Virgin's 3G EV-DO Rev. A network runs noticeably slower than AT&T's and Verizon's 3G networks. Keep in mind, however, that data performance depends on a number of factors, including location, so the speeds I saw might differ from what you see. For my Virgin unit, while ESPN's desktop site took just a couple more seconds to load than on the other phones, desktop sites like CNET and The New York Times took nearly twice as long. Furthermore, downloading the 24.6MB game Temple Run took almost 7 minutes more on average.
|Virgin's iPhone 4||AT&T's iPhone 4||Verizon's iPhone 4S|
|CNET mobile site (load time in seconds)||15||13||8|
|CNET desktop site (load time in seconds)||26||15||8|
|New York Times desktop site (load time in seconds)||38||15||11|
|ESPN mobile site (load time in seconds)||10||9||6|
|ESPN desktop site (load time in seconds)||32||18||15|
|Temple Run (26.4MB app, download time in minutes)||10:35||3:08||3:23|
|Ookla (download speed in Mbps)||0.21||2.62||1.05|
|Ookla (upload speed in Mbps)||0.49||0.35||0.91|
Our times were averaged from three trials, all from the same location. When loading Web sites, the history and cache were cleared each time. All networks were operating on 3G.
If you want a smartphone (which, frankly, most people do), you usually have two options. You can get one on a standard carrier at a lower price, but you'll be bound by a contract. Alternatively, you can go to a prepaid carrier and pay more for the same phone. But, you won't be chained down by any two-year agreement. If you're someone who wants to go the latter route, then you can consider the iPhone 4. It's much, much more expensive than Virgin's other smartphones (currently, its third highest-priced device after the iPhone 4 and 4S is the HTC Evo V 4G for about $240), but it will deliver that unique and satisfying iOS experience. And while 3G speeds aren't that great and you'll be paying through the nose, if you want that Apple experience, this phone will deliver the goods.