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Hands on: Should you get the Verizon iPhone 4?

Our tests of the new Verizon iPhone 4 are mostly positive, especially with regard to signal strength.

February 10, 2011 05:46 PM ET

Computerworld - Thousands (or even millions) of people are strongly considering the purchase of the second coming of the iPhone 4 -- the one powered by Verizon. But what might have been a slam-dunk decision a year ago isn't quite so clear cut now.

iPhone 4
Apple's iPhone 4: The Verizon model is on top, the AT&T model on the bottom.

For one thing, the next version of the iPhone is expected to be released this year (probably this summer). For another, AT&T's 3G network, while arguably less reliable than Verizon's -- especially in key markets, such as New York City and San Francisco -- is faster when you have a decent connection.

And there are more issues. The Verizon iPhone doesn't support voice and data operations simultaneously. Plus, competition from Android-based smartphones is fierce, and they're evolving rapidly.

We've been testing the Verizon iPhone 4 at Computerworld. First, let's get this out of the way: Despite numerous reports about differences between the two versions of the iPhone 4, from a user perspective they're virtually identical. The Verizon version lacks a covered SIM-card slot, and the antenna has four dividers instead of three in the stainless steel rim. On the inside, there are several minor differences, the most significant being the new CDMA radio required for Verizon's network.

Connection strength

In our tests in the greater Boston area, the Verizon phone cleared up the one nagging issue troubling users of the AT&T iPhone: connection strength and reliability. Our testing showed that Verizon's network delivered significantly stronger reception than AT&T's. In one example, we found that the Verizon iPhone was able to grab three bars in Computerworld's gym, which is in the partially underground basement level of our office building. For the AT&T iPhone, this same room was a dead zone.

Try as we might, Computerworld editors were unable to reveal anything like the "death grip" vulnerability on the Verizon iPhone that we are easily able to demonstrate on the AT&T iPhone. Charles Starrett of iLounge published a convincing story with video demonstrating a reduction in reception strength apparently corresponding to grip position on the Verizon iPhone 4.

In addition to our own series of tests for this problem, we attempted to duplicate Starrett's results and came up empty. No matter what we did, the Verizon-based smartphone showed five bars and throughput was undiminished.

Performance

Speaking of throughput, we used the Speedtest.net iPhone app to measure the performance of the iPhone 4 on both AT&T and Verizon networks. We ran the test several times on the two phones simultaneously. Both phones were showing five bars.

Speedtest.net median scores

Download Upload
Verizon 0.83 Mbps 0.80 Mbps
AT&T 2.03 Mbps 0.57 Mbps

We also measured ping times; Verizon, at 190 ms, was faster than AT&T's 301 ms.

The real-world download measure is the most important metric. Granted, throughput can vary greatly and is affected by a lot of variables. But this snapshot in time and location showed AT&T with a roughly 2.5-times advantage, a significant difference.

Cost

Now that the Verizon iPhone 4 is generally available -- along with Verizon's voice, text and data plans -- it's easy to compare what your monthly bill will look like. For 450 minutes of voice calls, unlimited texting and unlimited data (or 2GB data for newer AT&T customers), plus an estimated $10 for fees, figure around $100 per month with either carrier.

AT&T makes it easier to reduce service levels to save money, but its bill is also more confusing, and there's little you can change yourself on their Web site.

Decision time

The "death grip" thing on AT&T's iPhone is a real problem, but any iPhone 4 case, such as the unobtrusive Snap Case ($35) from Incase, handles that issue. (Steer clear of Apple's iPhone 4 Bumper case, though; it's clunky.)

I currently own an AT&T iPhone 4, and I don't experience dropped calls at all in the Boston area; I did have that problem with some earlier iPhone models. That improvement has made me a pretty happy iPhone 4 user. Given that, plus the clear speed advantage and the fact that AT&T (but not Verizon) lets you surf while you're on the phone, and a case can be made that the AT&T iPhone 4 is preferable. I've decided to stick with AT&T, at least until my contract expires.

But for anyone in one of AT&T's oversaturated markets, like New York City or San Francisco (you know who you are), the Verizon iPhone is the better of the two.

Bottom line: The newest version of the iPhone 4 is slightly improved because of its antenna design, and you're going to love the connection strength and reliability. If you've been hankering for an iPhone but have refused to go with AT&T -- and don't want to wait for the upcoming iPhone 5 -- the Verizon iPhone 4 is the clear choice.

Read more about Mobile/Wireless in Computerworld's Mobile/Wireless Topic Center.



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