iPhone 4 on Verizon: Buy now, or wait for iPhone 5?

Network reliability will matter

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On Tuesday, a Verizon spokeswoman said the carrier is ready for the iPhone 4 and its data demands. "We wouldn't put any device on our network unless we were confident that customers would have a positive experience," she said in an e-mail.

If you want to compare AT&T's and Verizon's services and you don't already have devices from both carriers, analysts suggest borrowing a smartphone that runs on the network you're not familiar with. Or at least ask a friend or colleague who uses the other service to tell you how the service has been on different days and at various times.

Mark W. Smith, a technology writer at the Detroit Free Press, wrote recently about his cell phone experiences, and he said he found that the Verizon network is a "better experience" than AT&T's in metro Detroit.

Smith wrote that during his commute from Royal Oak to Detroit, he regularly experiences dropped calls on his AT&T iPhone but never on his Droid X from Verizon. He avoided generalizing about the networks' capabilities beyond his personal experience. In contrast, carriers' ads focus the scope of their nationwide coverage but tend to ignore users' actual experiences.

A simple reality, but one that people often forget -- especially if they're heavy smartphone users -- is that cell connections are harder to maintain when the user is moving, analysts point out. Data connections are less of a concern while moving, but not always.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J.Gold Associates, summarized the network issue this way: "Coverage is a personal thing. It varies by location, and one carrier with great coverage in one spot may have terrible coverage in another spot. So it's hard to say one carrier has superior coverage everywhere. That said, most users stay fairly close to one area most of the time, so it's important to them which carrier has the best coverage on their home turf."

Furthermore, Gold pointed out that "most complaints you see from consumers have to do with their home areas, and not roaming to other places." He did acknowledge, however, that that's not necessarily the case for business travelers who are on the road a lot. "Their needs are for good service everywhere," he said.

Ultimately, the decision about whether to buy the Verizon iPhone 4 or wait for the iPhone 5 depends on what you want: Price could be a factor. Network connections could be a factor. The appeal of a slicker next-gen device could be a factor.

What should you do?

For those pondering the decision, the Free Press's Smith had this advice: "If you really want an iPhone but can wait, hold out for iPhone 5." He reasoned that it won't make sense to be tied to Verizon for two years with an iPhone 4 that is already old, having been released last summer.

In contrast, if you don't need the latest and greatest device and have been waiting for Verizon service for years, go ahead and buy an iPhone 4 from Verizon.

"It's a great phone," Smith said. "Just don't cry too loudly when the masses line up this summer to snatch up Apple's latest offering and you're left with last year's gadget."

Gold said much the same thing: "Waiting for iPhone 5 versus going with 4 is not a coverage question in my opinion. It's one of features and functions and perhaps style. If you want to wait for the next phone, it will likely have more features and functions and may have a nicer, sleeker style."

"But that means you have to make do with what you have now," he added. "If, on the other hand, the iPhone 4 is enough to meet your needs for the foreseeable future -- two years in this case -- why wait?"

Analysts believe some AT&T iPhone customers (more than 10%, by several estimates) will leave for Verizon, but they won't all jump at once. AT&T has conceded that the road ahead, with iPhone competition from Verizon, will be "rocky." Meanwhile, Verizon believes it will sell 11 million iPhones in 2011.

Go forth and figure.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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