Verizon's iPhone 4 vs. ATandT's: Not an Easy Call, Critics Say

Determining whether Verizon's iPhone 4 is better than AT&T's is no easy call, say journalists from the Times, the Journal and Bloomberg News.

The arrival of the Verizon Wireless Apple iPhone 4 has been years in the making. Now, days before the smartphone's Feb. 10 debut, tech reviewers with advanced access to the phone are finally able to offer their thoughts. Was it worth the wait? Does it blow away AT&T's iPhone? Should everyone switch immediately?

On the whole, the critics agreed, there are no simple answers.

The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg made plain from the start of his review: "They aren't interchangeable."

In The New York Times, tech reviewer David Pogue wrote, "The Verizon iPhone is nearly the same as AT&T's iPhone 4-but it doesn't drop calls." He follows that, however, with a number of (as he calls them) "yes, buts..."

And likewise, in a video review for Bloomberg News, Rich Jaroslovsy said that the Verizon iPhone is "for most intents and purposes, a much more satisfying experience." However, he similarly tacks on, the "AT&T phone is superior in a couple respects."

In short, the critics unanimously agreed that the Verizon phone is superior when it comes to placing, and completing, phone calls. (Pogue dialed a landline and drove around San Francisco, a notoriously difficult coverage area for AT&T, for 30 minutes. In that time, the AT&T phone dropped the call four times; the Verizon phone held it continuously.)

It's those other "respects" where the reviewers found themselves in a gray area.

To its credit, Verizon has activated the iPhone's ability to-for an additional fee-act as a hotspot for other wireless devices. However, Verizon's CDMA-based (Code Division Multiple Access-based) iPhone, versus AT&T's GSM-based model, can't accept calls and browse the Internet at the same time. Also, CDMA isn't popular outside the United States, and so the Verizon version works in just 40 countries, as opposed to 220 countries for the AT&T iPhone.

To accommodate the Verizon iPhone's CDMA antenna, Apple moved the Ringer Off switch over just a smidge, which isn't a big deal, aside from making the phone-which otherwise looks identical to the AT&T version-not usable with an AT&T iPhone case. There's also the matter of Verizon itself.

"Even if Verizon's network is the best in America," Pogue wrote, "its policies and prices are still among the worst."

Should readers be too busy complaining about AT&T's poor service to remember, Pogue reminded them that last year Verizon paid the largest-ever Federal Communications Commission fine ($25 million) after it was found to be charging users two bucks every time they hit the up-arrow button. Also, during its most recent earnings call, Verizon announced that it was changing its return policy from 30 days to 14 days and eliminating its "New Every Two" discount program. Also, last year, it doubled its user contract early-termination fee to $350, causing the FCC to launch an investigation into the practice.

More surprisingly, Mossberg also criticized Verizon for its data speeds. "I performed scores of speed tests on the two phones," he wrote. "In these many tests, despite a few Verizon victories here and there, AT&T's network averaged 46 percent faster at download speeds and 24 percent faster at upload speeds." AT&T's superior speeds were most notably, he said, during tasks such as downloading complicated Web pages or large numbers of e-mail.

And Verizon has launched a 4G network in 38 cities. Meanwhile, AT&T still has yet to upgrade from 3G-although, in fairness, it's currently rolling out HSPA+ (Evolved High-Speed Packet Access), which is the basis of T-Mobile's 4G network. However, in some instances, the Verizon iPhone resorted to the carrier's 2G network. The iPhone 4 isn't intended to work on Verizon's 4G network, but the fact that Verizon has one has put some consumers in the mindset that 3G, not 2G, is a respectable default technology.

Mossberg and Pogue both also mentioned that Apple is due to update AT&T's iPhone this summer, as usual, but neither Apple nor Verizon will say if the Verizon iPhone will get an update as well. If it does, it's bound to upset subscribers who find themselves with a second-generation phone after only five months or so; and if it doesn't, it'll upset those consumers who held out for an updated device.

Asking Apple about the matter, Pogue interestingly reported back that Apple would only say, "Let's put it this way: We're not stupid."

Finally, there's the much-talked-about matter of how ready-or not ready-Verizon is for the unavoidable tsunami of iPhone 4 data requests. While it says it's prepared, AT&T originally thought the same thing.

In closing, said Pogue, if you simply care about getting an "iconic, beautiful, fast, elegant iPhone" that doesn't drop calls, the Verizon iPhone 4 is for you. If, however, said Mossberg, your big concerns are data speeds and the ability to travel overseas, and the AT&T service where you live is tolerable, "you may want to stick with AT&T."