The Verizon iPhone 4

It’s the same phone. The only difference is the network. And Verizon’s network is better.

That’s it in a nut.

Here’s the whole story. I’ve been using a Verizon iPhone 4 since Friday morning.1 I was in San Francisco through Sunday morning, and I’ve been home in Philadelphia ever since.

First, it’s not really the same phone. For one thing, the Verizon iPhone currently runs an ever-so-slightly newer version of iOS. (More on this below.) For another, the Verizon iPhone 4 is, technically, different hardware. The existing iPhone 4 only supports GSM networks. The new Verizon iPhone only supports CDMA. Thus, the two phones have entirely different 3G networking components. The external antenna is also different. I find the CDMA iPhone 4’s antenna to be more aesthetically pleasing, because it’s symmetrical, but it’s a very subtle change. In every other regard, the two phones are identical. They feel the same, they look the same. They perform the same. They have the same battery life.

In six days of use, I find call quality noticeably superior on the Verizon iPhone 4. This was more obvious in San Francisco than it was here in Philadelphia, but it’s noticeable here, too. For example, both of my parents — neither of whom are technically savvy or use cell phones regularly — agreed that I sounded much better while using the Verizon iPhone 4 than I did on my AT&T iPhone 4. There’s an audio mushiness on AT&T.

That said, AT&T’s network actually held up pretty well during Macworld Expo last week. I had data service even on the Expo show floor, and I didn’t miss or drop a single call. But calls on the Verizon phone consistently sounded better.

For data, AT&T’s network is faster, exactly as advertised. I used two apps to test data networking speeds over several days: and FCC Mobile Broadband. These are the average results:

AT&T Verizon
Download 1.87 Mbps 1.28 Mbps
Upload 1.18 Mbps 0.48 Mbps
Ping Latency 284 ms 281 ms

These tests were conducted in my home office in Philadelphia. I lacked the foresight to conduct them before leaving San Francisco. For downloading, AT&T is a little faster. For uploading, it’s a bit more than twice as fast. And latency is about equal.

In practice, though, walking around San Francisco and Center City Philadelphia, I feel like I get better service on the Verizon iPhone. For example, my wife and I share a Ta-Da List account for grocery shopping. It’s entirely web-based, and there are certain sections of our grocery store where it doesn’t work with my AT&T iPhone. The Verizon iPhone got perfect service throughout the store. I noticed the same thing in several places in San Francisco. I found only one spot (it was in San Francisco) where my AT&T iPhone 4 had a strong connection but this Verizon iPhone did not.

The numbers don’t lie. AT&T’s data network is faster — when you have a strong connection on both phones. The catch is with that “when you have a strong connection” clause. Verizon’s network has wider, more consistent coverage, and noticeably superior voice quality.2

For what it’s worth, my end of last Friday’s episode of The Talk Show, reporting from Macworld Expo, was recorded entirely over a single continuous voice call placed using the Verizon iPhone 4. It was a 39-minute call (not every minute was recorded) from San Francisco, one block from Moscone, in my hotel room on the 8th floor. No drops, no hiccups, decent quality throughout.

The Wi-Fi Hotspot

The Verizon iPhone, at this moment, also has one unique feature: Wi-Fi hotspot tethering. My unit is running iOS version 4.2.6, and I believe that is the version Apple intends to ship to customers on February 10. All other iPhones around the world are currently on iOS 4.2.1.

When next Apple rolls out an iOS update, all iPhones will get this feature. It will be up to individual carriers whether they support it, just as with the iPhone’s existing USB/Bluetooth tethering feature.

But when will that be? I asked, and Apple declined to answer. My hunch is that we got our answer today, at, of all places, the announcement event for The Daily. The Daily requires a subscription — either $1 per week, or $40 per year. They’re using a new in-app subscription payment system from Apple for this — but these in-app subscription APIs aren’t in iOS 4.2. So The Daily launched today, free for a limited time. They announced at the event that this initial free two-week period was brought to us by: Verizon.

So my guess is that a deal was worked out like this:

  1. The Verizon iPhone debuts with worldwide exclusive access to the Wi-Fi hotspot tethering feature. This way, all the reviews for the Verizon iPhone will mention a very cool feature that the AT&T iPhone doesn’t have. But what it really is is a feature that the AT&T iPhone doesn’t have yet. But it won’t play that way in the review summaries.

  2. Verizon sponsors a two-week free period for The Daily.

  3. At some point in the next two weeks or so, Apple holds an announcement regarding in-app subscription APIs (and, I suspect, given this week’s news regarding in-app payments for third-party bookstores, other in-app purchasing changes). At this point, Apple releases a new version of iOS with support for in-app subscription purchasing and the Wi-Fi hotspot feature. I wouldn’t even be surprised if Apple releases that iOS update prior to February 10, the date the iPhone 4 is slated to arrive in Verizon customers’ hands.

That’s all truly just a guess on my part though. I could be wrong. For one thing, The Daily is an iPad-only app, and tethering is an iPhone-only feature. But I suspect that Apple now prefers to keep the iOS versions in sync between iPhone and iPad — and surely, there will be subscription payment apps that work on both devices.

As for how the hotspot feature works, it’s just great.

First, it’s a lot easier to turn on than it was before. Previously, you needed to open Settings, then go to General → Network → Internet Tethering. Now it’s right at the top of the first level in Settings, with a new name: “Personal Hotspot”.

Turn it on, and you get a Wi-Fi hotspot. The name of the network is the name of your iPhone, as specified when you sync it with iTunes on your computer. It’s password protected by default, and Apple even auto-suggests good passwords like “closed53soaps” — two words, all-lowercase, separated by two digits.

When a client connects, you get a pulsing blue status bar, just as with the existing tethering feature. But now, the status bar includes a count of the connected clients. In the same way that you can tap the green pulsing status bar to return to the Phone app during a call, you can tap the blue pulsing status bar to return to the Personal Hotspot settings.

I used the hotspot feature from my Mac and iPad for much of my work so far this week. It works perfectly, and speed is about as good as one could hope for. The iPhone’s battery meter dropped about 5 percent for every 20 minutes of web surfing while used as a hotspot.

Apple has made the iPhone pretty aggressive about ceasing to broadcast the hotspot when there are no clients connected. So if you turn the hotspot feature on and leave it on, but no clients actually connect, there doesn’t seem to be any effect on battery life that I could see. The same thing happens about a minute or so after the last remaining client disconnects.

However, after the iPhone stops broadcasting the hotspot network, when you then attempt to reconnect, you need to go back to the Hotspot Tethering screen in Settings to get it to “wake up” and start actively broadcasting the network again. You don’t need to change any settings on the screen, because you left the toggle set to “On” — you just need to open the Personal Hotspot settings screen to wake it up. Put another way, it seems to me that if you’re going to use this feature regularly, you can leave the toggle switch set to “On”, and your battery life won’t suffer when the hotspot isn’t actually being used. But when you do need to use it, you need to open the Personal Hotspot settings screen each time.

If you don’t like this sort of “extend the battery life at all costs” behavior, you probably don’t like the iPhone anyway.

The hotspot feature works so well that I can’t really see paying for a 3G iPad again. I’d rather have a Wi-Fi-only iPad and my iPhone’s hotspot, when needed, than pay $15 a month for a 3G data service that only works on the iPad itself. It’s not quite as convenient as having 3G built right in to the iPad, but I just don’t use 3G on the iPad all that much. The other big thing is that with iPhone tethering, my MacBook can get online too — one $20 monthly tethering fee, and all my portable computers have 3G access. (Worked great at SFO Sunday morning.)

That Simultaneous Voice/Data Limitation

When Apple and Verizon announced their deal for the iPhone 4 last month, there was much hemming and hawing about a technical CDMA limitation: it doesn’t support simultaneous voice and data. My thought was: if this CDMA simultaneous voice-data restriction is a deal-breaker, how come we’ve never heard complaints about it from the 94 million existing Verizon customers?

The original 2007 EDGE iPhone had a similar, but much worse limitation. With EDGE, not only could you not use data while on a call, but when you were using data, you couldn’t get calls. If a call came in while you were using data, it would go straight to voicemail. Worse, voicemail messages sometimes took a few minutes to appear. Easily the most annoying aspect of the EDGE iPhone. (Update: Apparently this is an AT&T EDGE limitation; not an inherent limitation of EDGE.)

CDMA’s limitation only works one way: when you are on a call, you can’t use data. But when you are using data, calls come through. If you decline the call, data continues, almost uninterrupted. When you’re using the hotspot feature, if you accept a call, Wi-Fi clients receive no data for the duration of the call, but the Wi-Fi connection is not dropped. As soon as the call is ended, data resumes.

I haven’t run into a problem with this once in the week I’ve had the phone.

Music to Verizon’s Ears

So let’s slightly tweak the nutshell summary of the Verizon iPhone: It’s the same phone. The only differences are (a) a brief period of Verizon exclusivity for the Wi-Fi hotspot feature, and (b) the network. And Verizon’s network is better.

I think both Verizon and Apple are delighted by this.

Apple is delighted because it’s a way of “proving” that the iPhone’s notorious problems with call-dropping and voice quality are AT&T’s fault, not theirs. Now, it’s theoretically possible that the AT&T iPhone’s problems are still Apple’s fault — it could be that the GSM iPhones have hardware or driver problems that the CDMA iPhone 4 does not. But, alas for AT&T, GSM iPhone users around the world do not share in the problems of GSM iPhone users in the United States. Regardless, what matters is mass market perception. Technical people understand that the Verizon iPhone 4 is not exactly the same hardware as the AT&T iPhone 4. But normal people see them as identical. That’s the whole point of Apple’s “two is better than one” commercial: the only difference is the network.

Verizon is delighted because the iPhone 4 is effectively a controlled experiment. There’s one difference, the network, and their network looks better. Verizon isn’t competing with Apple. They’re competing against AT&T. Assuming the iPhone 4 continues to perform on Verizon going forward as it has for me this past week, Verizon is going to bash AT&T over the head with the iPhone 4. Same phone, better on Verizon.

Verizon sells phones. They will continue to sell phones. They will continue to own and push (and control) the Droid brand. The iPhone, though, is a phone they don’t need to own, push, or control. Apple will sell it for them. Verizon just needs to sell their core competency: cellular networking.

I doubt there was much contention between Verizon and Apple. I don’t think we had to wait until now for a Verizon iPhone because they were negotiating with sharp daggers over putting a Verizon logo on the hardware, or custom Verizon apps on the homescreen, or ceding control over OS updates. Verizon may have been reluctant about those things back in 2006, but not now. Verizon might very well prefer a world where the iPhone never existed, but given that it does, and given its popularity, they want it.

No, I suspect the reason we had to wait until now for a Verizon iPhone is that AT&T’s U.S. exclusivity deal with Apple ran through the end of 2010. It’s that simple. That’s why Bloomberg could be so certain, all the way back in June, that Verizon would be getting the iPhone in early 2011. The deal was done, they just had to wait. And while they waited, Apple and Verizon tested and tweaked the shit out of these things on Verizon’s network.

A lot of people have been waiting for four years for this phone. The funny thing is, by next month, the Verizon iPhone is going to seem like the most normal thing in the world.

  1. The phone, including voice and data service, was provided to me by Apple for review purposes. ↩︎

  2. For comparison, I used T-Mobile for a few weeks in December while testing a Nexus S from Google. Both data service and voice quality were way worse than AT&T on my iPhone 4. At least here in Philadelphia, I’d say T-Mobile is poor, AT&T is OK, and Verizon is good. ↩︎