Review: Apple iPhone 4 (Verizon CDMA, 16GB/32GB)
Pros: A solid re-release of the most impressive iPhone yet, combining museum-quality design with industry-leading display and camera hardware, video calling software, and third-party applications that are rarely matched by rival devices. Developed primarily for Verizon Wireless, including the iPhone family’s first Wi-Fi-based Personal Hotspot data-sharing feature for computers and iPads, and benefitting from enhanced call reliability in some parts of the United States. Battery performance is roughly equivalent to original iPhone 4’s, which offered a major jump relative to the prior-generation iPhone 3GS. Still reasonably priced given all of the technology inside.
Cons: Designed for Verizon’s large but slow CDMA wireless network, resulting in markedly reduced data speeds in some areas, and always preventing cellular data services from being used while calls are incoming or in progress. Lack of SIM card slot and GSM support preclude this model from being used on majority of international cellular networks. Despite opportunities to fix previously acknowledged enclosure issues, glass and metal body remains unusually susceptible to damage and antenna attenuation unless a case is purchased and used. Other issues from AT&T iPhone 4 persist, including limited space for high-resolution video, photos, and apps in the lowest capacity 16GB version. Released eight months into iPhone 4’s life cycle, only slightly ahead of anticipated successor model.
Beautiful but also controversial from the moment it hit users’ hands—and the occasional sidewalk—the original iPhone 4’s glass and metal body has returned almost unchanged in the Verizon version. Without rehashing all the details from our full review, the iPhone 4 is made from a metal core with flat pieces of glass above and below, each with an oil-resistant coating. While the device naturally attracts fingerprints on both sides, the coating enables them to be easily wiped off with a soft cloth, subject to the risk of hairline surface scratches. The steel central frame is matte-finished, showing fewer marks and possessing a thin lip of black plastic that protects the glass against edge chipping.
On the left side of the metal core are volume buttons and a ringer switch; the top has a headphone port, tiny microphone hole, and Sleep/Wake Button, while the bottom has a second microphone, Dock Connector charging/synchronization port, and a speaker. The front glass has holes for a plastic Home button, a small camera, and an ear speaker, while the back has holes for a larger camera and LED flash, plus a silver Apple logo and matching text. There’s a 3.5” touchscreen on the front, branded by Apple as a “Retina Display” because its 960x640 resolution has 326 dots per inch—more than the human eye can individually perceive at normal viewing distances.
The cardboard boxes for the Verizon and AT&T iPhone 4 are almost identical, with modest front photographic and rear text tweaks that reflect Verizon’s service terms and network specifications.
Apple packages each iPhone 4 with three accessories: a wall power adapter, a USB cable, and a set of Earphones with Remote + Mic, all nearly identical to ones that have also been sold separately for years. Two Apple stickers and two paper pamphlets are included to provide warranty details and initial tips for the iPhone. Our purchased Verizon iPhone 4 also arrived with a red folio containing a receipt, a Verizon activation guide, and a mailing label to return the unit if necessary.
While virtually everyone has praised the iPhone 4’s looks and solid, substantial feel, its unusual fragility was obvious to all but the most blind Apple loyalists: the glass front and back were ready to be accidentally scratched or shattered, and the central metal antenna frame was atypically prone to full or partial cellular signal loss when held naturally in a hand. An additional issue wasn’t known at the time, namely that a white version of the iPhone 4 had been pulled at the last minute because its glass back was creating problems with its rear camera, something that hadn’t been an issue for Apple’s previous silver, black, or white iPhone enclosures. Following our prior iPhone 4 review, Apple downplayed initial reports of problems with the device’s body, selected a small group of journalists to tour its secret testing facilities, and grudgingly offered free cases to affected users, a temporary solution it discontinued several months later. While apologists attempted to prove their faith in the company by keeping their iPhone 4s bare, Apple went back to work on a revised antenna design, and quietly set up a new testing station to figure out why certain case designs were easily scratching the rear glass and causing intermittent camera problems.
The most obvious physical differences between the Verizon and GSM iPhone 4s are in the glass and the antenna, but neither is as dramatic as their eight-month release date gaps might suggest. First, Apple has made modest cosmetic changes to the Verizon version’s rear glass: the FCC and other certification icons that appeared on the GSM iPhone 4 have disappeared entirely, as has the IC number. This reduces the quantity of tiny text and logos that were previously found right above the Dock Connector port.
It has also changed the antenna. Apple previously split the iPhone 4’s metal core into three segments, one on the bottom, one running from the left to the top corner, and one from the rest of the top down the right side. Now there are four segments, one each for the top, left, right, and bottom sides, with four symmetrical black gaps rather than three. While it was initially claimed by some—notably not Apple—that these antenna changes would address the signal attenuation issues identified in the iPhone 4 last year, our Verizon iPhone 4 exhibited the same reductions in signal strength that we saw with AT&T, knocking a four-bar signal down to one bar and dramatically weakening wireless data performance. Apple has said only that the antenna changes were designed to make the device work on Verizon’s CDMA network, nothing more.
The antenna changes also required the ringer switch to move a few millimeters south of its prior position. Consequently, some prior-generation iPhone 4 cases won’t perfectly fit, so a number of case developers have readied revised versions with slightly larger holes to accommodate the switches on both versions of the device. Even Apple’s own Bumpers required a redesign, suggesting that the company didn’t know back then that it would be changing the switch’s location.
A comparatively tiny change brings the volume buttons a millimeter lower on the Verizon version than on the AT&T version. Based on our testing, the integrated volume button covers on prior iPhone 4 cases will generally work, but cases with dedicated ringer switch openings will partially overlap the switch. Less protective cases with pill-shaped openings for the switch and buttons may work without modification.
Apple has also made two other changes to the Verizon iPhone 4’s body. The new frame omits the Micro-SIM card compartment that’s found on all GSM iPhones, most recently on the iPhone 4’s right side. This seemingly modest external change means that, unlike other iPhones, the Verizon iPhone 4 cannot be used with the hundreds of SIM-dependent GSM cellular networks found outside the United States—a major difference that will impact this model’s resale value relative to the standard iPhone 4’s.
Finally, Apple has swapped the miniature Philips-style screws found on the first shipping iPhone 4 units for tamper-proof “pentalobe” screws that have appeared in subsequent iPhone 4 units. As the iPhone 4 was barely user-serviceable before, this latter change does little more than reduce the number of options for opening its chassis. Few people will care about this particular change.
Otherwise, the CDMA iPhone 4 is more or less identical physically to the original version. Because of the glass and metal body concerns mentioned above, we continue to strongly advise that iPhone 4 owners use substantially protective cases—a less expensive option than buying insurance to cover accidental drops, chips, and scratches. The best options we’ve seen come from third-party developers such as Speck (including the CandyShell Flip and PixelSkin HD) and SwitchEasy, but there are many other options spotlighted in our iPhone 4 Case Gallery.
Many are in the process of receiving updates to address the changed ringer switch location, revisions that most developers are explicitly noting on their packaging and web sites; Scosche’s open-sided kickBack G4 case now has a “Also works with Verizon iPhone 4” sticker on the box. We have not noticed any differences in the Verizon iPhone 4’s performance with non-case accessories such as speakers or chargers, but will update this section if we do.