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.
For the most part, the GSM and CDMA versions of the iPhone 4 perform identically: their screens look the same, their cameras work the same, and their batteries are more or less identical. All of these hardware capabilities are as impressive as our prior review noted they were. The subsequently-released iOS 4.2 runs at the same speed, with the same resolution, and virtually the same capabilities on both devices; the same suite of pre-installed applications we’ve previously discussed remains entirely intact here, down to specific features such as Visual Voicemail. Third-party iOS apps also run the same on GSM and CDMA iPhone 4s. Only the word “Verizon” at the top of the screen clues you in that there’s a difference.
Though teardown specialists such as iFixit have identified a number of small changes inside the Verizon iPhone 4—as well as a Qualcomm MDM6600 cellular wireless chip and changes to the device’s GPS and vibration components, these differences turn out to be virtually invisible from a user’s perspective. While the wireless chip is technically capable of supporting both CDMA and GSM standards, the Verizon iPhone 4 doesn’t include antenna or SIM card hardware for GSM purposes. GPS performance appears identical between AT&T’s and Verizon’s units. The new vibration mechanism is just a little quieter than the old one, and limits the iPhone 4’s movement on a flat surface during vibration—the original version shifted as it vibrated, while the new one stays in place. Like the Verizon iPhone 4’s battery, which weighs 1.3 grams less than the GSM device’s, most people won’t notice these changes at all. But users will notice some potentially major differences between the devices in cellular performance, both in the data and phone calling departments. Here’s what our testing found.
Data. Apart from the Verizon iPhone 4’s continued antenna issues, there were very few surprises in its performance as a phone and as a data device. Used over a Wi-Fi network, it offers roughly the same downloading and uploading performance as an AT&T iPhone 4 connected at the same time: over a mixed 802.11g/n network, our tests showed both devices ranging between 10-13Mbps download speeds and 0.9Mbps upload speeds, markedly faster for downloading but similar in uploading relative to our typical AT&T cellular results in East Amherst, New York. Just to get a sense of what some Verizon Android upgraders might expect, we also tested the Verizon iPhone 4 against a first-generation Motorola Droid phone in the same physical location over Wi-Fi, and the Droid registered a 9.1Mbps download speed with a 1Mbps upload speed, very modest differences versus the iPhone 4 at 10.3Mbps and 0.94Mbps, respectively.
Cellular differences were considerably larger. Whereas our AT&T iPhone achieved cellular download speeds in the 2.6Mbps range over AT&T’s network—and we’re not in a location with particularly impressive AT&T 3G towers—our Verizon phone struggled to achieve 1Mbps download rates from the same indoor testing location, most commonly seeing speeds in the 0.6 to 0.8Mbps range, with both phones floating around three bars of stated signal strength. Verizon upload speeds averaged 0.4Mbps range relative to AT&T speeds in the 0.8Mbps range. Outdoors, we went to a location where both phones showed five-bar signal strength, and though AT&T’s speeds were similar to what we saw indoors, jumping into the 1.1 or 1.2Mbps upload speed range, Verizon’s performance improved to an average of 1.5Mbps for downloads, once hitting nearly 2.2Mbps, an aberration relative to other results, while upload speeds fluctuated in the 0.7 range.
While both phones were subject to significant variations based on testing location and the location of the servers they were connecting to, the AT&T iPhone 4 was most frequently faster than the Verizon version, sometimes by a significant 2:1 or greater margin, and at other times roughly matching it. That said, the Verizon iPhone 4 outperformed Verizon’s original Droid in direct indoor cellular testing: average Droid download rates hovered around 0.3Mbps, and uploads averaged 0.25Mbps, alternating with the Verizon iPhone 4 at 0.6Mbps for downloads and 0.37Mbps for uploads. In other words, though the Verizon iPhone 4 falls markedly behind the pace of the AT&T iPhone 4 on a cellular connection, it will offer tangible gains to some Verizon upgraders.
We found that antenna attenuation continues to significantly impact the Verizon iPhone 4 under the same sorts of conditions that affected the AT&T GSM device: depending on how the iPhone 4 is held, it can lose almost complete data connectivity over a cellular connection and partial data connectivity over a Wi-Fi connection. In one test in vertical orientation, the Verizon iPhone 4 started at four bars of signal strength and had a Speedtest.net result of 1.1Mbps for cellular downloads and 0.5Mbps for uploads, falling to one bar, 0.1Mbps for downloads and 0Mbps for uploads. Wi-Fi testing in horizontal, two-hand-holding orientation showed a 50% or greater drop in downloading speeds (12-15Mbps downloads down to 5.2-5.5Mbps) while 0.9Mbps upload speeds remained stable. Simply adding a case to the outside of the iPhone 4 effectively fixes the problem.
Calls. Though we were prepared to hear significant variations between phone calls—or be told by callers that we sounded a lot different to them—users outside of AT&T’s most heavily congested markets should not expect to hear major or even minor differences between Verizon’s and AT&T’s iPhone 4s. In our primary Western New York testing location, which has solid but not fast AT&T coverage, both we and our callers heard only the tiniest distinctions between the phones: all of our callers reported that we sounded just a hint quieter and less treble-heavy on the Verizon iPhone when we were using it as either a speakerphone or handset, which two callers said made us sound a little more intelligible on the AT&T iPhone 4; all of the callers agreed that this made for ever-so-slightly more natural voice rendition on the Verizon version.
Regardless of whether they were being reached on land lines or cellular phones, all callers said that the differences were so small that they would hardly be able to tell the phones apart, and on the other side of the phones, we felt the same way. We drove with both phones through an area that occasionally suffered from dropped calls, and neither phone had an issue there, or elsewhere. Verizon’s reported signal strength was slightly higher from location to location than AT&T’s, but this appeared to make no difference in call quality, nor did the data-impacting antenna attenuation issues.
Where the Verizon iPhone 4 will make an obvious difference is in cities and neighborhoods with poor AT&T coverage, including areas that are heavily saturated with customers, ones at too great of a distance from AT&T’s towers, and places where AT&T’s signals have trouble penetrating buildings. Until and unless Verizon’s slower but bigger network reaches similar rates of saturation, Verizon iPhone 4 users will continue to benefit from more stable connections and fewer dropped calls in those areas—a non-trivial benefit for those who are willing or compelled to sacrifice speed for reliability.
Calls Plus Data. One particularly noteworthy distinction between the Verizon and AT&T versions of the iPhone 4 is the Verizon device’s inability to simultaneously handle cellular calls and cellular data. If the Verizon iPhone 4 is disconnected from a Wi-Fi network and browsing the web, an incoming call will interrupt whatever Safari is loading, and only resume when the call has ended. Attempt to multitask your way back to the browser and a warning message will appear: “Cellular data connections are not available during this call.”
While this isn’t an issue when the Verizon iPhone 4 is connected to a Wi-Fi network—it can make and receive cellular calls while using Wi-Fi for data services—this particular limitation disappeared for AT&T users years ago when the iPhone transitioned from EDGE to 3G, enabling simultaneous cellular phone and data use. If the AT&T iPhone 4 is switched to EDGE mode, it doubles its battery life for calling purposes, but loses the simultaneous calling and EDGE data capability. The Verizon iPhone 4 does not have an EDGE/GSM toggle; instead, there’s only a Cellular Data on/off switch. It notably can still receive text messages when it’s in the middle of web browsing.
Battery Drain. Apple’s promised battery life for the Verizon iPhone 4 is identical to the prior GSM version: 7 hours of 3G talk time, 6 hours of 3G data, 10 hours of Wi-Fi data or video playback, and 40 hours of audio playback. Our prior iPhone 4 battery tests established that Apple’s numbers were generally right on the money or conservative, and the Verizon iPhone 4’s 3G battery drain is virtually identical to the AT&T version’s: an automated one-hour Safari web page loading test running on both devices at once knocked 14% off the AT&T iPhone 4’s battery and 15% off the Verizon iPhone 4, precisely in line with last year’s battery results.
Though most other aspects of battery performance are similar between the original iPhone 4 and the Verizon version, we did note that the Verizon iPhone 4 exhibited less battery drain in an idle state—screen off, 3G on, Wi-Fi off—than the AT&T version under identical conditions. Over a seven-hour period, the Verizon iPhone 4 lost 13% of its power, while the AT&T iPhone 4 lost 19% of its power, which is to say that the fully-recharged Verizon version could sit for roughly 54 hours in this state before requiring charging, and the AT&T version would last closer to 37 hours. Both devices use less power when connected to a Wi-Fi network, which is how they’d most commonly be left at home, so their idle times would increase relative to these baseline “on the road” figures.