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.
When Apple added “Internet Tethering”—a cell phone-as-computer-modem software feature—to the iPhone in iOS 3.0, it notably omitted AT&T from the list of providers who were supporting the feature, most likely because AT&T’s network was not ready to handle additional demands from users with “unlimited” data plans. AT&T later allowed iOS 4.0 users to tether their iPhones to their computers, assuming that they were willing to downgrade to limited-capacity data plans while paying an additional $20 monthly fee for tethering service. Users went to the General > Network menu to “Set Up Internet Tethering,” established a USB or Bluetooth connection between the computer and the iPhone, and could use up to 2GB of shared bandwidth per month before additional fees applied.
Verizon and Apple rolled out an updated version of Internet Tethering in iOS 4.2.5/6 called Personal Hotspot—the only major new feature they unveiled together. This feature replaces single-device Internet Tethering with a feature that works with up to five devices at a time, now using Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or USB connections to the iPhone, and Verizon offers 2GB of additional shared data that all of the devices can draw upon for $20 total per month. If Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are globally turned off for the iPhone 4, users can enable the Hotspot to work only over USB, over Wi-Fi and USB, or simultaneously using all three interfaces at once, the latter two with additional battery drain.
We tested the Verizon iPhone 4 Personal Hotspot feature against two other options: a MacBook Air equipped with Verizon and Novatel Wireless’s USB727 3G CDMA Adapter, and a direct 802.11n Wi-Fi connection between the MacBook Air and an AirPort Extreme 802.11n router. Download performance of the Personal Hotspot was roughly consistent with the Verizon iPhone 4 operating on its own—both were in the 0.9 to 1.0Mbps range—but uploading speed was markedly lower, hovering around 0.15Mbps versus 0.4Mbps average for the iPhone 4 in non-Hotspot mode. The USB727 3G CDMA Adapter let the MacBook Air reach a higher peak download speed of nearly 1.3Mbps, but the upload speed was below the untethered iPhone 4’s at roughly 0.2Mbps. Making a direct Wi-Fi connection between the MacBook Air and a router connected to broadband service saw download speeds of 14Mbps and uploads in the 0.9Mbps range. All of the tests were conducted with Speedtest.net using the same servers.
In sum, the Verizon iPhone 4 Personal Hotspot feature delivers only slightly degraded performance relative to a standalone Verizon USB CDMA adapter, with similarly weak uploading speeds that measured roughly 1/5 as fast as the 1Mbps or better downloading speeds. The convenience of carrying only the self-powered iPhone alongside a laptop, rather than adding a battery-draining USB dongle, may justify the modest data performance dip. Users with access to dedicated Wi-Fi broadband connections will obviously benefit from dramatically faster uploading and downloading; users without such access might prefer to rely upon the iPhone 4 itself for uploads while switching between the computer and iPhone 4 for downloading needs, particularly given Verizon’s 2GB monthly cap on tethered data, and the unlimited data plan for the iPhone 4. AT&T users should expect potentially faster Hotspot performance, offset by legitimate network reliability concerns and arguably irrelevant iPhone 4 bandwidth limitations.