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.
Whether they’re considered collectively or individually, Apple’s iPhones are now international juggernauts: in 2008, they transitioned from niche luxury products to more affordable 3G worldphones, then became faster and more popular with the 2009 iPhone 3GS, and finally received massive upgrades for the 2010 iPhone 4. As we said in reviewing the iPhone 4 last year, there’s no doubt that the latest model is Apple’s best yet, but it’s also the most fragile—both in materials and cellular attenuation. Prior iPhones benefitted from cases; the iPhone 4 all but required one. This hasn’t stopped it from being a runaway success, and deservedly so, as its delicacy was one of only a few key issues with an otherwise impressive piece of hardware.
Another was the iPhone 4’s continued U.S. dependence on AT&T, which moved too slowly to keep up with customer complaints over the scope and quality of its network—yet still managed to become the country’s biggest wireless carrier thanks to the iPhone family’s success. With the Verizon CDMA iPhone 4, Apple ended AT&T’s exclusivity, effectively removing the biggest barrier between itself and another several million iPhone customers. Viewed from one perspective, it’s no great surprise that Apple changed so little between the AT&T and Verizon versions of the iPhone 4; clearly, it didn’t think that it needed to do so, and history will most likely prove this conservative decision correct.
That said, Apple doesn’t deserve a pat on the back for rewarming last year’s model just long enough to fill the gap before a new iPhone debuts. At a time when rivals are starting to release considerably faster “4G” LTE phones, including models for Verizon’s network, the Verizon CDMA iPhone 4 is last year’s iPhone, warts and all, only with more limited cellular network compatibility, generally slower cellular data speeds, no support for simultaneous voice calls and 3G data, and one new feature—the Personal Hotspot—that non-Verizon iPhones will quickly gain in an iOS 4.3 update. Storage capacity continues to be an issue, particularly for the lower-end 16GB model, but with both versions as high-resolution videos, photos, and Retina Display apps continue to compete with music and now books for the iPhone’s limited flash memory. Because it doesn’t improve upon the GSM model, and actually falls short of it in a number of tangible ways, the Verizon iPhone 4 merits a lower rating of B: a small step down from the earlier AT&T version, though still within our “general” rather than our “limited” recommendation category.
Though it might have been lost by some readers due to all the fuss over “antennagate,” our big picture view of both iPhone 4 models continues to be straightforward and generally positive. Apple’s improved screen, battery life, and dual cameras all represented big jumps ahead of the prior-generation iPhones, and though the beautiful glass and metal enclosure wasn’t the company’s wisest design, users willing to encase the iPhone 4 on their own dime can benefit from and truly enjoy the performance improvements—ones that will feel dramatic until the fifth-generation iPhone comes along. To the extent that it trails the AT&T version’s release by so many months that the next iPhone is at this point just around the corner, the Verizon iPhone 4 isn’t as broadly appealing, but it will still satisfy the millions of current Verizon and disgruntled AT&T customers who just can’t wait any longer. Those who can wait will surely be rewarded soon enough by an even better device, and thanks to this product’s release, patient people will face shorter lines this summer than they otherwise would have encountered. That alone is reason to praise Apple and Verizon for taking the easiest path forward this time.