After years as an iPhone customer on AT&T, I forgot what it was like to have a reliable, working phone.
But over the weekend, when I called buddies with both an AT&T iPhone 4 and subsequently a Verizon iPhone 4, we could immediately tell the difference.
“Holy crap, you sound so much better,” a friend said after I switched to the Verizon handset while walking through downtown San Francisco. “That’s amazing. I can actually hear you.”
Now I really know what “network congestion” means. Switching from an AT&T iPhone to a Verizon iPhone is like finally being able to breathe clearly after years of battling allergies. People can hear you better, and you can hear them better. It’s that simple. That’s the key reason so many people have clung to Verizon while resisting the shiny allure of the iPhone.
As we all suspected would be the case, the iPhone is a better phone on Verizon than it is on AT&T. It is not, however, a superior media-consumption device.
That’s simply because Verizon’s 3G-transfer rates are slower than AT&T’s. For the few days I’ve had the Verizon iPhone, I’ve been riding my motorcycle all around San Francisco to test its performance against the AT&T iPhone. The AT&T handset on average scored significantly better in speed tests: 62 percent faster for downloads and 38 percent faster for uploads. (If you’re curious about test procedures, check out our explainer and our interactive map on Gadget Lab.)
In real-world use cases, the Verizon iPhone’s slower transfer rates are noticeable. Netflix streaming is smooth on both devices, but on the Verizon iPhone, compression artifacts are more apparent: The video stream is adapting to the slower transfer rate (compare the screenshots in the gallery at the top, or see them here: AT&T, Verizon). Loading websites in Safari was faster on the AT&T iPhone, and so was installing apps.
However, the AT&T iPhone completely failed multiple tests when it could not connect to the network, whereas the Verizon iPhone was able to successfully get a connection in every location and complete every test. That’s important.
Notably, there were two persistent AT&T dead zones in San Francisco where the AT&T iPhone repeatedly failed to place a call or transfer any data — Gestalt bar in the Mission District and Velo Rouge cafe in the Inner Richmond district — while the Verizon iPhone was able to make calls and perform our bandwidth tests at each location with zero problems.
This all corroborates results of earlier independent studies comparing 3G networks: AT&T has a faster network, but Verizon has more coverage and therefore a more-reliable network.
The question remains whether the iPhone will inundate Verizon’s CDMA network as it did AT&T’s GSM network. That could ultimately degrade the service quality and make it a crappy phone all over again. But there are already a ton of Android customers on Verizon’s CDMA network, and the upcoming Android phones will be compatible with the next-generation 4G network, so I’m guessing the Verizon iPhone will remain a superior phone in terms of reliability and call quality.
And so far, the Verizon iPhone is pretty damn reliable. It has a hot-spot feature to turn the handset into a Wi-Fi connection to share with multiple devices. I used the hot spot to do work on my laptop for six hours without getting disconnected. (It was plugged in — no iPhone’s battery would have lasted that long on its own.)
However, earlier in the morning when I received a phone call on the Verizon iPhone, I was booted off the hot-spot network. This is a limitation of Verizon’s CDMA network: It does not support simultaneous voice and data transmissions, which may be a big minus for some customers, especially business-oriented “power users.”
Otherwise, the Verizon iPhone is the same smartphone we’ve all grown familiar with since the iPhone 4’s debut in summer of 2010. It’s got the same glass body, a 5-megapixel camera and a front-facing camera for FaceTime, which all work the same as its AT&T counterpart.
However, I did notice one odd difference when holding the Verizon iPhone next to multiple AT&T iPhones. The AT&T iPhone’s screen is a little bluer, and the Verizon iPhone’s is a little whiter. Both look great, but personally I prefer the whiter Verizon iPhone display. This is only a minor difference, though.
If you have the liberty to choose between AT&T and Verizon to buy an iPhone, your best choice depends on what you value. If you enjoy making phone calls, the Verizon iPhone is the obvious winner. Or if you’re an AT&T iPhone customer and your reception is just pathetic wherever you live, then by all means, pay the price and jump ship to Verizon.
With all that said, if you use your iPhone more often as a general computing device rather than a phone, then the AT&T iPhone’s faster transfer rates should serve your needs.
WIRED It’s a better phone, period. More likely to pull a signal, even indoors — this could change the way we converse at bars. Hot-spotting is well-integrated and very easy to use. Has a whiter, slightly better-looking display.
TIRED Slow data transfers compared to the AT&T iPhone. Sluggish app installs take away from the App Store’s instant gratification. Video streams are compressed more heavily, so Netflix and YouTube are uglier. No simultaneous voice and data transmissions thanks to the limitations of CDMA.
Photos by Jonathan Snyder/Wired.com