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iPhone 4 on Verizon: Is it Time to Switch?

As an iPhone user from day one, I was a vocal opponent to AT&T Wireless for years. And then I got a Windows Phone, and then a second Windows Phone, and I noticed something with both: Not only did call quality improve dramatically, but my constant problems with dropped calls ended entirely. Indeed, from early July until today in mid-January, I've only dropped one phone call on the AT&T network using three different Windows Phones. And even that one dropped call had extenuating circumstances: I was in a cab moving between skyscrapers in New York City.

Which is my slightly convoluted way of saying that maybe moving to Verizon Wireless isn't really going to solve many problems for current (or potential) iPhone 4 users. Indeed, it may cause some problems of its own. Let's take a look at the situation and see if it warrants any obvious advice.

First, as an unabashed fan of Windows Phone, I can nonetheless tell you that Apple's iOS platform, which spans its iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad products, is a first-class affair with a thriving ecosystem consisting of the best apps, the best apps selection, the best multimedia content, and more. Sure, iTunes is a dog, but I understand why people flock to the iPhone in particular. It's the full meal deal.

Where the iPhone platform falls apart, however, is with the latest version of the actual phone, the iPhone 4. When this system debuted in mid-2010, it was beset by a series of disturbing hardware problems, almost none of which Apple ever acknowledged, let alone fixed (at least on AT&T). These problems include, but are not limited to:

  • Poorly-designed antenna. As long-time wireless industry experts can tell you, putting an antenna on the outside rim of a wireless device is a known-faulty design that will lead to rapid signal attenuation when grasped by a human hand. Yet, that is exactly what Apple did with the iPhone 4--leading to a round of applause by the clueless tech press when it was announced, by the way--causing "Antennagate". Apple has never admitted that its antenna was broken, and instead it tried to explain that this was an issue with other phones as well. It is, however, a major problem, and one that is pretty unique to the iPhone 4 in that it happens when a phone is held normally and can be replicated by anyone. It's such a huge problem, in fact, that Apple has patented a completely different antenna design for its next iPhone and other devices. I'm sure the tech press will applaud that too, when it's announced, forgetting yet again that they're a press conference and not a religious revival. Note that a more credible institution, Consumer Reports, will not recommend the iPhone 4, despite its otherwise high scores, because of this unresolved issue.

  • Proximity sensor. Smart phones use a sensor called a proximity sensor to determine when the user is holding the device against their face; this causes the screen to dim and in turn save power and prevent errant button presses. (And in the reverse, the screen lights up again.) ¬†Apple had to reposition the proximity sensor in the iPhone 4 because of the new front-facing camera and it no longer works as well as it did in previous iPhones. Apple's solution was to issue a workaround as part of an iOS software update, but the company didn't acknowledge the issue publicly other than the single time CEO Steve Jobs was asked about it onstage during the "Antennagate" press conference mentioned above.

  • Defective screens. Many early iPhone 4 users reported a weird yellowing effect on their device's screen, or a "constellation" of white dots. According to many users, the effects wear off over time, and Apple has allegedly told some people via its support center that this is caused by "residue from the manufacturing process." When Apple says it's making them as fast as they can sell them, it's not joking: The glue's not even dry when users get the devices.

  • Camera takes yellowing pictures. According to many reports, the camera in the iPhone 4 takes yellow-heavy (non-white-balanced) photos, with or without the flash. If this does happen to you, you can of course easily fix the white balance with a free or paid photo-editing solution. And it's possible that Apple has addressed this via a software fix since the iPhone 4's launch.

In addition to these issues, the iPhone 4 suffers (or at least did suffer) from a number of software bugs, too, including signal bar issues (fixed in an early iOS 4 update) and Exchange Server ActiveSync issues, the latter of which Microsoft specifically blamed on Apple. Apple fixed the problem in a software update and provided other workarounds. Unlike the rampant hardware issues, this isn't surprising, as Apple often unleashes software well before its ready, opting to fix it after the fact.

But that's the past. What has Apple done, if anything, to address the iPhone 4's issues on Verizon Wireless? And does the Verizon version of the iPhone 4 differ from AT&T's version, in good or bad ways?

Antenna changes. According to a widely-distributed video, Apple did in fact slightly change the iPhone 4's faulty antenna for Verizon in order to help prevent the attenuation issues that still dog AT&T users. It's not a completely redesign: We'll have to wait for the iPhone 5 for that. We'll also have to wait until the iPhone 4 ships on Verizon to find out if the antenna changes makes a difference. You can expect reviewers to quickly test for the "death grip" to find out. (Side-note: In typical Apple fashion, the company claims the antenna changes had "nothing" to do with Antennagate and were in fact made to accommodate the differences in Verizon's network instead. Right.)

3G, not 4G/LTE. Though Verizon is busy rolling out (and marketing) its next-generation 4G (LTE) wireless network, the iPhone 4 runs on its older 3G network instead. This suggests that the next iPhone--due in mid-2011, or just five months from now--will add 4G (LTE) support, which further suggests that many users might want to simply wait. Verizon's 3G network is generally assumed to be more reliable than AT&T's. But some tests suggest that AT&T's network actually provides faster speeds overall. I will say this: Because of iPhone data consumption, AT&T has been forced to make major improvements to its data network. And Verizon has never withstood that kind of onslaught.

More reliable phone calls. The big joke about the iPhone has always been that it's a wonderful device but a lousy phone. As I noted at the beginning of this article, however, much of the problem with all iPhones has been the devices themselves--and, more precisely, the devices' antennas and chipsets--and not AT&T. The problem here is simple: Apple, new to the mobile world, simply used the wrong chipset, at least from the perspective of US users. (The chipset they did use works better in Europe, apparently, and is in fact designed for that market). Moving to Verizon, I suspect that most iPhone users will experience something wonderful: Stronger signals and better quality voice calls. But that assumes Apple used the right chipset for Verizon's CDMA system. Which I bet they did, since they must have co-designed this feature with Verizon.

No simultaneous voice and data. One of the few selling points of the AT&T network is that it, as a GSM-type network, supports simultaneous voice and data traffic. This lets you do things like browse the web while talking on the phone (using speaker phone functionality, presumably). While it's unclear how useful that feature really is, it's not available on Verizon's 3G CDMA network. So Verizon iPhone users will lose this capability, at least on paper.

Wi-Fi hot spot. When asked about any major differences between the iPhone 4 on AT&T and Verizon, Apple COO Tim Cook mentioned the new device's "personal hot spot" capability, which will let you share your phone's 3G connection over Wi-Fi with up to five other devices. Note, however, that this capability will incur an additional monthly charge, the cost of which is currently unknown. And some recent rumors suggest that this is actually a feature of a coming iOS update and will thus be available to AT&T customers as well. (Verizon charges $20 a month for this feature on other phones, apparently.)

Questions about data plans. Speaking of costs, Verizon is currently mum about which data plans it will offer to iPhone customers, though there were recent rumors suggesting that an unlimited plan would be one choice. What Verizon currently offers for comparable phones is a 150 MB plan for $15 per month and unlimited for $30. I'm guessing that will either remain the same or we'll see an AT&T-style 2 GB plan in there as well. Regardless, you'll want to wait and see how this plays out. That's especially true if you're an early iPhone adopter, like me, and grandfathered in on AT&T's now-defunct unlimited data plan.

So... Now what?

There are precious few conclusions to draw from all this. The iPhone 4 is a beautiful but flawed piece of hardware, Apple's stonewalling notwithstanding. And moving from AT&T to Verizon, aside from being expensive out of the gate ($200 to $325 for terminating your AT&T contract plus the $200 to $300 for the new phone), may not solve all your problems. In fact, it may add some of its own, not the least of which is that Apple will almost certainly introduce an iPhone 5 by mid-year.

So why would anyone purchase last year's iPhone just for Verizon? My guess is that these people are blaming the wrong party for many of the problems they've experienced. And its' going to be interesting to see what happens to them, especially once Apple announces its Next Big Thing. But for many, the psychological benefit of abandoning AT&T is going to be too hard to overcome. And that's true whether doing so makes any sense at all or not.

Good luck, whatever you do.

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