TechCrunch Review: The Name's iPhone. Verizon iPhone.

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Yesterday, I made a 45-minute phone call from my office.

This seemingly unremarkable statement is remarkable for two reasons. First, I was able to place a call from my office — something which was impossible for me to do a week prior. Second, I made it through the entire 45-minutes without the call being dropped once. Again, this was impossible a week prior.

So what changed? Well, my iPhone changed.

I’ve been an iPhone user since day one: June 29, 2007. Over the course of the past three and a half years, the coverage I’ve gotten from my service provider for the device, AT&T, has gone from bad to worse. AT&T would talk about how much money they were putting into upgrades for their system, and would continually promise that things would get better soon. But for whatever reason, in major cities like San Francisco and New York City, the situation has continued to deteriorate.

It’s so bad, in fact, that in the TechCrunch office in the SoMa district of San Francisco it’s impossible to make or receive calls. Perhaps our office is a Faraday cage — one that only seems to affect AT&T — I’m not sure. But what I am sure of is that our office is hardly the only place in the city where the same is true. And even outside of the Bay Area, there’s a reason why there’s so much excitement for the Verizon iPhone.

And now it’s here. And yes, it works. Beautifully.

Build

I’ve had a chance to carry around a Verizon iPhone for the past week or so. It’s a bit odd to write a review about it now because, well, I’ve already reviewed this product before. This initial Verizon iPhone, of course, is just an iPhone 4. It’s the same phone that was released on AT&T’s network last summer. But it has been slightly reworked to make room for a CDMA chip that Verizon’s network requires, replacing the GSM chip that AT&T’s network requires.

But holding it in your hand, most regular users would have no idea that there’s any difference. In fact, the only physical difference is that the single rivet at the top of the device near the headphone jack has been replaced by two matching rivets on either side of the top of the Verizon version of the device. While Apple won’t talk specifics, presumably, this is a change made to the antenna of the device, which is the metal band that wraps around the iPhone 4. As you’re probably aware, Apple had an antenna issue shortly after the iPhone 4’s launch this past summer. As I’ve said time and time again, the issue was real, but it wasn’t a really big issue. And the millions of iPhone 4s that Apple has sold so far are testament to that.

This Verizon version of the iPhone 4 seems to have none of the same antenna issues. Try as I might, using the “death grip” and every other grip I can actually do, I can no longer reproduce the same attenuation problem that the previous iPhone 4 model had. I death grip the thing, and no bars drop. More importantly, calls don’t drop and data doesn’t stop. Again, Apple won’t comment, but problem, apparently, solved.

Moving on.

(Quickly, as an aside, I have noticed that the back of the Verizon version of the iPhone 4 is missing some of the FCC, etc symbols usually found at the bottom of the device — no clue why those are gone, but it’s another small change in the design. It makes the back look even cleaner!)

Service

The single most important thing that would-be AT&T switchers and some new iPhone customers will want to know is: how does it compare to the AT&T version in terms of signal, dropped calls, data, etc. The answer, at least in my neck of the woods (again, San Francisco), is very, very good.

It’s funny, if you spend time in various parts of this city, you’ll know where you can and cannot use an iPhone. Huge swaths of SoMa, for example, are awful. Some parts of the Mission are even worse. Then there are random streets throughout the entire city where AT&T service seemingly disappears into a black hole. I’ve more or less trained myself to know not to even try to use the iPhone in these parts of the city. So it was very, very odd to test out the Verizon iPhone in many of those areas. But guess what? Nearly across the board, the Verizon version of the iPhone worked — as both a phone and a mini data-sucking machine.

I can’t tell you how wonderful it has been to walk through the city while being able to maintain a phone call, or Internet connection. Naturally, there are still a few places I was unable get service, but they’re typically places where it’s understandable — like underground.

Many skeptics will be quick to point out that things may change when Verizon’s network gets swamped with iPhones in the same way that AT&T’s was. The difference is that Verizon’s network is already swamped with data-sucking Android devices. Millions of them. Maybe I’m being naive, but I really don’t expect there to be a problem with Verizon’s network in the same way that there was with AT&T’s. And neither does Verizon. We’ll see, I guess. But the early results are very promising.

Speed

AT&T, in their PR scramble to attempt to hold on to some of their disgruntled users, has been playing up two key things that are advantages of their network over Verizon’s. The first is the ability to make a call and surf the web at the same time. It’s true, you definitely cannot make a call and surf the web at the same time on the Verizon iPhone. To some people, this will matter. But I have really never seen this as a huge issue. If I’m talking on the phone with someone, I’m concentrating on talking with them, not surfing the web. But I realize that everyone is different. But apparently some 90+ million current Verizon subscribers don’t have too much of a problem with this either — as none of them have that capability.

The second issue AT&T has been playing up is the speed of their network. It’s “the fastest 3G network” according to their ad campaigns. In my tests, when both phones have had signal, that is also true. There’s no question that AT&T’s network is faster than Verizon’s for data transfers — both up and down. I’ve tried this all over the city a number of times. AT&T is faster. But — and this is a very big but — in order for AT&T to be faster, it needs to have a signal. And again, that’s simply not the case in large parts of the city. So speed or not, Verizon still wins this battle hands down in my book. I’ll take Verizon’s coverage over AT&T’s speed any day.

As sort of an aside, the one other issue brought up when taking about CDMA versus GSM is that the CDMA version of the iPhone won’t be able to roam internationally. For many countries, particularly those in Europe, that is true. One can only hope that Verizon or Apple come up with some sort of way around this — perhaps partner with another carrier for a deal on a per-use MiFi card to carry around in another country. Or better, just make a CDMA/GSM version of the phone. For now, if you’re going to be doing a lot of traveling, you’re likely to be out of luck.

Hotspot

The big new feature that was touted at the press conference unveiling the Verizon iPhone was the “Personal Hotspot” option. This allows you to turn your iPhone 4 into a WiFi hub that can accept up to five connections. I’ve previously done a walk-through of how this will work. And in the field, it’s just as easy as it initially seemed.

I’ve used this feature a number of times over the past week. It’s brilliant. It could not be any easier to set up and manage. Once you enable it and connect, a blue bar will appear at the top of the phone’s screen letting you know that the hotspot feature is enabled. And it will tell you how many devices are currently connected.

Unlike with phone calls, other data can also come in at the same time you’re using the phone as a hotspot. For example, Push Notifications still stream in when you’re connected. If you receive a call, the phone will ask you if you want to connect. If you do, it will sever your data connection, ending the hotspot capabilities. But when you hang up, you can push one button to resume.

Yes, I realize other phones have had this hotspot capability for some time now. In fact, when I reviewed the EVO 4G, it was pretty much the only thing I liked about the device. But the iPhone 4’s Personal Hotspot blows it away for one reason: battery life.

The EVO’s battery lasted something ridiculously low, like 90 minutes, with the hotspot feature turned on. In my tests, the iPhone 4 can give you a solid 4 hours of hotspot/tethering time. That’s from a fully charged battery, all the way down to zero. I’ve run it down fully twice. Both times, just about four hours.

Verizon plans to charge an extra $20 for the hotspot feature. That’s on top of the $30 you’ll pay for data for the iPhone 4 (which is currently unlimited, unlike AT&T’s capped plans). But if you’ve ever owned a wireless dongle, you’ll know that $20 is well worth it — the dongles usually cost you upwards of $60 a month for the same 2 GB of data usage.

The Verizon iPhone Versus The iPhone On Verizon’s Network

A few months ago, before the Verizon iPhone was announced, I wrote a post entitled: The “Verizon iPhone” Versus “The iPhone On Verizon’s Network”. The main idea behind the post was to wonder what the Verizon version of the device would be like when Verizon and Apple finally came to terms they could agree upon? As I said at the time, Verizon would undoubtedly love to load the device up with crapware in the same fashion that they’ve done with their Android devices, and all of the other devices they’ve sold over time. Apple, on the other hand, obviously would not want that. But would they have to make any concessions to get a deal done?

The best part of the Verizon iPhone is that no, Apple did not have to make any concessions. The Verizon iPhone is not a “Verizon iPhone” — it’s an “iPhone on Verizon’s network”. There’s no Verizon branding anywhere on the device aside from the upper left of the screen which shows you the carrier next to the signal strength. There are no pre-loaded Verizon apps. There are no apps that work on the AT&T iPhones that won’t work on this model. Every app you’ve bought in the App Store will install and work on this Verizon version of the device. FaceTime is interoperable over the two devices. So is Game Center.

Will Verizon have their own apps in the App Store that they’ll want you to buy? Undoubtedly. But this is very clearly Apple’s device. Not Verizon’s.

So Is It Worth It?

If you’re an AT&T iPhone customer at the end of your contract who lives in an area with poor AT&T service, you need to get to an Apple or Verizon store next week to get this updated device. Seriously, mark down February 9 on your calendar so that you pre-order it. Then show up at a store on February 10 to pick it up.

If you’re an AT&T iPhone customer still on contract who lives in an area with poor AT&T service, I would definitely consider getting this updated device. It may be a few hundred dollars out of pocket, but think of that compared to what you’ve paid to AT&T over the years. If you’re anything like me, it makes you want to scream.

If you’re an AT&T iPhone customer still on contract who lives in an area with good AT&T service, then no, this probably isn’t the device for you.

If you’re a non-iPhone user who is interested in checking it out but has been waiting for it to come to Verizon, this is absolutely for you.

The caveat to all of this is that it’s well known that Apple releases a new version of the iPhone every summer. Expect this summer to be no different. So if you buy this iPhone 4 on Verizon right now, know that there’s a good chance that an iPhone 5 will be out in six months or less. One can only hope that Apple and Verizon would do the right thing and allow the early Verizon iPhone adopters to upgrade to the iPhone 5 for a heavily discounted (if not fully subsidized price). But it’s still very much up in the air.

Hell, we don’t even know for sure that Verizon will get the iPhone 5 this summer. Perhaps it will be AT&T-only based on some sort of contractual agreement. But the latest rumors suggest that a CDMA/GSM hybrid iPhone 5 that works on both AT&T and Verizon may be the most likely bet. So again, it comes down to how badly you want an iPhone on Verizon right now — and the hope that Verizon and Apple will do the right thing for customers in a few months.

For me, as someone who has spent three and a half years fed up with AT&T, the Verizon iPhone is absolutely, 100 percent worth it. I’ve already cancelled my AT&T contract (by way of Google Voice, actually) and I cannot forsee a future where I ever go back.

There’s long been a slogan that goes along with many Apple products — “it just works”. It’s also the best way to sum up this review. The iPhone 4 on Verizon: it just works.

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