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Verizon iPhone 4 doesn't represent a huge advance over AT&T's

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 12, 2011; 3:01 PM

A funny thing happened Thursday: Verizon finally started selling the iPhone, and mass hysteria did not erupt. After years of yearning and months of hype, there was not a mass rush to Apple's and Verizon's stores.

Yes, it was cold in much of the nation, and many people preordered. Yes, we'll almost certainly see a new iPhone for Verizon and AT&T this summer, perhaps supporting these carriers' faster 4G mobile-broadband services.

But a first round of tests with a Verizon iPhone 4 loaned by Apple showed this device doesn't represent a huge advance.

It's almost physically identical to the AT&T iPhone 4 that shipped last summer. Its software features only one notable difference (more on that later). It costs the same as AT&T's (to new customers and those far enough into an existing contract to get a new-buyer discount): $199 for a model with 16 gigabytes of storage and $299 for a 32-GB version.

A minimum bundle of voice and data costs less at AT&T: $54.99 per month for 450 minutes of anytime calling, 200 megabytes of mobile broadband and no text messaging included. At Verizon, you pay at least $69.98 because that carrier only sells one unlimited data plan for $29.99.

If you upgrade to unlimited messaging and, on AT&T, opt for its 2-gigabyte data plan, you'd pay $84.99 at AT&T and $89.98 at Verizon.

The Verizon iPhone's $20 per month "Personal Hotspot" feature - which lets you share its 3G connection with five other devices, not just the one computer allowed by AT&T's $20 "tethering" option - represents its main functional advantage.

I quickly connected Windows, Mac and Linux laptops, an iPad and a Sprint Android phone to the iPhone's shared WiFi - and then all five gadgets mysteriously lost the signal.

On the next try, they stayed online. The Mac laptop even kept a connection when walked about 40 feet and several walls apart from the iPhone.

I then discovered that FaceTime video calls on the AT&T iPhone - which normally require a WiFi signal, not 3G - worked when I shared Verizon's 3G over WiFi.

Personal Hotspot functioned properly over a USB cable as well, but its promised support for Bluetooth wireless failed when the iPhone refused to see any nearby Bluetooth devices.

AT&T will supposedly get the same feature within days (or you can add it to an iPhone now by "jailbreaking" it with special software). But the bandwidth caps on AT&T's data plans will make it less useful than Verizon's unlimited service - even if Verizon reserves the right to slow the access of customers it considers over-users.

When used as plain old phones, both the Verizon and AT&T iPhones performed about the same. Neither dropped a call or exhibited impaired voice quality.

The Verizon iPhone showed no sign of the "grip of death" many iPhone users complained about last summer - but I had to clench the AT&T iPhone to cause its signal strength to drop.

The two phones even exhibited nearly identical battery life when playing Web radio through the free Pandora app over 3G with their screens at maximum brightness: 6 hours and 20 minutes on the Verizon iPhone, one minute longer on AT&T's.

A bandwidth-testing app rated AT&T's 3G much faster, averaging 2.87 million bits per second downloads over five tests compared to 1 Mbps for Verizon. Further, you can talk and surf the Web at the same time on AT&T's iPhone. Verizon's CDMA technology doesn't permit that.

Verizon's 3G coverage, however, spans far more territory. Residents of four entire states - the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming - can finally buy an iPhone, because AT&T doesn't offer service there while Verizon does.

Verizon even has an advantage around the District. Since it, unlike AT&T, provides service through almost all of Metro's stations and tunnels, I could listen to Web radio uninterrupted on my commute Friday.

You can use an AT&T iPhone in many more countries overseas. But because AT&T locks its iPhones to prevent use with other carriers, you're stuck paying steep roaming rates. With either carrier, frequent travelers do better getting a cheap GSM phone for use with prepaid service.

While AT&T has been fine this week, I've seen it far, far worse - most recently, when an AT&T iPhone was unusable at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month. So have many of you, to judge from your e-mails and comments.

Nobody needs a repeat of that. So, what you might want to know most is this: Will Verizon's network crumple like AT&T's?

I can't tell you. Nobody can, not until we've had time for a flood of Verizon iPhone users to soak up the carrier's bandwidth. Remember, the inadequacies of AT&T's 3G capacity didn't hit me until weeks after I'd written a positive review of the iPhone 3G.

If the worst happens, one thing will be sure: Irate iPhone users will soon be begging Apple to bring its device to Sprint or T-Mobile.

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