It's here. After almost four years of speculation, the iPhone will finally come to Verizon's network Feb. 10.
And to answer everyone's question, the Verizon iPhone is nearly the same as AT&T's iPhone 4 - but it doesn't drop calls. For several million Americans, that makes it the holy grail. (AT&T iPhone customers would need to buy a new phone to move to Verizon because of technical differences between the two phones.)
I took the Verizon iPhone to five cities, including the two Bermuda Triangles of AT&T reception: San Francisco and New York. Holding AT&T and Verizon iPhones side by side in the passenger seat of a car, I dialed 777-FILM simultaneously on both phones and rode around until a call dropped.
In San Francisco, the AT&T phone dropped the call four times in 30 minutes of driving; the Verizon phone never did. The Verizon iPhone also held its line in several Manhattan intersections where the AT&T call died. At a Kennedy airport gate, the AT&T phone couldn't even find a signal; the Verizon dialed with a smug yawn.
The Verizon iPhone did drop one call - in baggage claim at the Los Angeles airport. And, of course, there are regions where AT&T coverage is better than Verizon's. But, in general, my testing matches the conclusions of Consumer Reports and RootMetrics.com: The Verizon iPhone has better service in more places.
In general, the Verizon and AT&T iPhones are identical, and the prices are about the same.
The 16-gigabyte phone costs $200 with a two-year contract. The monthly service costs, for example, $70 for unlimited voice calls, plus $20 for 5,000 text messages, plus $30 a month for unlimited Internet use. (Verizon says it will soon eliminate that unlimited plan, just as AT&T recently did. Instead, you'll pay something like $25 a month for 2 gigabytes of Internet data.)
The single new feature in Verizon's iPhone is Personal Hotspot, where the iPhone becomes a Wi-Fi base station. Up to five laptops, iPod Touches or other gadgets can get online, using the phone as a glorified Internet antenna.
Many other app phones have it - AT&T's iPhone gets it on Feb. 13 - but Apple's execution is especially nice. For example, the hot spot shuts itself off 90 seconds after the last laptop disconnects. That's hugely important, because these personal hot spot features are merciless battery drains.
The hot spot feature costs $20 a month extra and buys only 2 gigabytes of data for all of those laptops.
Now, there are two kinds of cell-phone networks in this country. They're known as CDMA (Verizon and Sprint use this technology) and GSM (the system for AT&T and T-Mobile). Making an iPhone that works on a CDMA network entailed four adjustments, some of which you won't like.
First, Apple moved the volume and Ringer Off switches a fraction of an inch to accommodate the CDMA antenna inside. It's not a big deal, but those buttons no longer fit existing AT&T iPhone cases. (Contrary to blogger belief, the redesign doesn't help with the famous Death Grip issue, in which holding the phone in a certain way makes your signal bars drop. Then again, the problem emerges only when you're in a very weak signal area, so you'll see it less often on Verizon. I couldn't reproduce it at all.)
A second CDMA difference: When you exchange long text messages with non-Verizon phones, they get split up into 160-character chunks. GSM phones consolidate them into one message.
Third: You can't talk on an CDMA phone while you're online. That is, if you're on a call, you can't simultaneously check a website or send e-mail over the cellular network - and, annoyingly, the Personal Hotspot feature cuts off. (It reconnects when you hang up.)
If the top of your screen says "3G," an indication that you're in a high-speed Internet area of Verizon's network, incoming calls take priority and interrupt your online connection. If you're online in an older, 2G area, you stay online and the call goes directly to voice mail.
It's not a big deal. Continuing processes like downloads, Personal Hotspot and GPS navigation resume automatically when you end your call. You can still send text and get messages while on a call. And none of this applies when you're in a Wi-Fi hot spot; in that case, you can call and surf simultaneously, no problem.
The fourth CDMA difference: Fewer countries use CDMA. The Verizon iPhone works in about 40 countries, including Mexico, Canada and China; AT&T phones work in 220 countries.
Still interested? Here are a few final points to ponder.
Even if Verizon's network is the best in America, its policies and prices are still among the worst. It just eliminated its "new phone every two years" discount policy, cut its new-phone return policy to 14 days from 30, and doubled its early-termination fee to $350.
Consider, too, that if surveys are any indication, Verizon can expect an enormous stampede of new iPhone customers. Last time this happened - to AT&T - the weight of all those bandwidth-sucking iPhones swamped the network, causing interruptions that persist to this day.
Verizon swears it's prepared for the onslaught. Then again, that's what AT&T said, too.
Remember, too, that so far, Apple has released a new iPhone model every July. Apple won't say if there will be an iPhone 5 for Verizon this summer. ("Let's put it this way: We're not stupid," is all an Apple rep would say.) But if it does, and you buy an iPhone4 now, you'll be stuck with an outdated phone in only five months.
Yes, that's a lot of footnotes and "yes, buts." Even so, most people don't care about overseas compatibility or simultaneous calling and surfing or Verizon's tactics. They want an iPhone - an iconic, beautiful, fast, elegant iPhone - that doesn't drop calls.
Now, after years of pining, they have it at last.