Should I Buy a Verizon iPhone?
Five reasons why you might want to hold off.
The Verizon iPhone is finally here. After four years of waiting, you'll be able to use the best smartphone on the country's best carrier starting on Feb. 10. A few tidbits we learned at Tuesday morning's press event: Apple added a CDMA chip to the iPhone to make it work on Verizon's network, but other than that the Verizon iPhone will be identical to the AT&T version. Verizon will sell the device for $199 with a two-year contract—the same as AT&T. But the company has yet to disclose the price of its service plans, so it's unclear, right now, how much the Verizon iPhone will cost you.
If Verizon sticks by its pricing for other smartphones, though, you'll pay—at minimum—about $75 a month, for which you'll get 450 minutes of voice calls, 250 text messages, and unlimited use of the data network. That's more expensive than AT&T's lowest price of $59.99 per month (450 minutes of voice calls, 200 texts, and 200 MB of data, which should be enough for most people). Verizon officials did say that their iPhone will include a "hotspot" app that will let you share your data connection with other devices for free; AT&T charges extra for the same function.
But the potentially steep price isn't the only reason to hold off on buying the Verizon iPhone. Here are five others:
The Verizon iPhone may not work much better than AT&T's. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Verizon believes it won't have any trouble handling traffic from millions of new iPhone customers. Independent analysts I spoke to were inclined to agree. Over the last few years Verizon has had a chance to bolster its network in peace—a luxury that AT&T, which was always rushing to meet the demands of bandwidth-hogging iPhone users, couldn't afford.
But as I've written before, it's a mistake to make sweeping generalizations about cellular networks. Whether you'll see better performance on an AT&T or Verizon iPhone depends on where you live and work, how close you are to cell towers, and how many other people in your neighborhood are using the network at the same time. Given all these factors, it's possible that you live in an area where AT&T's service happens to be better than Verizon's.
For instance, AT&T has had a lot of problems in New York, San Francisco, and other big cities with huge numbers of iPhone customers. If Verizon has any trouble handling iPhone traffic, it will likely be in those same places. If you live in a big city, then you might want to wait to see whether Verizon can, indeed, manage the onslaught. Remember: No matter what phone you buy, every carrier gives you 30 days to take it back. Spend that time testing it out in all your daily haunts; if it gives you any trouble, return it.
In theory, Verizon's iPhone is slower than AT&T's. When AT&T claims it has the nation's fastest 3G network, it's not lying. Wireless industry analyst Chetan Sharma points out that in 2009, AT&T upgraded its cell towers to a standard known as HSPA 7.2, which is capable of reaching maximum data speeds of 7.2 megabits per second. Verizon's network, meanwhile, runs on a competing platform known as EV-DO, whose maximum download speed taps out at 1.4 megabits per second. Under the best possible network conditions, then, you'll get faster data speeds on AT&T's iPhone than on Verizon's.
Of course, nobody gets perfect network conditions on either carrier. Your actual speed will depend on a variety of factors—and it's certainly possible that AT&T's actual speeds will be slower than Verizon's in your specific location. Still, it's wise to keep the network protocol in mind when you decide which network you'd rather use. If you live in an area with pretty good AT&T coverage, it's possible your AT&T iPhone will offer faster downloads than the Verizon version—and that speed difference may well undercut the allure of Verizon's unlimited data plan.
There's one more small hitch with Verizon's network: It won't let you make calls and download data (i.e., surf the Web) at the same time. AT&T's version will let you do that.
Today's iPhone will soon be obsolete anyway. Apple has released a new iPhone every summer since 2007, and there's no doubt it will do so again this year, too. Nobody knows what features that new phone will include, but Sharma and other analysts expect that it will almost certainly include support for LTE, a next-generation networking protocol that will allow download speeds of more than 10 megabits per second. Both Verizon and AT&T have been upgrading their networks to support LTE service (also known as 4G). Verizon offers LTE in 38 major markets, and AT&T plans to begin its rollout sometime this year. But taking advantage of these faster networks requires specific hardware; you won't get those faster speeds on today's iPhones. The upshot: If you wait until the summer, you'll be able to buy an iPhone from either AT&T or Verizon that's faster than today's version.
Should you wait for the 4G iPhone? It depends. LTE's availability is still limited, and the speed increases you'll see won't likely make a big difference for everyday Web surfing. But if you do live in an area where AT&T or Verizon will be offering 4G speeds and you're a big data user—you watch Netflix on the bus every day, say—then you might consider waiting. Plus, people who've held out for three years in order to get the iPhone on Verizon clearly know how to bide their time—what's a few more months for a brand-new phone?
Verizon's iPhone isn't as friendly to international travelers. If you do a lot of traveling abroad, you shouldn't buy the Verizon iPhone. That's because its voice protocol, CDMA, isn't widely used overseas. While the AT&T iPhone can roam on lots of international networks—for a fee, of course—the Verizon version will more or less stop working at our borders.
You might as well wait for AT&T's counter-offer. As my colleague Annie Lowrey points out, AT&T needs the iPhone far more than Verizon does. Apple's device is AT&T's primary source of new and lucrative customers, and analysts predict that losing its exclusive deal with Apple will punish AT&T's bottom line. So far, AT&T has said only that it plans to compete with Verizon's iPhone by running ads touting its faster network speeds. But if lots of people defect, the company could do something even better—lower its prices.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.
Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images.