iPhone 4 on Verizon: Buy now, or wait for iPhone 5?

Verizon Wireless will start taking pre-orders for the iPhone 4 running on its CDMA/EV-DO network on Thursday, and it will begin selling the device Feb. 10.

However, judging by the inquiries received at Computerworld, many prospective customers are mulling whether to buy a Verizon iPhone 4 or wait for the enhanced iPhone 5 (or whatever it will be called), which is due this summer.

All the facts about data pricing have been laid out, including Verizon's bait of unlimited data usage for $30 per month with a two-year contract -- a deal AT&T no longer offers. While there are rumors that AT&T might reinstate the unlimited data deal, AT&T had no comment about the matter early Tuesday. Verizon will charge $199.99, the same price as AT&T, for the 16GB version of the device itself for users who sign up for a two-year contract and a data plan.

Even so, Computerworld readers and others are wondering whether they should jump to Verizon, which reportedly offers better service than AT&T, or wait for the iPhone 5 that's sure to come this summer, probably in July?

Will iPhone 5 be worth the wait?

The iPhone 5 reportedly could have several enhancements that might matter to some users -- including support for Near Field Communication, which could enable the device to be used like a mobile payment card for retail purchases.

The list of iPhone 5 upgrades could also include support for video chat over 4G networks and a faster dual-core processor, according to speculation from several sources -- including Computerworld blogger Jonny Evans and the HubPages Web site.

The iPhone 5 could also have dual radio chips, possibly enabling it to run on multiple providers' networks, such as the GSM networks from AT&T and T-Mobile, and the CDMA/EV-DO networks from Verizon and Sprint Nextel.

There is also speculation that support for an iPhone running on faster LTE networks is further off, possibly in a later entry (Version 6?) from Apple, although AT&T says its HSPA+ version of GSM is a faster network that qualifies as 4G, with speeds topping 5Mbit/sec. Both AT&T and Verizon are working toward LTE, with Verizon's effort already underway.

How important is the carrier network?

The fact that the iPhone 5 is on the way isn't the only consideration for buyers. Network coverage and consistency will also count.

One executive secretary sent Computerworld this query via Facebook on behalf of her boss, an entrepreneur, who is still in a quandary about buying from Verizon: Would it make sense to go to Verizon's iPhone, with reportedly better service, or stick with AT&T and the potential of a coming iPhone 5? And even so, could Verizon have the iPhone 5 on its network?

The decision tree for helping this executive decide is fairly complex. Price is not a huge concern for him, but there are other factors to consider. A lot depends on how much better Verizon's service is likely to be in areas where her boss mostly uses his iPhone. He is based in the Los Angeles area, and neither the secretary nor her boss have reported many problems with AT&T's service for the iPhone there, and they don't know much about the quality of Verizon's service.

The complaints about AT&T service in recent years have come primarily from users in downtown San Francisco and in Manhattan. AT&T has admitted it faced problems in those locales, and it started upgrades to its network in those areas more than a year ago. Voice connections were the biggest concern.

Analysts say the only way to get a reliable comparison of the two networks is to use a phone over both networks in the areas where you make voice and data connections. That means at home, at work and along your commute.

Contrary to what carriers claim in their ads, every network is vulnerable to congestion, depending on how many users are on a single cell tower at once, and other factors. It helps to upgrade to HSPA+ and LTE, but that's not the only solution. Carriers regularly anticipate congestion and add cell towers and antennas in crowded areas, in addition to making other upgrades. But there can still be problems, including dropped calls, static and echoes.

On Tuesday, a Verizon spokeswoman said the carrier is ready for the iPhone 4 and its data demands. "We wouldn't put any device on our network unless we were confident that customers would have a positive experience," she said in an e-mail.

If you want to compare AT&T's and Verizon's services and you don't already have devices from both carriers, analysts suggest borrowing a smartphone that runs on the network you're not familiar with. Or at least ask a friend or colleague who uses the other service to tell you how the service has been on different days and at various times.

Mark W. Smith, a technology writer at the Detroit Free Press, wrote recently about his cell phone experiences, and he said he found that the Verizon network is a "better experience" than AT&T's in metro Detroit.

Smith wrote that during his commute from Royal Oak to Detroit, he regularly experiences dropped calls on his AT&T iPhone but never on his Droid X from Verizon. He avoided generalizing about the networks' capabilities beyond his personal experience. In contrast, carriers' ads focus the scope of their nationwide coverage but tend to ignore users' actual experiences.

A simple reality, but one that people often forget -- especially if they're heavy smartphone users -- is that cell connections are harder to maintain when the user is moving, analysts point out. Data connections are less of a concern while moving, but not always.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J.Gold Associates, summarized the network issue this way: "Coverage is a personal thing. It varies by location, and one carrier with great coverage in one spot may have terrible coverage in another spot. So it's hard to say one carrier has superior coverage everywhere. That said, most users stay fairly close to one area most of the time, so it's important to them which carrier has the best coverage on their home turf."

Furthermore, Gold pointed out that "most complaints you see from consumers have to do with their home areas, and not roaming to other places." He did acknowledge, however, that that's not necessarily the case for business travelers who are on the road a lot. "Their needs are for good service everywhere," he said.

Ultimately, the decision about whether to buy the Verizon iPhone 4 or wait for the iPhone 5 depends on what you want: Price could be a factor. Network connections could be a factor. The appeal of a slicker next-gen device could be a factor.

What should you do?

For those pondering the decision, the Free Press's Smith had this advice: "If you really want an iPhone but can wait, hold out for iPhone 5." He reasoned that it won't make sense to be tied to Verizon for two years with an iPhone 4 that is already old, having been released last summer.

In contrast, if you don't need the latest and greatest device and have been waiting for Verizon service for years, go ahead and buy an iPhone 4 from Verizon.

"It's a great phone," Smith said. "Just don't cry too loudly when the masses line up this summer to snatch up Apple's latest offering and you're left with last year's gadget."

Gold said much the same thing: "Waiting for iPhone 5 versus going with 4 is not a coverage question in my opinion. It's one of features and functions and perhaps style. If you want to wait for the next phone, it will likely have more features and functions and may have a nicer, sleeker style."

"But that means you have to make do with what you have now," he added. "If, on the other hand, the iPhone 4 is enough to meet your needs for the foreseeable future -- two years in this case -- why wait?"

Analysts believe some AT&T iPhone customers (more than 10 per cent, by several estimates) will leave for Verizon, but they won't all jump at once. AT&T has conceded that the road ahead, with iPhone competition from Verizon, will be "rocky." Meanwhile, Verizon believes it will sell 11 million iPhones in 2011.

Go forth and figure.

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Tags AppleiPhonePhonesconsumer electronicsVerizon Wireless

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Matt Hamblen

Computerworld (US)
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