Personal Tech

Verizon Phone or AT&T iPhone? Get an Android

Dan Mead, left, CEO of Verizon Wireless, and Tim Cook, COO of Apple, announce that Verizon Wireless will carry Apple's iPhone, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011 in New York.

Dan Mead, left, CEO of Verizon Wireless, and Tim Cook, COO of Apple, announce that Verizon Wireless will carry Apple's iPhone, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011 in New York.  (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

The great tech debate is no longer Microsoft vs. Apple: It's Google vs. Apple.

It's not an exaggeration to say that there's a national love affair with Apple's iPhone. Later this week, that love affair is about to really blossom when the iPhone 4 is emancipated from its AT&T shackles and becomes available on Verizon Wireless. So naturally the question on every gadget lover's mind is, should I finally get an iPhone now that I have a choice?

To answer that, consider the proverbial parental admonishment: If everyone jumped off a cliff, would you jump, too?

It's not hyperbole to point out that the "new" iPhone 4 on Verizon is really the old iPhone 4 (essentially the same model that's available on AT&T). And that phone has already been eclipsed by other smart phones on the market--and is likely to be eclipsed by a new iPhone within a few short months.

That doesn't mean Verizon won't sell millions of the new/old iPhone. Apple has already sold more that 80 million of the handsets in the last 3 and a half years--in spite of one major fault: It doesn't work well as a phone. Most people have recognized the iPhone as a new kind of computing platform and been more mesmerized by apps than voice calls, anyway.

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Nevertheless, there are plenty of people who still like using a cell phone as a phone, so for that group of buyers that has been waiting for another carrier to offer the iPhone, the wish will be fulfilled on Thursday. Verizon's voice network is perennially more reliable than AT&T's. But caveat emptor: Verizon's network hasn't experienced such a major product launch before so it remains to be seen if it will be able to maintain voice quality with so many new subscribers.

Assuming it can, that might be reason enough for those folks who've lusted after the iPhone to finally make the switch. Unfortunately, there's not much price competition. Verizon charges about what AT&T charges: if you agree to a 2-year contract with Verizon it's $200 for a 16-gigabyte iPhone and $300 for the 32 GB model (and no, you still can't add memory on your own or swap out the battery). 

The cheapest monthly plan you can get and still be able to use voice, text, and surf the Web without worrying about added charges is $90. That includes unlimited surfing, which AT&T no longer offers. (Verizon also has a feature that lets you share the wireless Internet connection with other devices, but that starts at an additional $20 a month.)

This all sounds pretty good, but there are two important differences to note. Unlike the AT&T model, the Verizon iPhone cannot simultaneously pull down down information from the Web and let you talk. It's one or the other. So if a friend on the phone suggests meeting at a restaurant, you can't check reviews for the place or its location without hanging up the phone, surfing the Web, and then calling them back.

The other drawback is that because Verizon uses a different cellular phone standard for its network, international business travelers will discover the phone doesn't work in much of Europe, Australia, or Africa. (On the other hand, at the rates AT&T charges international travelers, you're better off buying a phone overseas.)

Far and away the biggest problem with the new/old iPhone, though, is that it's already obsolete because it lacks one essential feature: It doesn't work with the latest, high-speed wireless networks. So-called 4G networks are rapidly becoming the norm with Sprint and T-Mobile in the lead, and Verizon and AT&T now making a major 4G push (never mind whether T-Mobile's and AT&T's service is technically 4G; it's still faster than 3G). But the iPhone 4 doesn't work on any of those networks.

So why would you want a 4G phone? Just ask anyone in New York or San Francisco who habitually uses their phone as a wireless computer. It can be agonizingly slow unless you can find a Wi-Fi connection, a problem Apple clearly recognizes by the fact that its video calling service only works on Wi-Fi and not over a cellular connection.

The critical point now for those of us spending our hard-earned money is that an investment in a new smart phone is analogous to an investment in a desktop computer just a few years ago. It's a necessary business instrument and a daily communications tool that you are going to have to rely on for the next two years. Once you've spent your money, you don't want to be saddled with something that doesn't meet your needs in a few months or a year from now.

So should you jump?

- If you have to break a contract, absolutely not. It can cost you hundreds of dollars to break a cell phone subscription and in a couple of months what you've bought will be obsolete.

- If you're on a budget and don't want to spent more every month, absolutely not. There are plenty of better models for making voice calls from the likes of Samsung and Nokia (some of which are free with a contract).

- If you want the latest technology and don't want to be left behind, absolutely not. There are some excellent 4G phones already on the market based on the Android software platform, and Android has the momentum.

Sprint offers the HTC EVO and EVO Shift (it has a keyboard!) Android phones for $200 and $150, respectively (with a 2-year contract) with more features, such as a replaceable battery, expandable memory, more free apps, HD video, etc. T-Mobile offers the very capable MyTouch 4G for just $100, with similar features (but a smaller screen). Furthermore, AT&T and Verizon are about to offer some powerful 4G Android options themselves.

The 4G Motorola Atrix is poised to appear on AT&T and takes the idea of a smartphone to a new level: It comes with a much faster processor and can double as a desktop computer by using a docking station (prices and availability have yet to be announced, though). Verizon is set to introduce the HTC Thunderbolt for its 4G network (as early as this month), offering both sex appeal and speed. Expect prices to match anything Apple offers.

Still, 300,00 apps and millions of Apple fans can't be wrong. Right? Well, even if you're one of the iPhone lovelorn you should wait at least until Apple comes out with an up-to-date 4G version. And Apple is going to have to introduce a 4G version of the iPhone, sooner rather than later (probably in the June-July time frame). 

While sales of the Verizon iPhone will no doubt be brisk, Apple is falling behind the Android phones in terms of technology and speed, and the company can't allow that to continue for much longer.

A new 4G iPhone will also most likely offer additional new features. Near-field communications--which allows you to pay for items at checkout using a wave of your phone and a virtual credit card--is a feature the company has hinted at, for example. One may also expect to see the type of docking feature Motorola has announced, assuming the iPhone 5 is fast enough. And novel designs, such as the dual-screen Kyocera Echo coming on Sprint, are sure to shake things up.

Incidentally, the iPhone deal with Verizon is not exclusive. So if you want a less expensive monthly voice and data plan, there's the distinct possibility that new iPhones later this year may be available from Sprint and T-Mobile--for less money.

Just another way a bit of patience can save you money, and heart ache.

John R. Quain is a personal tech columnist for Follow him on Twitter @jqontech or find more tech coverage at