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Apple iPhone 4 – 16GB

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Yes, it’s finally here. After almost four years of endless gossip, analyst forecasts, and so-called leaks, the Verizon iPhone is a reality. We’re thrilled, to be honest, mostly because we never have to write another rumor story again. And, of course, we’re also happy to see U.S. iPhone owners get a real choice in carriers.

If you’ve been pining for this moment for ages, we feel your elation. But before you rush to the store, there are some important points to keep in mind. First off, the Verizon iPhone 4 is nearly identical to its AT&T counterpart. It stands apart in a couple of ways, but it’s largely the same device with many of the same benefits and drawbacks. And like its predecessor, the Verizon iPhone 4 entails some serious give-and-take on the part of the user. You get that nifty hot spot, for example, but Big Red’s CDMA technology takes away functionality as well.

Performance may also defy some of your expectations, which we know are huge. After a few days of testing, we can report that Verizon’s network offers discernable improvements over AT&T’s. The data speeds were faster most of the time, we had more success with placing calls in problem areas, and the calls connected faster. The changes, however, weren’t life-changing and they weren’t completely consistent. So while it is better in some regards, it can’t beat AT&T on all fronts.

Verizon will match AT&T’s pricing, which is $199 for the 16GB model and $299 for the 32GB version. You can get it only in black for now, though the elusive white model is due later this spring. Verizon will offer a $30 unlimited data plan to start, but it likely to switch to tiered data plans in the near future.

Honestly, we can’t say much in this section since the Verizon and AT&T handsets are so much alike. There are a couple cosmetic differences, which we’ll discuss, but Verizon’s iPhone bears all the familiar Apple-style trademarks. It’s the same size and weight (4.5 inches tall by 2.3 inches wide by 0.37 inch deep; 4.8 ounces), it has nearly identical external features, and you’ll find that gorgeous Retina Display. We’re still not fans of the sharp edges and glass back, but there’s no denying that the iPhone 4 remains an eye-catching device.

From the front, the two handsets look exactly alike.

Turn the handset on its sides and you’ll notice some minor alterations. To accommodate the CDMA antenna, the ringer mute switch on the left side has been moved slightly closer to the volume controls. It makes no difference in usability, but the change means that most current iPhone 4 cases, including the bumpers that Apple gave out for free last summer, won’t fit properly. Over on the right side, the SIM card slot has vanished because the handset runs on CDMA.

Apple moved the Verizon iPhone’s ringer mute switch closer to the volume controls. In its place is the antenna gap that’s on the top side of the AT&T phone.

In another change, the gap that sits next to the headset jack on the GSM version has moved to the left side just above the ringer switch. Apple wouldn’t discuss the specifics with CNET, nor would it confirm which portions of the antenna serve which features (on the AT&T phone, one portion of the antenna was for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and the remaining portion of the antenna powered cellular calls). We’re not prone to conspiracy theories, but it wouldn’t surprise us if Apple tweaked the antenna design following last summer’s “antennagate” drama. But more on that later.

A feature you gain
Inside, the Verizon handset offers a few more differences, both good and bad. On the upside, Big Red beats AT&T by offering a personal hot-spot feature that can support up to five devices. You can establish the connection through and Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or a USB cable and use all three methods at the same time

Before you can use the hot spot, though, you’ll need to activate the option with Verizon. The feature will cost an additional $20 per month, which is cheaper than Sprint’s $29 monthly charge, but more expensive than T-Mobile’s $14.99 fee. For that price you’re limited to 2GB per month, after which you’ll pay $20 for each additional gigabyte. On the whole, those charges aren’t outrageous for what you get.

Once you’re set with the carrier, the hot-spot option will appear in your Settings menu. Then, after you set a password and choose which connectivity options you’d like to use, you can get started. We tried connecting a number of devices including a laptop computer, an iPad, an AT&T iPhone 4, a LG Optimus S, a RIM BlackBerry Torch, a Huawei Ideos X5, and a T-Mobile MyTouch 3G.

For most devices, the connection process over Wi-Fi was quick and painless. The MyTouch 3G was able to find the hot spot, but for some reason it could hold the connection for only 5 seconds before dropping it. The Ideos, meanwhile, was not able to locate the iPhone, even when they were next to each other.

Though those hiccups weren’t encouraging, they could be the fault of the other phones. What’s more, once we tossed them aside, the hot spot performed well even at full capacity. Web browsing on the laptop, for example, was only a few seconds slower than what we normally experience on CNET’s wired network. Uploading a Facebook photo took about 10 seconds (versus the usual 5 seconds), and we were able to load a number of graphics-heavy Web sites without any problems. We had a similar experience when using a USB cable for the PC; it was a bit slower than normal but nothing drastic.

Browsing on the iPad and phones was satisfactory as well. Like on the computer, it took a bit longer to perform tasks then when we were connected to CNET’s Wi-Fi, but the speeds weren’t painful. Connecting through Bluetooth was trickier; we weren’t always able to establish a connection and then keep it once we had it.

The Verizon iPhone tracks how many devices are connected through the hot spot.

Even with those few issues, the hot spot is user-friendly and it makes the Verizon iPhone an even better mobile-computing device. You don’t get individual notifications when you connect a new device, and you can’t see what is connected at a given time, but a status bar at the top of the display conveniently tracks how many gadgets are linked up. Yet, as with so many other things on the iPhone, the hot spot isn’t the first or the best we’ve seen of its kind. It may do things differently, but it’s not better. We’re still testing the hot-spot battery life and will report the results here.

Features you keep
Outside of the hot spot, you can expect the usual iPhone goodies. You’ll get the 5-megapixel camera with LED flash, front-facing VGA camera, Bluetooth, digital compass, e-mail and messaging, iPod player, voice control, voice memo recorder, assisted GPS and Google Maps, Safari browser, access to apps and media through iTunes, and FaceTime over Wi-Fi.

The Verizon iPhone has the same camera features as the AT&T version.

The polished interface also remains the same, though the Verizon iPhone currently runs iOS 4.2.6; the AT&T iPhone runs iOS 4.2.1. Apple said 4.2.6 is a version unique to the Verizon handset and that its only changes are support for CDMA and the hot-spot feature.

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