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Thursday, January 13, 2011, 07:00 pm PT (10:00 pm ET)

Feature: iPhone 4 and iOS vs. Android on Verizon

Verizon Wireless will begin selling Apple's iPhone 4 in the next couple weeks, but the carrier also offers a wide array of Android, RIM BlackBerry, and other smartphones. Here's how they stack up against Apple's latest offering.

A series of articles have looked at how Apple's iPhone 4 stacks up against other smartphones, principally those running Google's Android OS. As the largest Android carrier in the US, Verizon's new ability to sell Apple's iPhone 4 threatens to shake up the smartphone business and dramatically change the options subscribers have available to them.

Verizon's phone comparison website, built in Adobe Flash, doesn't make it very easy to see how its dozens of phones compare in features and price. While the company's offers differ slightly among regions of the country, this general overview shows what options shoppers have among the carrier's offerings.

In 2009, Verizon's smartphones were almost entirely BlackBerry models; reportedly 95%, according to analyst sales data. Starting at the end of 2009 however, Verizon bet big on Android, unleashing a "Droid" branded ad campaign that helped shift its smartphone mix decidedly toward Android, resulting in less than 20% of its smartphone subscribers sticking with BlackBerry devices thoughout 2010, with most of the balance jumping to Android.

Verizon's Android offerings

One of the biggest winners of Verizon's Android push was Motorola, which made the original Droid and now makes the more modern Droid X, Droid Pro, Droid 2, the StarWars branded Droid R2D2, as well as the low end Devour and Citrus smartphones.

Another initial partner in Verizon's Droid push was HTC, a former Windows Mobile licensee that embraced Google's new Android platform from the beginning. Last year, Verizon sold HTC's Droid Eris, which has now been replaced by the HTC Droid Incredible.

A more recent beneficiary of Verizon's Android push is Samsung, which recently introduced the Samsung Fascinate and Continuum (both versions of the Galaxy S), as well as the Galaxy Tab, an oversized "tweener" smartphone-like device lacking mobile phone connectivity apart from 3G data, SMS, and WiFi, which is offered as an alternative to Apple's iPad or iPod touch.

Verizon also sells LG's Android-based Vortex and Ally (although the former is currently out of stock). Android models change so quickly that it can be hard to keep up with what the different names and models mean in terms of features and performance. Unlike the iPhone, which is refreshed every summer with a newer, faster model, Android phones ship from a variety of makers on different schedules, and not all new phones are better and faster.

A variety of new Android models are introduced as low end models with lagging performance and old software, and many are simply not upgradable to the latest version of Android, something that's impossible to find out at the time you buy the device.

Verizon's other smartphones

Most of LG's Verizon smartphone offerings are not Android-based and instead use LG's own embedded OS (including the enV Touch) or use Microsoft's now discontinued Windows Mobile 6.x (such as the LG Fathom).

Verizon currently does not carry any Windows Phone 7 devices, but does still offer the related, dead-end Microsoft Kin. Verizon also offers the low end HTC Ozone, which is also a Windows Mobile 6.x device.

Among BlackBerry phones, Verizon offers the Curve and Bold, both button-oriented devices, and Storm 2, an iPhone-like touch screen model. Verizon also offers HP's Palm webOS-based Pixi Plus, which mixes a touch screen with a small keyboard.

How Verizon compares as a smartphone carrier

Upon closer examination, it's not hard to see why Verizon was willing to make sacrifices to get iPhone 4. Two of its four smartphone platforms are essentially on extended life support (the waning webOS and the outdated Windows Mobile 6.x). The carrier's former star platform, while recently updated to BlackBerry OS 6, simply hasn't kept pace with the iPhone and Android and instead offers features closer to 2008's iPhone OS 2.0. However, despite a strong marketing push behind Android in 2010, Verizon's Android offerings aren't looking very competitive.

Among other things, no Android model Verizon currently carries offers a front facing camera suited to making video calls. That will make iPhone 4 and its FaceTime video calling a key new feature for the carrier to promote. Verizon has not yet made public whether it will support FaceTime calls over 3G however; AT&T does not, restricting video calls to WiFi. Front facing cameras are available on Android devices on other US carriers, including Sprint's HTC EVO Shift 4G and Samsung Epic 4G.

Verizon's Android offerings are also overshadowed by much faster devices on the new Sprint and T-Mobile networks. Sprint's HTC EVO Shift 4G takes advantage of that carrier's fast (but sparsely available) Clearwire WiMAX service offering download speeds of about 3-6Mbps and peaking to 10Mbps, while T-Mobile's new Samsung Vibrant 4G will take advantage of that carrier's fledgling new HSPA+ service to deliver blazing fast downloads at up to 21Mbps, among the fastest wireless networks in the world.

Verizon debuted its own "4G" branded LTE network last month, and introduced a series of new Android smartphones that will take advantage of it in the second half of this year, but for now its fast data network is only available as a WWAN service for notebooks and MiFi personal hotspot devices. Verizon needs a good smartphone now, and all it has to offer is its robust but relatively slow CDMA EVDO network, which delivers closer to 1Mbps downloads.

That's not very fast by any standard, but it is considered to be very reliable, widely available in terms of coverage, and capable of supporting tethering and unlimited data use by users (features AT&T doesn't offer). When trading reliability for fast spots of service, it's only easy to opt for the faster network if you happen to live and work in places where it's available.

AT&T's 3G network is also faster than than Verizon's, but again only if you're lucky enough to be in range of its best service areas. For many iPhone users in rural or dense urban areas, particularly New York and San Francisco, Verizon simply offers better overall service. Users who want faster data downloads than Verizon provides can do what AT&T users already do: simply rely on WiFi for data at work and home.

How Verizon's smartphones stack up

Every smartphone is only as good as its carrier, and vice versa. In fact, how well a smartphone works compared to other models depends upon the sum of a stack of interrelated features, rather than simply a hardware specification comparison.

These factors include the hardware features of the device itself, the features and usability of its core software (including its operating system and web browser), the availability and quality of its third party apps, its usability in terms of media (music, movies, photos and other content), and how well the device works on a given network (a factor that includes issues such as speed caps, bandwidth limits, software updates, installation of junkware, pricing and ability to roam on other networks).

The last time AppleInsider compared smartphone hardware six months ago, we pitted the then-new iPhone 4 against four popular Android models from a variety of US carriers (summary below). This time, we'll focus on Verizon itself, with the largely unchanged iPhone 4 taking on Verizon's existing Android, BlackBerry, Palm and Windows Phone devices.

2010 smartphone comparison


iPhone/iOS: Until now, it was easy to compare Apple's iPhone because it was only offered by one US carrier, one hardware maker, and in one basic set of features and configurations that changed as Apple updated the iOS or released a new annual model. Now, iPhone users in the US have two carriers to choose from (each with slightly different service plans); other factors still remain nearly identical, making it easy to generalize the experience the iPhone delivers.

As noted earlier, Apple unveils just one new iPhone model once a year, making it easy to qualify its features. For example, AT&T still offers the iPhone 3GS as a low end option, but it's easy to recall that phone delivers the performance of a smartphone from the second half of 2009, with features that are pretty clearly differentiated from the newer iPhone 4.

iPhone 4 ATT vs Verizon


RIM's BlackBerry is somewhat similar, but is offered in two major form factors, one classic to RIM (the Verizon Curve and Bold) and the other emulating the iPhone (the Verizon Storm 2). RIM releases more model variations however, each with slightly different features that are harder to keep straight. Unlike Apple, RIM updates its phones' software via the carrier, which each carrier distributing a custom build for each model. Verizon adds its own software to these updates, something BlackBerry users just have to accept, as RIM does not restrict the bundled software Verizon seeks to force upon its subscribers.

BlackBerry has improved its browser, but it still lags behind in usability overall, and the quality and scope of third party apps is a far cry from what the iPhone has in Apple's iOS App Store. BlackBerry tends to appeal to people who have always used a RIM device and are simply unaware of how far their platform has fallen behind.

On page 2 of 2: Verizon's mixed bag of Android models.