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For iPhone, Almost Heaven

It’s here. After almost four years of speculation, the iPhone will finally come to Verizon’s network on Feb. 10.

iPhone 4 from Verizon
Apple
iPhone 4 from Verizon

And to answer everyone’s question, the Verizon iPhone is nearly the same as AT&T’s iPhone 4 — but it doesn’t drop calls. For several million Americans, that makes it the holy grail.

I took the Verizon iPhone to five cities, including the two Bermuda Triangles of AT&T reception: San Francisco and New York. Holding AT&T and Verizon iPhones side by side in the passenger seat of a car, I dialed 777-FILM simultaneously, and then rode around until a call dropped. (Why that number? Because I wanted to call a landline, eliminating the other person’s cell reception from the equation. Also, Mr. Moviefone can carry the entire conversation by himself, so I could concentrate on the testing.)

In San Francisco, the AT&T phone dropped the call four times in 30 minutes of driving; the Verizon phone never did. The Verizon iPhone also held its line in several Manhattan intersections where the AT&T call died. At a Kennedy airport gate, the AT&T phone couldn’t even find a signal; the Verizon dialed with a smug yawn.

Most impressively, the Verizon iPhone effortlessly made calls in the Cellphone Signal Torture Chamber of Doom: my house.

The Verizon iPhone did drop one call — in baggage claim at the Los Angeles airport. And, of course, there are regions where AT&T coverage is better than Verizon’s. But in general, my testing matches the conclusions of Consumer Reports and RootMetrics.com: the Verizon iPhone has more bars in more places. (Hey, that might make a good slogan! Oh, wait...)

In general, the Verizon and AT&T iPhones are identical. Same sleek, thin, satisfying, plastic-free body — all glass and metal. Same gorgeous, high-resolution screen — 960 by 640 pixels. Same battery life — you’ll need a recharge every night. Same camera on the back, which can take 5-megapixel stills or excellent hi-def video — the flash doubles as a video light. Same low-resolution camera on the front, suitable for Wi-Fi videochats, using Apple’s FaceTime software for iPhone or Mac.

Even the prices are about the same. The 16-gigabyte phone costs $200 with two-year contract. The monthly service costs, for example, $70 for unlimited voice calls, plus $20 for 5,000 text messages, plus $30 a month for unlimited Internet use. (Verizon says that it will soon eliminate that unlimited plan, just as AT&T recently did. Instead, you’ll pay something like $25 a month for 2 gigabytes of Internet data. Good luck figuring out how much that is.)

The single new feature in Verizon’s iPhone is Personal Hotspot, where the iPhone becomes a Wi-Fi base station. Up to five laptops, iPod Touches or other gadgets can get online, using the phone as a glorified Internet antenna.

That’s incredibly convenient. Many other app phones have it — AT&T says its iPhone will get it soon — but Apple’s execution is especially nice. For example, the hot spot shuts itself off 90 seconds after the last laptop disconnects. That’s hugely important, because these personal hot spot features are merciless battery drains.

The hot spot feature costs $20 a month extra, and buys only 2 gigabytes of data for all of those laptops. Think e-mail, not YouTube. (AT&T will charge $45 a month for 4 gigabytes of data.)

Now, there are two kinds of cellphone networks in this country. They’re known as C.D.M.A. (Verizon and Sprint use this technology) and G.S.M. (the system for AT&T and T-Mobile). Making an iPhone that works on a C.D.M.A. network entailed four adjustments, some of which you won’t like.

First, Apple moved the volume and Ringer Off switches a fraction of an inch to accommodate the C.D.M.A. antenna inside. It’s not a big deal, but those buttons no longer fit existing AT&T iPhone cases. (Contrary to blogger belief, the redesign doesn’t help with the famous Death Grip issue, in which holding the phone in a certain way makes your signal bars drop. Then again, the problem emerges only when you’re in a very weak signal area, so you’ll see it less often on Verizon. I couldn’t reproduce it at all.)

A second C.D.M.A. difference: When you exchange long text messages with non-Verizon phones, they get split up into 160-character chunks. G.S.M. phones are smart enough to reconstitute those chunks into one more readable, consolidated message.

Third: You can’t talk on an C.D.M.A. phone while you’re online. That is, if you’re on a call, you can’t simultaneously check a Web site or send e-mail over the cellular network — and, annoyingly, the Personal Hotspot feature cuts off. (It reconnects when you hang up.)

If the top of your screen says “3G,” an indication that you’re in a high-speed Internet area of Verizon’s network, incoming calls take priority and interrupt your online connection. If you’re online in an older, 2G area, you stay online and the call goes directly to voice mail.

It’s not such a big deal. Continuing processes like downloads, Personal Hotspot and GPS navigation resume automatically when you end your call. You can still send text and get messages when you’re on a call. And none of this applies when you’re in a Wi-Fi hot spot; in that case, you can call and surf simultaneously, no problem.

For business travelers, the fourth C.D.M.A. difference is the most disappointing: not many other countries use C.D.M.A. The Verizon iPhone works in about 40 countries, including Mexico, Canada and China; AT&T phones, on the other hand, work in 220 countries. (In both cases, you pay through the nose if you use them overseas.)

Still interested? Here are a few final points to ponder before you plunge.

What's your priority?

Even if Verizon’s network is the best in America, its policies and prices are still among the worst. This is the company, after all, that admitted to billing $2 every time you accidentally hit the up-arrow button. (Verizon refunded $52 million and paid the Federal Communications Commission a record $25 million fine.) This is the company that just eliminated its “new phone every two years” discount policy, that just cut its new-phone return policy to 14 days from 30, that doubled its early-termination fee (to $350 if you cancel your two-year contract before it’s up).

Consider, too, that if surveys are any indication, Verizon can expect an enormous stampede of new iPhone customers. Last time this happened — to AT&T — the weight of all those bandwidth-sucking iPhones swamped the network, causing interruptions that persist to this day. The same thing might happen to Verizon.

Verizon swears that it’s prepared for the onslaught. Then again, that’s what AT&T said, too.

Remember, too, that so far, Apple has released a new iPhone model every July. Apple won’t say if there will be an iPhone 5 for Verizon this summer. (“Let’s put it this way: We’re not stupid,” is all an Apple rep would say.) But if it does, and you buy an iPhone 4 now, you’ll be stuck with an outdated phone in only five months.

Finally, a lot has changed in the years it’s taken the iPhone to come to Verizon. Phones that run Google’s Android software have eaten a lot of the iPhone’s lunch. A huge part of that, of course, was the AT&T factor; people bought Android phones so they could be on Verizon’s network.

Even now, though, Android phones are superior in some ways. For example, they offer amazingly good spoken GPS navigation, you can dictate text into any text box, and you can get one with a bigger screen. Of course, the iPhone still wins on battery life, simplicity and both the quality and quantity of the app store. (Google doesn’t screen or supervise what’s on the Android store, as Apple does. Some call that a blessing, others a curse.)

Yes, that’s a lot of footnotes and “yes, buts.” Even so, most people don’t care about overseas compatibility or simultaneous calling and surfing or Verizon’s tactics. They want an iPhone — an iconic, beautiful, fast, elegant iPhone — that doesn’t drop calls.

Now, after years of pining, they have it at last.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.

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