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Is the Verizon iPhone worth buying right now?

by Phil Hornshaw

The Verizon (VZ) iPhone will officially be available to consumers on February 10. Here’s why it may (or may not) be worth buying right now.

There were not too many surprises during today’s big press keynote in New York today. We figured the announcement would be a CDMA-enabled iPhone 4 and that most everything else would be the same between the current AT&T (T) versions and the new Verizon version.

For the most part, that’s true -- pricing, for example, remains at $199 for a 16GB iPhone, $299 for a 32GB one, with a two-year contract, which existing Verizon customers can preorder starting Feb. 3.

There are some changes, however.

HotSync feature turns phones into Wi-Fi hotspots

The biggest news to come out of the announcement (outside the iPhone itself) is the inclusion of Verizon’s HotSync service with the phone. It means the iPhone can act as a mobile hotspot for up to five different devices -- a feature that AT&T has never offered. Current AT&T iPhone customers can enable tethering, which allows another device like a laptop to use the iPhone as basically a cellular Internet modem, but at a cost of $45 or $60 per month, depending on the plan.

[Read more: Hands-on review of the Verizon iPhone]

[Read more: Will Verizon actually benefit from having iPhone?]

[Related: Vizeo to release all-in-one tablet and smartphone]

Verizon network could be more reliable than AT&Ts

Photo credit: MobileCrunchOf course, dropped calls on AT&Ts network have scared away many consumers from purchasing an iPhone. Verizon made sure to emphasize that its network has been tweaked to handle a massive influx of iPhone customers.

The company has been working on the CDMA iPhone with Apple (AAPL) since 2008, and testing it for a year ahead of time. They’ve also been making sure to leave a margin within the network that iPhone customers can fill. In essence, Verizon has been prepping for this for a while, and they’re confident they’ve left the network open enough that a bunch more customers won’t slow it down. The Verizon iPhone also got a new antenna, which should help matters at least on the handset end.

We still don’t have any information about Verizon’s data plans or their pricing, and that includes its iPhone HotSync feature. We’re also not sure about unlimited data -- while that did get asked at the keynote, Verizon and Apple refused to comment about the iPhone “road map” until closer to launch. They won’t tell us until they feel like telling us, basically.

But wait -- there are issues

While the HotSync feature is cool, there’s a big drawback for would-be Verizon iPhone owners: the CDMA technology inside the phone that makes it compatible with Verizon’s network also means that data and calls can’t happen on the phone simultaneously. You know those Apple commercials where the narrator takes a call, looks up an address and checks an email all while still talking to the other person? That’s not possible with the CDMA chip in the Verizon iPhone, which separates voice from data on the network, and therefore can only run one at a time. That’s kind of a big selling point for the iPhone, and for smartphones in general, and Verizon can’t do it yet.

There are other drawbacks to the new iPhone. For one, Verizon has seriously been pounding us about how great its 4G LTE network is. It was the focus of the company’s keynote last weekend in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show 2011. And yet, that makes this new iPhone old technology by Verizon standards.

A new iPhone coming soon...

We also fully expect a new iPhone this summer, which will probably be carrier-neutral (Verizon’s multi-year contract with Apple isn’t exclusive, and clearly any remaining exclusivity with AT&T is out the window) or at least work with both Verizon and AT&T. It’s also very possible, and probably likely, that the iPhone 5 will feature 4G LTE, since both AT&T and Verizon are pushing so hard in that direction.

And despite Verizon’s reassurances, we’ve yet to see how its network handles the iPhone, and how the iPhone handles the network. All those dropped calls you hear about on AT&T’s iPhone aren’t necessarily just going to disappear with Verizon: it’s possible it’s not (totally) AT&T’s network’s fault, but actually a fault with the “not great at being a phone” iPhone.

So is it worth it?

Without pricing details for plans, especially for that HotSync service -- if Verizon made that free, however unlikely that is, it could be a game-changer -- it’s tough to say. The drawbacks of CDMA, namely the inability to use data and voice at the same time, is a big one, basically removing one of the biggest selling points for the iPhone. The price of the phone itself is the same, so unless we see Verizon make a substantial difference in the price of its plans, informed customers might be wary of taking on an iPhone that’s actually a downgrade in technology in some ways.

The lack of 4G LTE, which would dramatically increase speed and performance, in the face of a probably impending summer iPhone announcement is also troubling. Verizon really wants to take LTE and run with it, and it has shown off some pretty amazing things that can be done with the technology. So buying a new iPhone from Verizon, again, feels like purchasing a dated device with new ones right around the corner. It’s unlikely that customers can snag an iPhone 4 today and upgrade in the summer, and that means waiting around for a new iPhone to become affordable and for your upgrade time to roll around, while the rest of the world gets to use a newer, better device. Whether the iPhone 4 is worth it in that regard is up to each individual customer.

We’ll have to see about pricing. Users who can use that mobile hotspot offer, provided it’s cheap and actually runs quickly, might want to jump right on with Verizon’s iPhone. And a decent-sized bill reduction could make six months with a dated iPhone, waiting to be able to upgrade, worth it as well. Unfortunately, Verizon isn’t saying what the details are just yet.

On the plus side, all those people who wanted iPhones and don’t want to wait only have weeks between them and their new device. Just make sure to go into the purchase having weighed the pros and cons. In my case, I think I’ll be holding back to see what Steve Jobs has to show us come June.

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