While the handsets may look identical between networks, your choice of provider for the iPhone 5 can result in picking up (or losing) some very helpful perks, many of which seem to fall in the favor of Verizon.
Notably, Verizon allows iPhone 5 users on any data plan to use FaceTime over 4G LTE without an additional charge, which runs contrary to AT&T's own approach in that regard. Likewise, those without unlimited data plans can use the included Personal Hotspot function to create a wireless network for other devices as needed. It might suck your data plan dry, depending on use, but at least it's there in a pinch.
Verizon's 4G LTE performance
It's been a long time coming, but we finally have an iPhone that supports 4G LTE, leaving the sluggish 3G days in the past – or for those times when you're outside of the LTE coverage zone. Lucky for Verizon users in the U.S. that's a pretty slim area, at least compared to AT&T and Sprint.
We tested our iPhone 5 around the city of Chicago and had no trouble maintaining our LTE signal throughout – and notched very impressive speeds along the way. Using the Speedtest.Net app, we managed to ring up a top download speed of 32.07 Mbps on Verizon, while the top upload speed we saw was 15.29 Mbps.
That's the extreme; more commonly, we saw a download speed in the range of 23-28 Mbps and an upload rate of between 5 -10 Mbps. Occasionally, we notched slower results in testing (only when pinging a specific server, it seemed), but in average day-to-day use, the service didn't disappoint.
Pulling up websites over LTE on Safari still showed a marked speed improvement at all times over what we'd experienced on the iPhone 4S, and even sending iMessages and emails had a previously unseen immediacy that caught us by surprise.
Much as Maps has taken flak for its myriad issues, at least the 3D models loaded pretty quickly for us over LTE (not so much on Wi-Fi, though). Call quality also proved quite good on the iPhone 5, with a clearer signal coming in from the other line than when using Verizon's 3G service on the iPhone 4S.
Verizon unlocks the iPhone 5
And as we surprisingly discovered this week, Verizon did not – and says it will not ever – lock the iPhone 5 hardware, meaning you can bounce to a competing network and use its service (not LTE, however) via a different SIM card, as well as use the phone overseas on other networks. What's unprecedented about this move is not that Verizon sold the phone unlocked, but that it seems intent on keeping it that way.
What's the downside to Verizon? Sadly, the iPhone 5 can't manage simultaneous voice and data use over LTE, which means no downloading emails or browsing the web while chatting up a pal over speakerphone. For heavy multitaskers, that could well be a deal-breaker. More casual users may not even notice it until the need pops up in a random future situation.
New Verizon customers must choose from a Share Everything plan, which combines data, voice, and text service, and also includes access to the Personal Hotspot feature. You'll pay $40 a month per device for access and then $40 more on top of that for 300MB of data, with scaling options reaching $50 for 1GB, $60 for 2GB, $70 for 4GB, and so on and so forth. All plans come with unlimited calls and texts.
Existing Verizon customers, meanwhile, can maintain their existing plans with one key exception. Unlimited plan holders who wish to retain their plan aren't eligible for a discount on the iPhone 5 hardware, so the trade-off is either keeping unlimited data at the full retail price of the phone ($650-850) or taking a limited plan and saving money on the phone, assuming you're eligible for an upgrade.
In our initial days of using the iPhone 5 on Verizon's LTE network, we've come away pleased with the results, as it's been speedy and reliable in regular use. It's about on par with other Verizon LTE handsets we've tested in the same market, though for longtime Apple users, it's a late but appreciated revolution that dramatically enhances the iOS 6 experience.