Which iPhone worked better in Berkeley?

Yesterday, Steve Jobs launched the iPad 2 with attendant hoopla in San Francisco. At Berkeleyside, we like our gadgets, but we’re not obsessed with being up-to-the-second. So our Apple question yesterday was: how does the newish Verizon iPhone compare to the sturdy AT&T iPhone in Berkeley?

Two-thirds of the Berkeleyside founders set out on a Berkeley iPhone faceoff to decide whether the long-standing gripes of many AT&T users were justified, and if Verizon really made a difference for iPhone users. The faceoff is completely unscientific, and readers are free to pick holes in our methodology. We’re not a gadget site and we don’t have access to the latest of everything. The AT&T we used is an iPhone 3, while the Verizon is an iPhone 4. Enough with the caveats. What happened?

We started our test in the Elmwood, but were quickly stymied. The problem? Our AT&T iPhone stubbornly refused to get a single call. We seemed to be in one of the dreaded dead zones, even though we were only 450 yards away from the restaurants of College Avenue. The Verizon iPhone, in contrast, had four bars and merrily was taking calls and gobbling up data. Advantage: Verizon.

We then moved to the Gourmet Ghetto. Perhaps AT&T doesn’t like life south of campus. On the corner of Shattuck and Vine both phones showed a healthy five bars. Both successfully accepted and made calls. What about data? We simultaneously clicked to load The New York Times website. Both succeeded, but the AT&T iPhone took a full 20 seconds longer to load the page. Advantage: Verizon.

Finally, we trundled down to West Berkeley, near the intersection of San Pablo and University. Again, both phones did fine on making and receiving calls. For data we first tried getting the latest stories from the Berkeleyside app. Both loaded, but the Verizon iPhone was several seconds faster. We then decided to simultaneously try loading The New York Times app. Result: quick success on the Verizon phone and total fail on AT&T. Advantage: Verizon.

We could have gone on, but we decided the (unscientific) result was conclusive. If you’re an iPhone user in Berkeley, there’s no contest — Verizon is the winner. Rather than running further around Berkeley, we had lunch at the new Gaumenkitzel restaurant (or Mittagstisch as the owners would have it). More satisfying than more techie tests.

Lance Knobel

Lance Knobel (co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine in Britain,...

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56 Comments

  1. I am not sure why there is any comparison to AT&T, AT&T is like not having a cell phone. My phone dropped about 12 times today. Berkeley Hills, North Berkeley, Albany. It’s about as useless as anything can be. One person I had to call back 5 times.

    Sure you can get the mini-cell tower for your house, it’s nice the phone can work in 2,000 sq ft. it’s just the other 200 square miles that are the problem.

    AT&T is a joke.

  2. Thanks to this story and thread and a last straw — the dropped call in N. Berkeley after I discovered someone broke into my truck — I am now the new owner of a Verizon-supported iPhone.

  3. >We then moved to the Gourmet Ghetto. Perhaps AT&T doesn’t like life south of campus. On the >corner of Shattuck and Vine both phones showed a healthy five bars.

    The hidden story behind these 5 bars is that I personally ‘fought’ with AT&T for no less than two years here to have them activate a cell site ( now fully operational ) on top of the apartments on Shattuck @ Lincoln just down the street. N. Shattuck was, until this came on line near the holidays of last year, a complete and impossible dead zone. There were pushed back operational time lines for 8 months before I nearly gave up with them. Still, there are simply too many users on a system that is designed for only so many. Add to this all of the irrational politics involved and it may take a very long time to have any hope for City wide coverage as these sites are only designed to be useful for about 1/4 to 1/2 of a mile. So the good news is that if you are up in the Ghetto now you have nearly a full scale phone, however if you walk down a few blocks West or East into the hills, you are toast and cannot make any calls as the sites on University and or Solano Ave. ( the Oaks theater ) are too far away and too over-saturated with users. Worse we all have to pay major $$ for this right?

  4. As an AT&T iPhone user the zoning comments make me laugh. If it were the zoning laws wouldn’t Verizon have the same problems with dead areas?

    Also, I wonder how Verizon works at Memorial Stadium. It’s been a thorn in my side that AT&T (who sponsors Cal athletics) has no signal and no data there.

  5. My husband has an iPhone4 with AT&T from work, and I just got the iPhone4 with Verizon a couple weeks ago. We live in North Berkeley, tested both in several places side-by-side, and Verizon is hands down the winner. Only spots my Verizon iPhone4 hasn’t worked well are in the back of Target in Albany and the back of Safeway on Solano. What a relief to go back to Verizon!

  6. I love this! my Iphone 4 is starved for bars at Russell and Domingo, but over most of the rest of the town all good. That’s not so true as I head south down Broadway into Oakland, but that’s not what this test was about. I do think the 4 vs 4, running similar or the same functions would be a fun thing to know..Thanks Lance, much entertainment before our movie this evening… : )

  7. iPhone 4 on at&t in Elmwood has very spotty coverage
    Top of Solano bad
    Many routes between top of Solano and Elmwood have really bad coverage
    It would have been hard for Verizon to be this bad

    And I forgot to mention no service at home in Elmwood — which can be a good thing

  8. I live and N. Berkeley and have extremely poor ATT reception in my house. Thursday morning I woke up to an email coupon for a free ATT Microcell to boost reception in my house. The first thing I did was print out the coupon and head to the ATT store on Shattuck.

    The staff gave me a Microcell device which looks like a little wifi router. I plugged into my DSL at home, registered my phone with it on the ATT website and now have a full five bars in my house. No dropped calls, data is fast, etc.

    If you live in the North Berkeley deadzone, call ATT and demand a free Microcell. Don’t let them charge you for it. They are very aware of the lack of coverage in our area.

  9. The only thing that is worse than ATT is “tin cans on a string”, and only if the string is loose. Otherwise the cans win out.

    I am shocked that there is not a class-action with ATT in SF based on the following:

    1. The coverage map that they show you before you sign on is absolutely a fabrication, and they know it. I once call escalated to the VP’s office and told them they are showing a level 5 call level in many areas where you cannot even make a call. He promised they would look into it and change the map. He did not.

    2. They continually promise some improvement in some time frame to string you along. In actuality the service has continually gone down since I have had the first Iphone. They once bragged to me they were putting 5 million(!) into the towers in the Bay area. That is the financial equivalent of fixing your Honda Accord with 10 cents.

    3. The tech support will do anything, ANYTHING to not admit they have a problem in the Bay area. They told me I had to buy a new iphone (3g), then they told me it was the sim card’s fault (3 of those), then it was the iphone itself (they sent me a different phone), etc etc. It is all circular and goes nowhere, and I am convinced it is designed to. They will not admit they do not have an infrastructure to provide anywhere near the service they promise when you sign up.

    4. They do not have the right to sign anyone else up if the service is already “unusable”, the additional load is criminal and insulting to anyone that already cannot make a call.

  10. Is there anyone who is pleased with their AT&T cell phone service?

    Though the comments give me an idea of what the answers would be, perhaps a quick survey (ala Survey Monkey) would be helpful.

    I’ll leave it to others to design the scientific survey protocol. I do think it’s worthwhile to have it organized by neighborhood. Berkeleyside readers who frequent different neighborhoods could answer early and often.

    Here’s my first try at the questions:

    NEIGHBORHOOD

    __________________

    QUALITY OF CELL PHONE PHONE CALL SERVICE

    Excellent Very Good Good Fair Poor Imaginary Cell Provider (or non-provider)
    5 4 3 2 1 √-1 AT&T
    5 4 3 2 1 √-1 Metro PCS
    5 4 3 2 1 √-1 Sprint
    5 4 3 2 1 √-1 T-Mobile
    5 4 3 2 1 √-1 Tin Cans w/String
    5 4 3 2 1 √-1 Verizon

    I’d give Verizon 5 for Thousand Oaks, 4 for Berkeley Hills, and 4 overall for Berkeley

    AT&T – easy rating …. √-1 for imaginary service -it amazes me I put up with such poor service for so long just to have an iPhone.

  11. @ Elmwood Neighbor – The title of the article says :”Unscientific” so spare us, please. AT&T signal is horrible – Am a Blackeberry user and I simply gave up trying to make phone calls anywhere in Berkeley as it is so bad. Switched to Verizon 2 weeks ago (still on a BB) and it works like a charm.

  12. Does it make sense to do compare two different phones for Verizon and AT&T? Is this what you call “unscientific”?

  13. ATT is horrendous, their coverage map is pure fiction, their support is based purely on attrition. They will wear you down but will never help you out. How can they? They don’t have the infrastructure to handle their call base, yet every day they sign up thousands of new customers to further deteriorate the little service they offer.

    I have been told twice by their tech dept that I have 95% dropped calls.

    You cannot stay on the phone in Montclair or Albany, sometimes you can’t even make a call.

    My phone bill is $135 every month. I am going to Verizon.

    They are absolutely criminal.

  14. Interesting test and similar in nature to one done in SF and NYC by David Pogue, tech writer for the NYT. Thanks for doing the test and publishing the results.

  15. Thank you all!!! Love this discussion. Although I know I’m not contributing much, but I’m eating up the info. I live at Hopkins & Sacramento and can confirm that the place has been an AT&T black hole as Ira aptly put it (and thanks for the map btw. cool!). I will switch to Verizon, but rumors have it that the iPhone 5 is coming out this summer… so maybe I’ll wait.
    AT&T are you reading this?

  16. Curiosity got the better of me, and as Carol and I drove around Berkeley, Albany & Oakland today, I jotted down the signal strength of my Verizon iPhone … then annotated today’s GPS data logger route map with the signal strength. The annotated map is at http://berkeleyhomes.com/blog/

    The Alameda/Hopkins to Martin Luther King/Rose nexus has been a real black hole of AT&T service – I’d almost always lose the call when driving along that route. Someone else commented that Marin & Santa Fe was particularly bad. Verizon had 3 bars at the both locations, and I was even able to make (and keep) a phone call near the North Berkeley library.

    More amazingly – last week when previewing homes in the Park Hills neighborhood overlooking Tilden Park east of Grizzly Peak … I was able to call Carol (she was about 50 feet away and we were also able to wave to each other). That’s always been an AT&T dead zone for us.

    I didn’t test my assumption that more bars would lead to better quality calls, and better data transfer … but I think it’s fair to assume that few bars would result in lower quality calls and data.

    You’d expect that major streets with commercial buildings would have better cell coverage. I was delighted to see how strong the signal was in residential areas of Albany, Berkeley and the Berkeley Hills.

    Thought I’d add some quantitative data to the qualitative comments.

    Executive summary – if you live in Berkeley, and want to make phone calls on your cell phone, Verizon is likely much better choice than AT&T.

    This blog post is dedicated to S.I. Cheng, my Cooper Union Chemical Engineering Professor, whose mantra “Collect Data – Publish” was imprinted into my psyche.

  17. Alina, I live in your neighborhood. An AT&T sales guy at the AT&T store in El Cerrito told me last fall that AT&T would have a tower at Carlotta and Hopkins by 12/31/10. I thought that might help reception, but there’s been no change. It’s still abysmal on my Palm Centro and my husband’s Iphone 2. So either they didn’t get their tower or they did and it makes absolutely no difference. (The guy told us that they don’t actually put up towers; they add a box to an existing utility pole, so it’s hard to identify where in that vicinity their box might be, if in fact they installed it.)

    My AT&T contract is up in a few months, and I’ll definitely switch to Verizon then. But since you just moved to the neighborhood, I think you could make a case that AT&T should release from your contract with no fee because this neighborhood is in a dead zone. They might not let you out of your contract, but it’s worth a try.

    You might check out their coverage map at http://www.wireless.att.com/coverageviewer/#?type=voice

    Last fall, AT&T’s map showed a large pale orange triangle over many of the north Berkeley neighborhoods folks have mentioned in their comments. Pale orange was supposed to mean “good coverage” for phone calls while bright orange meant “best coverage.” As soon as I saw that pale orange triangle, I knew that “good” really meant “dismal.” I just looked at AT&T’s coverage map tonight, which AT&T updated 2/11/11, and now all of Berkeley, except for the hills above Grizzly Peak, appear in bright orange. So their claim that they offer “best coverage” in our neighborhood. is really wishful thinking.

    Lance, many thanks for this article. Anecdotal evidence is so important, and these posts confirm your findings. Verizon has it all over AT&T in Berkeley.

  18. I live in North Berkeley near Hopkins St shops (and Carol L). Switched from AT&T to Verizon. Still some problems with Verizon calls during morning commute time but much better than AT&T, which was effectively useless. Advantage Verizon!

    Also tried walking from Rose St to campus along Shattuck listening to internet radio via 3G on AT&T iPhone. No 3G north of Hearst Ave.

  19. Thanks to Joseph and others about the comments on Verizon vs AT&T use in N Berkeley. I think I need to switch. And quick, before Verizon gets rid of their unlimited data plan. It’s interesting that AT&T employees claim that service will be improved soon… but I don’t trust them. Is it really true or are they just saying it to stay in business?
    @ Carol: Thanks for the tip re: boosters. It’s tempting, but I will not pay AT&T $150 for one. Sounds like they should distribute them for free given the crappy reception they provide!

    An somewhat related – does anyone know if AT&T would let me out of their contract since I live in a dead zone? Has anyone tried this argument with them?

  20. more anecdotal data…

    I live on Rose near Acton. I have a cheapo T-Mobile phone for personal use and a cheapo ATT phone for work. The ATT phone is near useless, while the T- phone works decently – rare drops, middling call quality…

  21. I bought the Verzion iPhone on day one (my first iPhone) and have been loving it ever since. Haven’t encountered any dead zones yet, nor have I dropped any calls.

  22. Sometimes you don’t need a perfect counterbalanced latin square :0

    The edge is clearly to Verizon.

    Now: did at any point either of the phones/carriers sound like a land line? No? Didn’t think so.

  23. I live in N Berkeley and suffered for 2 years with ATT. It got to the point where I just stopped using my i-phone as a telephone. I’ve had my Verizon i-phone 4 now for aprox 3 weeks and can’t say enough about how well it works. I’ve had one dropped call since I purchased it. With ATT it was more like 35-45 % of the time. On my Berkeley — SF commute there were at least 2-3 dead zones along the way. I also find the clarity to be much better, although this may be due to the quality of the i-phone 4 rather than the i-phone 3. In short, I have no second thoughts about making the move to Verizon.

  24. Rachel A: we mere mortals are quaking in fear of your prophesies. Did Achilles have a misfit half-brother who was dunked completely in the Styx so not even his heel was vulnerable? We might need to start Hellenoside (or perhaps Hellenocide) for these new stories.

  25. I live across the street from AT&T park, and above the AT&T store on King Street. I can’t make phone calls from inside my apartment, and have to standout on the porch to get any signal at all (two bars). Text messages, phone calls, forget about it… have to go out on the porch. Now, I understand the argument about being inside an apartment made of concrete… However, my wife has Verizon as her carrier, and she can be anywhere in our apartment, in the hall between multiple apartments, ANYWHERE across the street from AT&T park, and directly above the AT&T store on King Street and get excellent signal. I can’t wait to jump ship to Verizon.

  26. Rachel>Lance: Cassandra foretold the future but nobody listened. One of my favorite lines from a Michael Krazney NPR show was him calling someone a Malthusian Cassandra.

  27. We live one block west of the North Berkeley Library and AT&T is useless. We have to warn folks who come to our house to not even try to use their cells, unless they are wi-fi enabled and can work through the computer wireless. Our dog sitter refers to our home as going radio silent. Sprint works well, verizon apparently works, anyone have any experience with T-mobile in that neighborhood?

  28. Well, Lance, if you’re going to raise the bar *that* high. I’ll go with Cassie, Cassandra’s misfit half-sister born of one of King Priam’s dalliances and who was hiding in a closet when Apollo was damning Cassandra so only got a small spritz of the curse. She was known for her foresight of obvious things based on human beings’ unquenchable interest in talking about their own anecdotal experience with shiny objects.

    I’m sticking with my prognostication.

  29. We have ATT on McGee near Hopkins. We have acquired a Cicsco microcell booster for the ATT signal for the iphone 3G. It improves the signal markedly in the back room study where it is located. It costs about $150, and is sold at ATT stores. Along with other commenters, I have thought the dead zone problems in Berkeley were related to ATT not being able to put up cell towers. (The booster boosts the signals only for the 3G phone numbers you identify. Someone walking on the street would not get the ‘boost,’ it is connected to your specific ATT account.) This has at least helped reception in our own house.

  30. I was at the AT&T store on Shattuck last week picking up their home cell signal booster (you hook it up to your wifi unit and it boosts your home signal). I asked why the bad coverage. I was told that the city refused to allow construction of new towers. AT&T asked customers to write the city asking them to allow new towers. Still nothing. Finally, in 2010 the city agreed to new transmitters. I was told signals will be vastly better by the end of this year. Again, this is info from an employee at the AT&T store.

  31. Rachel A: Cassandra is usually credited with foreseeing tragedy (like the destruction of Troy). I don’t think prophesying a lot of pageviews for a fun post like this is quite in the Cassandran class.

  32. My Verizon-iPhone using “friend” taunted me by calling me while parked in front of my N. Berkeley home. His phone had 4 bars while I have barely 2 on my AT&T-supported iPhone. I’ve been holding off from getting the Verizon phone but this might push me over the edge.

    Speaking of dead zones: I’m not sure there is a worse one that the intersection of Marin & Santa Fe. It’s the Bermuda Triangle of AT&T reception.

    Call me Cassandra but I’m guessing this might be one of the “most popular stories” on Berkeleyside this week.

  33. More data for “The unscientific Berkeley iPhone face-off”

    4 bars on Verizon iPhone

    Sent via Verizon MiFi card from upper Spruce in the Berkeley Hills

  34. The biggest AT&T dead zone that I know of is along eastern part Solano Ave, especially toward the top at The Alameda.

    However, I’m not sure AT&T is entirely to be blame here — there have been many attempts by phone companies to install cell antennas in North Berkeley, however, they are fought by the public. Verizon got their towers in before the NIMBY awareness of new cell antennas.

    I would love to see a news article investigating this aspect.

  35. To those who rightly comment that we weren’t rigorous in our comparison, I tried to be honest upfront. It’s unscientific, done for both fun and as a useful pointer. If the comments are anything to go by (and I know they aren’t a scientific poll either), our rough-and-ready test did a pretty good job of reflecting reality.

    To “Elmwood Neighbor”, I guess I’ll have to think of something else for my science fair project.

  36. This self-described unscientific experiment matches up with the experiences of my friends & I who have AT&T iPhones. I cannot wait to be free of their contract and switch to ANY other provider!

    We live in a dead zone in North Berkeley (it’s described in one of the previous posts) and gives me one more reason to keep a land line. (The other is earthquake-related. After the next quake, towers & wireless land lines may very well be inoperable, so a non-wireless land line is a smart idea.)

  37. Thanks for continuously providing interesting and fun content. I look forward to reading the stories every day. You provide form and function. Yes, that is my highest compliment 🙂

    Thank you!

  38. Well – I’m a toolie but don’t have upgrade-itis, so until I smushed my iPhone 1 at the Berkeley Y, was planning to keep it till Verizon got the iPhone.

    When I was looking at MiFi Cards I asked my friends who has the best service in the Berkeley Hills. 15 of 15 said Verizon … so bought the MiFi2200 from them. It works great.

    That qualified us to be early purchasers of the Verizon iPhone.

    We now have an iPhone which supports … PHONE CALLS!

    In the past few weeks, perhaps 1 or 2 calls dropped. That’s compared to about 1 in 3 with AT&T. We live in the Thousand Oaks neighborhood about 6 blocks north of Solano … I find I’m using the iPhone almost exclusively rather than my land line. Couldn’t do that with the AT&T iPhone.

    I happened to do two experiments in the past few weeks.

    We were previewing homes in the Berkeley Hills – Park Hills neighborhood (East of Grizzly Peak) and I called Carol – who was about 50 feet away. We were able to talk to each other by phone (and also wave to each other). That’s an AT&T dead spot.

    A few weeks ago I drove my friend Jeff Turner from Napa to Calistoga. We each had the iPhone 4 – his AT&T, mine Verizon. I had phone and internet access; his was very spotty.

    Hopefully Verizon will continue to work as well after more people subscribe to them.

    I want to thank the academy of cell phone providers, and Verizon, for hearing me now!

    Ira

    PS – I didn’t compare data speeds – for me, having mobile access to data turns out to be more important than how fast the connection was.

  39. Thanks for this. It’s sad though that such a test is even needed in Berkeley – next to SF and a famous university. We’re not in Kansas. What gives?!?! Is it Berkeley zoning battles that are limiting cell tower installation? What exactly is the problem with AT&T around here? I just moved to the neighborhood (Monterey Market) and it’s very frustrating.

  40. Sorry, but I’ve seen better science (methodology) in middle school science fair projects.

  41. I get a lot of dropped calls in Berkeley with AT&T, anywhere from Shattuck to about Bonar on Allston, where I frequently walk.

  42. I think you have to test iPhone 4 against iPhone 4, particularly on the loading of the NYTimes app if you want a good comparison. The NYTimes app, in my experience on my iPhone 3GS, is extremely buggy, and I believe this is in part due to the speed of the IPhone 3GS itself (i.e., processor and memory) and has nothing to do with the network connection – many times, I am able to use data with ease on other apps, but the NYTimes app still has problems starting or downloading and processing data. The iPhone 4 is a faster and more advanced device that previous generations, so, to effectively compare AT&T and Verizon, you need to compare iPhone 4 to iPhone 4.

  43. I realize you’ve given all the disclaimers but it’s hardly fair comparing an iPhone 3 on At&t to an iPhone 4 on verizon. Yes, the dead zone in N Berkeley is bad on AT&T. I generally consider Hearst to be the border. But I never have a problem in Elmwood with my 3GS nor does my husband on his 4. Downlaod speed may just as easily be a model issue as a carrier issue.

  44. I live in North Berkeley – in the flats near Cedar Street – and cannot get an AT&T signal in my living room. Friends who come over and have AT&T phones just have to face the fact that my house is a mid-20th century throwback and their cellphones will not work here. I’ve wanted an i-Phone but prior to now couldn’t even consider it.

  45. Thanks so much for doing this! Extremely helpful. I think you’ll find another major AT&T dead zone in North Berkeley, along Hopkins, Marin & Solano Avenue. I have an AT&T iPhone and hardly get any service in that part of town. Anyone tested the Verizon iPhone in that area? How about the Berkeley Hills?