January 11, 2011 at 11:25 am

AT&T vs. Verizon: Which iPhone Is Best for Music? (Updated)

Update: This story was updated after a Verizon spokeswoman could not confirm that the company would offer an unlimited data plan, as had been reported by Chicago Sun-Times, Reuters and Wall Street Journal (see below).

Verizon made countless dreams come true on Tuesday, by announcing that Apple’s iPhone will arrive on its network on February 10 to give U.S. iPhone users their first-ever choice in carriers, between AT&T vs. Verizon.

And with that begins a huge debate among current and potential iPhone owners: If I’m buying a new iPhone (or when my wireless contract situation allows me to switch carriers) which network should I go with, AT&T or Verizon?

The two iPhones are nearly identical other than the networks they connect to, but key differences exist. At Evolver.fm, we’re concerned with a specific angle: Which iPhone is best if music, music apps, and other data-hungry applications are an important part of your life?

Here’s how that battle plays out between the AT&T and Verizon iPhones in a number of key areas:

Unlimited Data

This is probably the most important item on this list where music fans are concerned, because streaming music from the cloud to your music apps can consume lots of data — and that means financial penalties, unless you have an unlimited data plan. Even if you’re not going to hit your limit, you don’t even want to have to think about it.

The Chicago Sun-Times confirmed early reports that Verizon would offer an unlimited data plan for the iPhone. even though Verizon didn’t mention unlimited data during its presentation, and no mention of the phrase exists in either Verizon’s or Apple’s press release.

Still, a Verizon representative confirmed to the Chicago Sun-Times that the company will offer iPhone users its unlimited data plan, which currently costs $30 per month. AT&T’s 2GB-limited data plan costs $25. If you want to download or stream lots of music to your phone without incurring overage charges, that would make the Verizon iPhone the one for you, unless one of the following areas is more important.

Update: The Chicago Sun-Times, Reuters, and Wall Street Journal may have been wrong about Verizon offering an unlimited data plan. Verizon spokeswoman Brenda Raney would not confirm to Evolver.fm that Verizon would offer an unlimited data plan for the iPhone. In addition, Verizon might have new pricing for the unlimited data option. Raney said, “You are correct… We did not mention price plans with the announcement today. More on price plans closer to availability.”

Country(-wide) Music

Verizon bills itself as “the nation’s largest” 3G network, and it’s right, by all accounts. If you spend lots of time in places where Verizon offers 3G service and AT&T doesn’t, you should obviously go with the Verizon iPhone.

Verizon also bills itself as the “most reliable” 3G network in the U.S., and it’s true, AT&T takes a lot of heat for the quality of its service. However, that’s partially the fault of all those iPhone users. These networks have finite capacity, so it matters how many other data-hungry people are using the network,, and iPhone users are notoriously data-hungry. A flood of new 3G Verizon customers in your area could cause problems in all of the network-related categories listed here, even though Verizon’s coverage map is largest.

CDMA vs. GSM

The Verizon iPhone connects via CDMA, which drops the data connection should you receive a voice call, unlike AT&T’s GSM radio, which can keep both connections alive. Depending on how you use your phone, Verizon’s configuration could either be a minor nuisance or a major distraction (for instance, if receive lots of calls and like to stream music to your phone).

Speed Counts (Plus iPhone 5)

The speed of these two networks matters a great deal — not only for getting the best sound quality from music streams and downloading songs quickly to your phone’s local memory, but for caching music. Streaming services such as MOG and Pandora buffer music on the phone’s memory, so that your music doesn’t skip when your phone switches to a new cell tower — something that happens quite frequently when you’re driving on a highway, for instance. A faster connection not only saves time, but can help prevent skipping by allowing music to buffer quickly in areas with spotty reception.

Verizon exec Dan Dee called his company’s network “the nation’s most reliable” during today’s announcement. However, AT&T is considered the nation’s fastest, so it takes this round. (As just one example, it swept PC Magazine’s 18-city test last summer.)

Verizon could win this battle in a heartbeat by selling a version of the iPhone that worked on its faster 4G LTE network. We have a feeling you’ll have to wait for the iPhone 5 before that happens though — after all, the 3G model isn’t even on sale yet.

“This is just the beginning of a relationship between Apple and Verizon,” said Apple chief operating officer Tim Cook during the announcement, hinting at possible future collaborations to come, including the potential Verizon 4G LTE iPhone 5 that would dominate this field. “I’m very optimistic about what the future holds.”

Tethering Other Devices

Verizon wins this round handily. If you want to tether other Wi-Fi devices (i.e. connect WiFi-capable MP3 players, Wi-Fi cameras for uploading gig photos, internet radios, and eventually car radios) to your iPhone, Verizon is for you.

The Verizon iPhone can tether to up to five devices right out of the box, whereas AT&T charges iPhone owners $20 per month for the same thing. In addition, tethering renders AT&T’s legacy unlimited plan, available only to longtime users of the iPhone, null and void.

Device Capacity, App Selection, Flash Support, Audio Hardware

The two iPhones are tied in these categories. AT&T and Verizon both sell the 16GB and 32GB versions of the iPhone for $199 or $299 respectively.  (Verizon lacks the 8GB model that AT&T offers, but music fans need more capacity than that anyway.)

In addition, you get the same apps with either phone — whatever Apple lets into the iTunes App Store.

Neither phone supports Flash audio or video, so if you want to play all of the web-embedded music you come across on your phone’s browser (music blogs, etc.), you should ignore both iPhones and probably consider an Android.

Finally, we don’t expect any real sound quality difference between the two models. Any audiophiles capable of discerning between the audio interference caused by AT&T’s GSM radio signal vs. Verizon’s CDMA radio signal would not be caught dead listening to music on a phone anyway.

Conclusion: Verizon Wins, If Its Network Backs Up Its Talk

AT&T’s speed is a necessity for a high-quality music experience, but Verizon’s unlimited data plan trumps just about everything else on this list where music fans are concerned — so long as the Chicago Sun-Times, Reuters, and the Wall Street Journal were not wrong about this unlimited plan (updated). After all, that $10/month MOG subscription is pretty meaningless if you feel nervous about using it for fear of hitting your data limit. And while Verizon’s inability to maintain a data connection during a voice call will be a problem for some music fans, it’s unlikely to be a deal-breaker for most.

If Chicago Sun-Times, Reuters and the Wall Street Journal are correct, and Verizon offers an unlimited data plan for the iPhone, the Verizon iPhone will be best for music. If not — and again, Verizon could not confirm to Evolver.fm that an unlimited data plan would be in place, AT&T takes the cake in urban areas where it has good coverage, while Verizon wins in the boonies (updated).

If Verizon is in fact offering unlimited data, the real test will occur after the initial flood of iPhone subscribers appears on Verizon’s network. AT&T, too, once offered unlimited data to iPhone users, a policy it ceased in order to cope with iPhone users’ intensive data usage. Verizon had better be as ready for the iPhone as it says it is (and not as ill-prepared as AT&T claims Verizon to be). Otherwise, Verizon will either be forced to limit iPhone owner’s data as AT&T did or offer service so slow that it becomes all but useless, especially from a music perspective.