When the first iPhone debuted in 2007, it and subsequent versions were only available on AT&T. Finally, in 2011, it landed on Verizon Wireless, with Sprint getting the iPhone 4 and 4S a year later.
Prepaid carrier Virgin Mobile was able to offer up the iPhone 4 and 4S starting only a few months ago. On its network, users won't get locked into a two-year deal, but the iPhone 4's price tag jumps to $550 (compared with $99 with a carrier agreement). Through Virgin, unlimited data, messaging, and minutes cost about $55 a month, while Sprint's unlimited data plan goes for about $110 for smartphones.
In addition to price, another difference is network performance. Virgin Mobile uses Sprint's network, and tests carried out in our San Francisco offices showed that for the iPhone its 3G speeds were slower than AT&T's and Verizon's.
Other than pricing, data speeds, and call quality (more on that later), Virgin's iPhone 4 is pretty much the same as all the others. You still get all the expected essentials, like the 3.5-inch Retina Display, access to the App Store, FaceTime calling, the 5-megapixel camera, and iOS 5.1. And you can get mobile hot-spotting for an extra $15 a month.
Again, there are no big physical changes in Apple's iPhone 4 for Virgin Mobile. The device has the same measurements (4.5 inches tall, 2.3 inches wide, and 0.37 inch deep), its glass front and back, the stainless-steel encircling border, and the flat profile. The well-known Retina Display, with its 940x640-pixel resolution and 326 pixels per square inch, is also identical to that on other carriers' models.
Just like the Verizon model, the Virgin unit accommodates a CDMA antenna, so the ringer mute switch is a tad bit closer to the volume rocker than on AT&T's version. Antenna locations are also in the same places as the Verizon model's, as indicated by the two antenna gaps that sit above the ringer switch and to the right of the sleep/power button. And, of course, there is no SIM card slot. Other user controls and hardware (the noise-cancellation microphone, the proximity sensor, the 30-pin connector, the microphone, the speaker, and both the cameras) are in the usual places as well.
In fact, the only way you can tell that this is a Virgin handset is by reading its name on the top-left corner of the banner.
Virgin's iPhone 4 comes with all the expected standard features, such as a 5-megapixel camera with 720p high-definition recording and HDR shooting, a calendar, voice and text memos, weather and stock apps, various clock features, Google Maps, YouTube, news and gaming portals, the App Store, iTunes, the Safari Web browser, notifications, a music player, a calculator, and a compass.
Out of the box, the handset came loaded with iOS 5.1, which includes goodies like the Photo Stream feature, which you can toggle on or off in the Settings menu. This enables you to automatically upload your photos to your iCloud account. Accessing your camera for your Photo Stream is also a lot easier, too, since you can open the camera from the lock screen. Other features include alternate map routes; FaceTime calling over a Wi-Fi network; iMessage messaging with other iPhone, iPad, and iPod devices; a reading list option in Safari; and customized alert tones. For more information, be sure to read our complete guide to iOS 5.
As I mentioned before, you also can turn your device into a mobile hot spot, the way you can Verizon's iPhone 4. You'll need to pay an extra $15 a month, and while that extra charge is annoying, it's still nice that your laptop or tablet can get access to your iPhone's unlimited data network. Unfortunately, it being a CDMA handset, you cannot access voice and data simultaneously.
I tested the dual-band (CDMA 800/1900) iPhone 4 in San Francisco using Virgin's services. Call quality was excellent. Voices were clear, especially at max volume, and there were no extraneous background noises or buzzing. My calls didn't drop and audio didn't clip in and out. Likewise, my friend told me that my voice was clear, and that I could be heard perfectly well.
Listen now: Apple iPhone 4 (Virgin Mobile) call quality sample