Consumer Reports Breaks Up with the Apple iPhone 4

Last Updated Jul 12, 2010 3:00 PM EDT

Despite the barrage of criticisms of the Apple iPhone 4 and various flaws, fanboys have taken comfort in the blessing by Consumer Reports. Its lab couldn't reproduce signal loss issues and that there was no reason to buy the device.

However, that's all changed. Consumer Reports has now retracted that position and said that it can no longer recommend the iPhone 4, even though in areas other than reception it tested at the top of its product category, largely because of its display and video camera performance.

It's a significant blow for Apple, which made its market position on products perceived as superior to the competition in design, manufacturing, and operation. The question is whether Apple and CEO Steve Jobs will cop to the problems or continue to explain them away by essentially saying nothing is wrong, don't look at the man behind the curtain of supposed perfection.

Earlier this month, Consumer Reports said that signal loss in handsets wasn't unique and that there wasn't anything at the time that appeared serious enough to recommend against the iPhone 4:

Most of the Web sites reporting dropped signals and even dropped calls have demonstrated several techniques, or "death grips" for recreating the problem (which we've yet been able to reproduce in a meaningful way). But those almost always require squeezing the phone hard, in an unnatural way. Those grips may also produce sweaty palms from exertion, with the sweat increasing conductivity--and possibly the degree of signal loss.
Apple has said that the signal drop was actually the result of miscalculating the number of reception bars the phone should have displayed, and that once it pushed out a software fix, everything would be fine. However, the wrong calculation resulted in the phone displaying two bars more than it should have, which raises the question of exactly how good the reception is. Consumer Reports went back to the lab and was able to demonstrate the reception problem and also found that AT&T's (T) network was probably not the major reason for signal drop:
We reached this conclusion after testing all three of our iPhone 4s (purchased at three separate retailers in the New York area) in the controlled environment of CU's radio frequency (RF) isolation chamber. In this room, which is impervious to outside radio signals, our test engineers connected the phones to our base-station emulator, a device that simulates carrier cell towers (see video: IPhone 4 Design Defect Confirmed). We also tested several other AT&T phones the same way, including the iPhone 3G S and the Palm Pre. None of those phones had the signal-loss problems of the iPhone 4.
There is a fix, according to Consumer Reports: Cover the gap between the two antenna strips with something non-conductive, like duct tape. (Is there anything the miracle substance cannot cure?) But that's not enough to get the organization to change its view. It said that until Apple came up with a permanent and free solution, it couldn't recommend the product.

That leaves Apple in a sticky situation. A well-respected third party testing lab has said that there is a real problem and that it is up to Apple to fix it. So far, the company has dodged any such suggestions, and a leaked document showed that Apple was instructing customer service people to explain away problems and not offer free bumpers -- a plastic band that would probably cure the situation. Apple is being completely foolish. Even if there was nothing wrong with the iPhone 4, and that seems unlikely, the company could give away the cheap piece of plastic for which it asks $29 just to make customers happy. The real cost would be negligible and the upside on customer relations large. But it's probably too late for that to work. Yes, the company might reduce potential returns, but at this point, anything given to customers, especially without an apology, will seem grudging and an attempt to extend the famed reality distortion field. Only I think this time it would have to stretch further than it can.


Thumb down image: Flickr user Oldmaison, CC 2.0. iPhone image: Apple. Photo editing: Erik Sherman.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.