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Consumer Reports: 'We were wrong about the iPhone 4'

Yes, the antenna sucks

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One of — if not the — most respected product-testing labs has reversed its original positive opinion of the iPhone 4, citing results of its comprehensive testing of the Jobsian handheld's pesky antenna.

"Consumer Reports has confirmed that the iPhone 4 has an antenna problem," says spokesman Mike Gikas. "We tested multiple iPhones as well as other phones from AT&T, and found that the problem is really only with the iPhone 4. Bottom line, we can't recommend the iPhone 4 until Apple fixes this design flaw."

In a blog post, Gikas notes that CU's testing was done in a radio frequency (RF) isolation chamber to eliminate any interference from outside signals, and was performed with a base-station emulator that simulates carrier cell towers.

As has been shown by less-meticulous testers and discussed by trusted third parties such as Anand Lal Shimpi of Anandtech, the iPhone 4's external-band antenna can be easily detuned by being touched, and — as Gikas details in the video above — its ability to accept an RF signal is seriously compromised when the now-famous gap between the Bluetooth/Wi-Fi/GPS and UMTS/GSM antennas is bridged when touched.

"Our findings call into question the recent claim by Apple that the iPhone 4's signal-strength issues were largely an optical illusion caused by faulty software that 'mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength,'" Gikas writes.

The flaw is especially galling because of CU's favorable opinion of most every other aspect of the handheld. Gikas specifically cites the iPhone 4's display, video camera, video-chat capability, gyroscope, and battery life as praiseworthy.

Unfortunately, though, those niceties are overshadowed by the phone's antenna troubles: "Apple needs to come up with a permanent — and free — fix for the antenna problem before we can recommend the iPhone 4," Gikas concludes.

As other testing has shown, the iPhone 4's reception can actually be more robust than that of previous iPhones. However, when signal strength is dodgy, serious attenuation such as that discovered by CU's testing can cause signal strength to dip to such a degree as to cause wireless connection to be lost.

In other words, to paraphrase Longfellow's ditty about the little girl and her little curl: "When the iPhone 4 is good, it is very, very good; but when it is bad, it is horrid."

At minimum, Apple should provide — for free, of course — provide every iPhone 4 owner with one of its $29 Bumper antenna covers. At maximum, Apple should issue a recall and replace each iPhone 4's problematic antennas with redesigned — insulated? — signal-catchers that eliminate the iPhone 4's fatal flaw.

Until Apple 'fesses up and admits that the iPhone has a problem, no amount of "You're holding it wrong" or "It's the bars' fault" song-and-dance stonewalling is going to either re-burnish Cupertino's faltering reputation or defend against its growing legal woes.

Note to Steve "Smartest CEO" Jobs: the ball is now in your court. ®

Bootnote

CU's Gikas suggests that the iPhone 4's problem can be mitigated by placing a strip of duct tape over its troublesome antenna gap. "However," he adds, "it does spoil the look, don't you think?"

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