Following its widely publicized decision earlier this week to say it could not recommend Apple's iPhone 4 because of signal-strength problems, Consumer Reports is not backing down. On Tuesday, the nonprofit organization again posted that "it's the company's responsibility to provide the fix -- at no extra cost to consumers."
CR added that Apple has an obligation "to offer a product that works consistently and reliably out of the box." Apple has said that users should try to avoid holding their iPhone 4 so that the antenna signal is weakened, or they might buy a $30 case to shield the device.
Recall Costing $1.5 Billion?
But the problem isn't going away for Apple. Its stock price dropped about two percent on Tuesday, and a variety of industry observers have raised the possibility of the company issuing a product recall.
One analyst, Toni Sacconaghi of Bernstein Research, speculated that a full product recall could cost Apple as much as $1.5 billion.
In a posting on its Electronics Blog on Monday, Consumer Reports had said it could not recommend the popular device because it has a signal reception problem.
"It's official," the posting by the organization's Mike Gitas said. "Consumer Reports' engineers have just completed testing the iPhone 4, and have confirmed that there is a problem with its reception."
Gitas said when a finger or hand touches a spot on the lower left side of the device, "the signal can significantly degrade enough to cause you to lose your connection altogether if you're in an area with a weak signal." Because of this, he wrote, Consumer Reports "can't recommend the iPhone 4."
Consumer Reports noted that a piece of duct tape or "other thick, non-conducive material" over the antenna gap fixes the problem. Gitas noted that the engineers' conclusion was reached after testing three different iPhone 4s, which were purchased at three separate retailers in the New York area. The tests were conducted in the organization's radio-frequency isolation chamber, a controlled environment. A base-station emulator was used to simulate carrier cell towers.
Not AT&T's Fault
Also tested this way were several other phones carried by AT&T, including the iPhone 3GS and the Palm Pre. The other phones did not have the same signal-loss problems. This indicated, CR said, that "AT&T's network might not "be the primary suspect in the iPhone 4's much-reported signal woes."
The organization said its 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 display 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength.'" A software update from Apple is supposed to fix the issue of the meter exaggerating signal strength, and Apple has indicated the meter problem could be at the heart of the entire issue.
Avi Greengart, an analyst with Current Analysis, called the situation with the iPhone 4 "a PR disaster," although he noted that a case will cure the problem. "The longer this stays in the news," he said, "the worse it is for Apple's brand."
His suggestion for the company: Give a case to every iPhone 4 owner. "Other companies commonly do this," he said, including Research In Motion and HTC. Greengart noted that, once this issue is behind Apple, owners might begin to note that "the iPhone 4 actually has much better signal reception than previous iPhones" and other devices.
Posted: 2010-07-15 @ 1:50pm PT
I used an iPhone 3G from nearly the day they were released. (Did not use a first gen iPhone or a 3GS.) I switched to the iPhone 4 from the day they were released. Even though I can reproduce the dropping bars phenomenon with AT&T's 3G service, I cannot reproduce it with their Edge service. And, interestingly and thankfully, in normal use the iPhone 4 is almost identical in reception quality to the iPhone 3G. (Actually, it seems to have slightly higher audio quality even when the signal strength appears to be the same, but that might be the result of other component differences rather than signal strength/reception.) I use the phone in areas of high signal strength and very low signal strength, so I see the full range of reception quality and there really isn't any difference. So it's not clear to me why the signal strength indicator goes through such radical swings, or why there's quite so much pseudo-outrage over this, but I guess Apple just makes a good target for some people.
FWIW, in trying to reproduce the phenomenon for myself I noticed a curious thing that nobody seems to report, which is that after the bars drop down, they gradually crawl back up almost to where they started. Not quite ... I've seen 5 bars go down to 2 bars and then slowly climb back up to 4 bars, but not 5. This suggests to me that there is a very minor drop in signal reception -- probably no more than in other phones, but nobody bothers to test and report those results -- and it is being exaggerated by the software used to calculate signal strength for the display bars. So Apple's comments on this are at least somewhat factual.
I do wish Apple would document the issues rigorously and make all the information public. There'd still be Apple bashers, no matter what the actual data, but everybody else could get on with their lives.
Posted: 2010-07-14 @ 11:04pm PT
I have an apple 3g. I'm on my second phone since march of 2010, because of bad signal. I think at&t needs to do something fast, the phones cost too much for this to be happening. If they don't want to fix the problem, then they should let us out of the contract, so we can go somewhere eles and be happy.