'Not recommended' rating of iPhone 4 reflects design flaw

PHILADELPHIA — First there was the buzz about something bad — not the usual "amazing" or "awesome" — on the new Apple iPhone 4. Online and off, users shared stories of dropped calls and weakened reception when they gripped their iPhones in certain ways.

Then there was Apple's embarrassing suggestion that the problem was largely due to a software flaw — and one that existed on previous iPhones, too. The company said iPhones can mislead users about how much signal strength is actually available, often showing two more "bars" than they should.

Now Consumer Reports has added insult to Apple's self-inflicted injuries: The magazine said Monday that it had given the iPhone 4 its dreaded "not recommended" rating, after its own tests confirmed what many iPhone users had already learned the hard way.

Consumer Reports, in an e-mail announcing its findings, said tests showed that the iPhone's signal could significantly degrade when a user's finger or hand "touches a spot on the phone's lower left side — an easy thing, especially for lefties."

The magazine did offer a jury-rigged fix: Placing duct tape or similar material over the antenna opening could largely eliminate the problem. "It may not be pretty, but it works," said senior editor Mike Gikas.

AT&T referred questions to Apple, which sells the iPhone 4 at prices that begin at $199 for the lowest-memory model. The Silicon Valley icon, which has called the iPhone's debut "the most successful product launch" in company history, didn't reply to requests for comment.

Apple has been hanging tough throughout the mini-tempest, even after making a painful admission for a company that built its name by creating a seamless blend of hardware and software.

Apple's website still features its July 2 "Dear iPhone users" letter, which acknowledged that "some users have reported that iPhone 4 can drop 4 or 5 bars when tightly held in a way which covers the black strip in the lower left corner of the metal band."

But the company mostly blamed the newly identified software bug: "Upon investigation, we were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong."

Apple said users' reports of dramatic drops in signal "are most likely in an area with very weak signal strength, but they don't know it because we are erroneously displaying four or five bars. Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place."

Gikas said Consumer Reports' lab findings "call into question the recent claim by Apple that the iPhone 4's signal-strength issues were largely an optical illusion." He said the problem was serious enough to cause dropped calls in an area of weak reception, and did not occur on several other AT&T phones the group also tested, including the Palm Pre and the earlier iPhone 3GS.

The magazine's product testers otherwise loved the iPhone 4. Consumer Reports called it a step forward "in part because it sports the sharpest display and best video camera we've seen on any phone, and even outshines its high-scoring predecessors with improved battery life and such new features as a front-facing camera for video chats and a built-in gyroscope that turns the phone into a super-responsive game controller."

All that praise aside, Consumer Reports said it couldn't recommend the phone until Apple comes up "with a permanent — and free — fix for the antenna problem."

One possible answer is providing a free phone case for users who complain, a solution Apple has reportedly resisted. Consumer Reports said it planned to test whether a case can solve the signal problem.

The iPhone's antenna issues didn't seem to greatly faze analysts or the market, which sent Apple's shares down less than 1 percent Monday.

"I don't think ultimately it's a big deal for most consumers," said Roger Entner, of Nielsen Co. "There are still waiting periods for the phone. People are lining up, and they can't manufacturer enough.

"From that perspective, people are voting with their wallets."