Thursday, September 18, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Consumer Reports vs. Apple: A one-way spitting match

The spitting match continues between Apple and Consumer Reports over evidence of an antenna flaw in the new iPhone 4, though the visible part seems mostly one-way.

Consumer Reports vs. Apple: A one-way spitting match

A consumer uses the newly-released Coppertone MyUV Alert iPhone mobile app. But watch how you hold your phone. A gap in the antenna on the latest iPhone results in lost and dropped calls.  (Diane Bondareff / AP Images for Coppertone)
A consumer uses the newly-released Coppertone MyUV Alert iPhone mobile app. But watch how you hold your phone. A gap in the antenna on the latest iPhone results in lost and dropped calls. (Diane Bondareff / AP Images for Coppertone)

The spitting match continues between Apple and Consumer Reports, though the visible part seems mostly one-way.

On Monday, Consumer Reports said it had looked at complaints about reception problems with Apple's iPhone 4 - the "grip of death," some call it - and found that they were replicable under lab conditions. Hold the phone the wrong way, and reception suddenly degrades.

"It's official," said CR's Mike Gikas, explaining that the magazine's raters loved the new iPhone otherwise but ranked it "not recommended" because of the flaw. (Read my story here on the thumbs-down rating.)

There was no response from Apple, which earlier had dismissed the problem as unimportant or even illusory - though the company did admit, embarrassingly, that a bug in all iPhones' software has for years overstated signal strength by two bars.

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Apple has promised a fix to the software, but it has essentially told customers to deal with the antenna shortcoming themselves, either by remembering exactly how to hold the phone to avoid dropped calls or by investing an extra $25 or $30 in a case that would mitigate the problem.

Today,  Consumer Reports upped the ante with a blog post titled, Why Apple — and not its customers — should fix the iPhone 4. CR said:

In an earlier statement, the company noted that attenuated performance is a "fact of life" for every wireless phone. Apple suggested owners mitigate the problem by holding the phone differently or purchasing a case. But those solutions put the onus on consumers and skirt Apple's obligation to offer a product that works consistently and reliably out of the box.

We think it's the company's responsibility to provide the fix—at no extra cost to consumers.

Our tests, conducted in our labs using controlled signals, confirm growing anecdotal indications that the iPhone 4's problems are anything but illusory. Our tests found that when your finger or hand touches a spot on the phone's lower left side—an easy thing to do—the signal can significantly degrade enough to cause you to lose your connection altogether if you're in an area with a weak signal. We tested several other AT&T phones the same way, including the iPhone 3G S and the Palm Pre. None of those phones had the significant signal-loss problems of the iPhone 4.

So how has Apple responded now? Still no reply to my repeated email inquiries, or new statements on its website.  But here are two small indications:

One is that Engadget.com contends Apple is " has taken to deleting threads about the Consumer Reports article from its support forums." Click here to read its posting, which I've also invited Apple to reply to.

Another is evidence that Apple isn't holding fast to its policy of declining to give out free phone cases as a stopgap solution.  A Blue Bell businesswoman wrote to say: "I placed my order to upgrade on Saturday at the AT&T store and was given a free case, presumably in response to the antenna issue."

So ask for a case, and maybe ye shall receive.  Call me and let me know.  But if you don't get a free case and don't have duct tape available, watch how you hold your iPhone.

Jeff Gelles Inquirer Business Columnist
About this blog

Jeff Gelles, who writes the Inquirer's weekly Consumer 14.0 and Tech Life columns, takes a broad look at the marketplace of goods, services, and ideas.

Reach Jeff at jgelles@phillynews.com.

Jeff Gelles Inquirer Business Columnist
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