• Explore the magic and the mystery!
  • The Tech Night Owl's Home Page
  • Namecheap.com





  • Another iPhone Rant: Did Apple Forget Call Quality?

    July 18th, 2007

    Sure, the company formerly known as Cingular Wireless widely advertises itself as having fewer dropped calls. Maybe they’re telling the truth, although they’ve had their share of quality and customer service problems in the past.

    For the sake of argument, I’ll assume they are right, or at least that the incidence of dropped calls on their network is on par with Verizon Wireless and the other top-tier wireless providers. But one thing AT&T doesn’t talk about, and Apple’s silence is just as deafening, is the sound quality of the calls you actually make on the iPhone. This is something that isn’t discussed all that much, and it has to be a significant issue.

    After all, you don’t buy wireless phones just for playing music, browsing the Internet and sending text messages. From time to time, you will make and receive phone calls, I suppose.

    My limited experience in that area seems to indicate that the iPhone sounds pretty much the same as any other wireless phone. Some report an “echo” effect, which may be related to the way you hold the device, or some network issue. MacFixIt’s Ben Wilson will tell our listeners, in an interview taped for broadcast on the next episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, that voicemail audio quality is a little tinny. I haven’t heard that from anyone else, but will accept his report as being correct. He was, after all, an AT&T wireless customer before he bought his iPhone, so he is familiar with the level of service they provide.

    So why did Apple forget what to many is the important feature of a mobile phone? It’s not as if they can’t do it. Look at all the technology embedded in the iPhone, from the intelligent touch screen to the visual voicemail. It’s even got the standard iPod EQ settings, so why can’t they add a setting, default or otherwise, to optimize the audio quality of an ordinary phone call?

    Sure, call quality can vary all over the place, even during a single connection as the load on the cell tower and your location shifts. It may range from one’s voice being immersed in a haze of digital grunge to something that approaches the clear, crisp signal on a traditional land line.

    But surely Apple can compensate for all this with its state-of-the-art operating system and the proper EQ tools. Wouldn’t that be something neat to advertise? The first wireless phone that actually sounds better than other wireless phones?

    Or does Apple feel that filling the iPhone to the brim with lots and lots of cool playthings will make you forget hot pathetic calls sound on digital wireless networks?

    Of course, you shouldn’t forget that the iPhone is actually a work in progress. Over time, there will be software updates to add features and fix bugs, such as the failure to display a fully charged battery when, in fact, it is full of juice.

    Moreover, I don’t think that software to automatically optimize call quality is a terribly difficult thing to create. Take a look at any audio application, and some of the cool plugins, which are often available for free or just a small license fee, and you’ll see that the technology is already there. It just has to be applied to the specific requirements of a wireless phone call.

    Apple, in fact, ought to be the best company to develop this capability. After all, they have created multimedia applications that are widely used in the entertainment industry.

    But perhaps the biggest obstacle is easier to quantify. Maybe you just don’t care. All the ads that tout superior wireless service that I know about don’t mention call quality. Saying you have fewer disconnects isn’t the same thing, because there’s still no promise as to how good your caller’s voice will sound even when the connection is solid. Having the largest network doesn’t count either, because all that means is that you’ll be able to make a connection in more locations, without regard to connection quality.

    However, it is true most people seem to hate their wireless phone companies. You consider yourself lucky if the bill is correct, and you can make and receive calls most of the time. But do you really have to settle for mediocrity?

    We all know that Apple is the company that can empower you to master even the most sophisticated technology. So, how about an iPhone update that will make calls sound even better than a land line? Is that too much to ask?



    Share
    | Print This Article Print This Article

    13 Responses to “Another iPhone Rant: Did Apple Forget Call Quality?”

    1. Dana Sutton says:

      I’m not sure how much better Apple could make call quality, as long as they are tied to a telecom company that is willing to settle for mediocre, as ATT seems to. Something else bothers me about the iPhone, an issue which I haven’t seen addressed in any of the many reviews I’ve read about it. No matter how great it may be in the US, suppose I travel frequently outside this country? Or suppose I’m a UK resident and get my iPhone service via Vodaphone or whatever company winds up with the contract, and suppose I travel over to France a lot? Wouldn’t the iPhone be completely useless outside one’s home country (not just telephony but all the other goodies as well)? I guess what I’m saying is I don’t understand how Apple’s one-country one-monopoly strategy is supposed to fit in with the realities of globalization.

    2. Travis Butler says:

      I’d say, you can’t get blood from a turnip.

      Just as with all digital media, you can only do so much by running filters on audio files. You can’t add fidelity that wasn’t there in the original signal; just as digital zoom can’t add detail to an image, only blow up what’s already there. And while digital filters can filter out various kinds of noise, there is a noticeable cost; for example, when you filter out high-frequency hiss, it muffles the treble to some extent, and the more you crank up the filter the more muted the high-end gets. When I transferred a bunch of old recordings to CD, I had to do a lot of experimenting with the filter settings to get the audio compromise I was happiest with, and this would vary from album to album. Filter technology has probably improved some in the intervening years, but I’d still be leery of putting too much automatic filter action into a consumer device like the iPhone.

    3. Andrew says:

      Why would it stop working? ATT, like all carriers, has roaming agreements where they don’t have their own network. My T-Mobile phone worked fine in Mexico, for example, just as well as a Verizon, ATT or any other USA phone would. Of course, it comes at a price.

    4. David W says:

      Dana’s point is the iPhone is more than just a phone. Many of the features rely on server side features that AT&T has implemented, services likely missing from the network you’re roaming on. You’d also be advised to find WiFi hotspots because paying for roaming data is going to hurt if you’re used to an unlimited account back home.

      I lament the poor call quality that exists on most wireless networks and with most phones. Sadly I believe the world is made “good enough” and really clear calls will never be a reality.

    5. T. says:

      What you’re asking for is EQ settings. Go read Apple’s site about battery life on iPods. They recommend an EQ setting of “Off” to maximize battery life.

      If you start using the processor to post process the output of the phone chip, you’re taking the ARM processor out of low power idle mode, and into a power draw situation.

      I’m sure Apple would prefer to let the cellular chipset they selected handle the phone audio needs, so any tweaking they do would be within the capabilities of the chip. Having longer battery life–longer talk time–is typically a higher priority.

    6. Bjorn Einarsson says:

      So one guy told you that voicemail audio is a little tinny. That is just an anecdote, maybe his ears got tinnitus. Maybe his voicemail system has EQ settings set to compensate for lousy phones that
      will sound tinny on a HIFI phone??

      wirelessinfo has a bit more objective testing:

      http://www.wirelessinfo.com/content/Apple-iPhone-Cell-Phone-Review/Audio-Quality.htm
      how they test
      http://www.wirelessinfo.com/content/How-We-Test.htm

    7. So one guy told you that voicemail audio is a little tinny. That is just an anecdote, maybe his ears got tinnitus. Maybe his voicemail system has EQ settings set to compensate for lousy phones that
      will sound tinny on a HIFI phone??

      wirelessinfo has a bit more objective testing:

      http://www.wirelessinfo.com/content/Apple-iPhone-Cell-Phone-Review/Audio-Quality.htm
      how they test
      http://www.wirelessinfo.com/content/How-We-Test.htm

      Anecdotal, yes, but the person who made this report was already an AT&T wireless customer, and did not encounter that tinny sound on his previous phone, a Motorola RAZR. Just wanted that clarified.

      Thanks for the link to those tests, however.

      Peace,
      Gene

    8. Dave says:

      I have to agree. My wife and I have had our phones since July 6th. We’ve each had numerous calls that degrade to the point the call is dropped or we have to hang up and replace the call. She is in LA for the next few weeks and it is difficult to say where the connection (e.g. voice quality issues) originate, but I can confirm that this has happened with local calls as well. I am beginning to think that the AT&T network is beginning to get overloaded with their windfall of new iPhone clients.

      Who do I complain to? It is nearly impossible to speak with someone at AT&T as their iPhone support line is overloaded and after several minutes of wading through menu choices to speak with an iPhone support tech is abruptly ended with a message that says that the AT&T support system has failed—please call again. Then the call hangs up… I have tried five times today with the same result. AT&T better get their support services and network upgraded or they will not be able to retain clients two years hence.

    9. Fred Hamranhansenhansen says:

      The best hope for this is just more bandwidth. The audio quality goes down as bandwidth diminishes. If you use the YouTube app on EDGE you get a low-quality stream but over Wi-Fi you get a fatter, better-looking stream. With calls you are always on the low-bandwidth cell network even on iPhone. As your signal strength varies so does bandwidth.

      The iPhone itself is running CoreAudio and has high-bandwidth audio decoding so it is ready to take advantage of any improvements AT&T makes to call quality.

    10. AMGoff says:

      blah blah blah… This is the one “quibble” almost every tech writer has seemingly latched on to, regardless of whether they actually own the phone or not. The wife and I have had our iPhones for three weeks now and the call quality is neither better nor worse than our old Samsungs and we’ve had Cingul..err. AT&T for over 12 years now. We didn’t buy the phones with hopes of better call quality, we bought them for all of it’s other quality features, features that no other manufacturers can execute as well as Apple has with the iPhone. When I place a call I can hear the other end and they can hear me, what more do people want from a mobile phone? Bottom line – if people want great call quality they better hold on to their good, old, trusty landlines.

    11. blah blah blah… This is the one “quibble” almost every tech writer has seemingly latched on to, regardless of whether they actually own the phone or not. The wife and I have had our iPhones for three weeks now and the call quality is neither better nor worse than our old Samsungs and we’ve had Cingul..err. AT&T for over 12 years now. We didn’t buy the phones with hopes of better call quality, we bought them for all of it’s other quality features, features that no other manufacturers can execute as well as Apple has with the iPhone. When I place a call I can hear the other end and they can hear me, what more do people want from a mobile phone? Bottom line – if people want great call quality they better hold on to their good, old, trusty landlines.

      With the billions of dollars that the wireless carriers have spent on their networks, one would think that call quality would be foremost among their considerations. However, it also has something to do with one’s expectations. If you grow accustomed to lousy call quality and settle for it, they have no incentive to make it any better.

      Peace,
      Gene

    12. Alex says:

      I’ve experienced sub par audio quality on the phone as well. When I got the phone I was extremely excited by the amazing screen technology, and am still amazed by it. They did a phenominal job on it. Before the iPhone I had an 11 year old Sanyo 4500 that all my friends ridiculed me for, so it never even occured to me that the iPhone wouldn’t at least match the voice quality.

      But sure enough, the earpiece volume is too low, in a moderately noisy situation like walking down the street or in an office you have to strain to hear. The sound occasionaly distorts and buzzes. On about a third of calls there’s a slight background hiss. The voicemail is unmistakebly tinny. The speakerphone is mediocre. A genius bar guy at the apple store agreed that he had noticed these things as well. I read the wirelessinfo.com article that positively reviews the phone sound, I’m not buying it because I trust my ears. One thing the article doesn’t address is the volume being too low, also the distortion occurs when the volume is turned up, which you need to do unless at home.

      I use my cell phone for work as well so this just isn’t adequate. I still can’t believe it’s so advanced in most ways yet inadequate in one of the most fundamental ways.

    13. ktula says:

      I have to agree. My wife and I have had our phones since July 6th. We’ve each had numerous calls that degrade to the point the call is dropped or we have to hang up and replace the call. She is in LA for the next few weeks and it is difficult to say where the connection (e.g. voice quality issues) originate, but I can confirm that this has happened with local calls as well. I am beginning to think that the AT&T network is beginning to get overloaded with their windfall of new iPhone clients.

      Who do I complain to? It is nearly impossible to speak with someone at AT&T as their iPhone support line is overloaded and after several minutes of wading through menu choices to speak with an iPhone support tech is abruptly ended with a message that says that the AT&T support system has failed—please call again. Then the call hangs up… I have tried five times today with the same result. AT&T better get their support services and network upgraded or they will not be able to retain clients two years hence.

      I have the same problem with dropped calls. The signal would fluctuate from 4 – 5 bars to 1 bar and if i happened to be on a call, more often than not, the call would be dropped. This happened me with sitting at the same location. At first, i blamed that on AT&T’s network. Then i got a replacement iPhone but the same problem persisted. A Sony Ericsson phone (W810i) on the same AT&T network experienced no such problem. As much as i want to blame it on AT&T’s network, i have to admit that the culprit is most likely iPhone.

    Leave Your Comment