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So is the iPhone 3G Really a Defective Product?

Well, despite the recent well-deserved rise in Apple’s stock price, it seems they can’t get a break. There are widespread reports in recent weeks of various and sundry problems with the iPhone 3G. On the plus side, this hot new gadget is selling out almost everywhere it’s on sale, and some 60 million iPhone apps were downloaded during the first month.

At the same time, teething pains are legion. Slow keyboard responsiveness, system hangs and application crashes are only part of the picture. That situation was at least partly resolved with the recent 2.0.1 software update and a slew of updates from third-party companies.

But is that enough?

That’s a good question, because I’m reading a number of troubling reports about problems with AT&T’s 3G network. Although download speeds are, as Apple claims, up to two or three times faster than the older EDGE or 2.5G system, it hasn’t come without glitches. Sometimes 3G download speeds are little better than EDGE, even though that setting sucks up twice the power on the iPhone 3G.

Worse, AT&T’s widely-advertised claim of “fewer dropped calls” isn’t always fulfilled. I have had some issues, but nothing significant, and probably no more than I encountered with my previous wireless carrier, Verizon Wireless. But the larger issue is whether some of the problems emerge from AT&T’s network or the iPhone 3G, or perhaps a combination of both.

Understand that the mobile phone system is first and foremost a two-way radio technology and highly imperfect. As you travel from one cell tower to another, the signal is passed off seamlessly. In theory, this scheme should work quite well, and it really does considering the billions of conversations that are handled every single day.

But since this is two-way radio, it also means that there’s lots of room for mischief. Buildings and natural obstructions can combine to impair signal quality. Moving your phone from pocket to your car may also change things for the worse.

I know that I have always had difficulty getting good signals in large stores, such as a Best Buy or a Wal-Mart, although even then the carrier’s signal fidelity counts too.

Another problem is more mundane. Carriers have invested billions of dollars in building cell towers, but at the same time, they will do what they can to compress the the signal to a fare-thee-well, which means that your calls may be immersed in a sea of digital haze. I often suggest that holding two tin cans, separated by a simple string, might deliver better sound. But so does an old-fashioned rotary landline phone.

Even where the carrier is making a genuine effort to add more cell towers, local zoning laws might intervene, and approval can be locked up in a bureaucratic nightmare that takes months or years to unwrangle. Consider that people in a neighborhood might regard the towers as unsightly, so the carrier has to promise to camouflage them somehow. Years ago, I covered local government affairs as part of my job as a broadcast journalist, and I can tell you from first-hand experience that deliberations can often get messy.

But enough political talk. Despite all the obstacles against the smooth transmission and reception of the cell phone signal, it really does work quite well most of the time. Some carriers are better in a particular neighborhood, of course, but it’s not as if you can just switch as the need arises.

I know AT&T is pretty decent here in Arizona, while I know signal quality might be pathetic in other locales. So while the iPhone 3G is a downright sexy smartphone, there may be very sensible reasons why it’s not for you, at least until AT&T improves its network in the areas you visit most often.

But what about the iPhone 3G? Is there something wrong with the chipsets or firmware that makes it function worse than other phones in the very same location? I can’t say that I have a definitive answer to give you. My son uses a Motorola RAZR with the AT&T network. Traveling with him, it doesn’t seem as if the signal quality he experiences is significant different from what I observe.

No, it’s not as if we’ve actually done an intensive investigation of the reception situation. More to the point, I live just south of an area that is anathema to good cell phone signals from every provider I’ve tried, and that also includes Sprint and Verizon Wireless. Driving through that area, or just visiting one of the fast food restaurants that fill the many strip malls, is sufficient to put me in a significant dead zone.

Well, maybe that’s a good thing. Sometimes I fret over the loss of privacy in this wired world of ours, and it gives me a little time to have a pleasant meal, catch up on reading, and not have to concern myself with email and phone calls.

As far as a latent defect in the iPhone 3G is concerned, I really don’t know. Reception is actually slightly better than the first generation iPhone it replaced. In areas where I would sometimes miss a call, it usually rings almost every time — except in that dead zone of course, where all bets are off.

I’m also certain that if there are glitches in the firmware or in AT&T’s network, they will be addressed soon. Both Apple and AT&T have an awful lot of money invested in the iPhone, and there are those 30-day guarantees to be concerned about. If new customers aren’t satisfied, they can return their iPhones and go elsewhere.