Apple Gets on the Bad Side of Consumer Reports

July 12th, 2010

As if Apple doesn’t have enough PR problems what with the alleged sensitivity issues surrounding the latest and greatest iPhone, now Consumer Reports, the most respected product review publication in the U.S., has, as a result of their own testing, given the hot new gadget a negative rating.

In the original blog on the subject, CR said they couldn’t figure out how to duplicate the alleged reception problem. But evidently they found the secret handshake, which was the reason for a thumbs down, at least until Apple comes up with a fix.

Their findings are best summarized in these sentences: “When your finger or hand touches a spot on the phone’s lower left side—an easy thing, especially for lefties—the signal can significantly degrade enough to cause you to lose your connection altogether if you’re in an area with a weak signal. Due to this problem, we can’t recommend the iPhone 4.”

In the meantime, CR is also suggesting that, other than holding it differently of course, you do something to cover up the sensitive region with tape or a case. Or buy someone else’s product, even though the iPhone 4 otherwise scored better than the smartphones they tested in a new product roundup.

Even though covering the sensitive region of the phone eliminates the problem, CR says it’s not enough: “…Apple needs to come up with a permanent—and free—fix for the antenna problem before we can recommend the iPhone 4.”

The dreaded “Not Recommended” label from CR can often be the kiss of death for a product, or severely hurt sales. In recent months, Toyota was sent rushing back to the drawing board when one of their luxury SUVs was given bad marks because of alleged serious handling problems. Toyota brought out a software fix that addressed the vehicle’s handling characteristics, and, upon confirming that the update did what it was supposed to do, CF withdrew the unfavorable rating.

I have had only brief face time with an iPhone 4, and haven’t made an extended effort to duplicate the reception problem. More to the point, CR’s efforts to see if other smartphones had similar reception defects may be flawed if we assume they tried the same hand position, not considering other positions would trigger their specific problems. Certainly the conclusion that none of the other devices they tested had the problem flies in the face of independent tests that present contrary results.

Unfortunately, CR hasn’t really treated Apple so fairly in most respects. Their PC reviews, for example, routinely fail to enumerate the differences between the Mac OS and Windows, so the reader is left with the impression that the Mac is just the higher-priced spread, even though the truth is far more nuanced.

So it may well be that CR’s target audience isn’t that heavy into Apple products anyway, even though they still generally get high ratings and score well in the magazine’s reliability surveys of its readership. But when you add the CR complaint to loads of press reports about problems with the new iPhone’s reception, it can be enough to impact sales severely once the rush of early adopters has abated.

This doesn’t mean Apple is confronting an insoluble problem. They could, perhaps, offer free “bumpers” for folks who complain about the ability to make and receive phone calls. That promised software update to revise the sensitivity display should be pushed out as quickly as possible, and perhaps, along the way, Apple might find a way to make the product function more reliably under conditions where signal strength is marginal.

Once that’s done, they ought to shout the fix to the skies and make sure that they can demonstrate to CR’s editors that they’ve solved the problem, regardless of the true cause.

The timing, however, couldn’t be worse. Up till now, Apple has been on a roll because of super successful product introductions, and I wonder once again why it took loads of complaints, the threat of class action lawsuits and heavy press coverage to discover that a problem really existed.

Worse, Apple’s usually flawless PR machine failed big time here. The original admonitions by corporate communications and even Steve Jobs to just hold the phone differently didn’t sit well. It makes you think that perhaps they had something to hide, or perhaps rushed the product to market without sufficient field testing under severe conditions.

Yes, I can see where maybe that infamous lost or stolen prototype might have hurt Apple’s testing process. It is possible, I suppose, that they opted to restrict the testing process to more controlled environments, and thus failed to discover the consequences of customers handling the phone with sweaty palms in a way that caused this defect to appear.

I don’t dispute the contention from antenna experts that all or most mobile handsets will display similar reception issues when held in the right or wrong way, depending on your point of view. Apple might do well to hold a public demonstration, with the press in attendance, to confirm that, say, a Droid or a Droid X can be induced to also lose sensitivity under easily duplicated conditions.

In the end, I still believe Apple will surmount these obstacles and emerge triumphant. But Steve Jobs has to know that they brought it all on themselves.

| Print This Article Print This Article

12 Responses to “Apple Gets on the Bad Side of Consumer Reports”

  1. rwahrens says:

    I can’t help but think that the solution is going to be more nuanced than people think it is.

    Some users have the full problem – touch it wrong and they get falling bars, dropped calls, dead downloads, etc.

    Some users just get falling bars, but no dropped calls, no dead downloads.

    Some get no dropped calls, but downloads stop completely, and they see falling bars that may or may not reflect reality. (me, by the way.)

    Most users see no problems at all.

    No doubt that CR has to publicize the results of their tests, as opposed to the testing of others. But it has been noted that their tests are flawed, and do not reflect real world conditions, nor are they intended to find the cause of the problem, just that a problem exists.

    Lab tests do not reflect reality.

    Some people just affect electronics differently. My sister, for instance, cannot wear an old fashioned mechanical watch unless it is anti-magnetic. If she does, they just stop after a couple of minutes and never start back up again till she removes them.

    Maybe it is just that some people affect the antennae in the wrong way, and Apple may need to apply some insulating coating to the outside of the metallic parts of the phone. A software fix may also be needed to affect how the software uses the antenna or changes the frequencies used. Another software fix may change the way the bars are displayed.

    It is too early to know.

    • Richard says:

      You mean, like Apple’s lab tests where the testers were required to wash their hands before touching the device?

      I have previously commented that there is an inconsistency between phones which leads me to suspect that the design problem also has a production problem compounding it on some units.

      Steve’s stubborn attitude may just hurt the company this time. Take a look at this article, one of the newest pointing out how the company has made a difficult situation even worse that it was or needed to be. Sooner than later, the company’s reputation will suffer.

      This is neither FUD nor an attempt to damage Apple as some claim. The problems are real and are of Apple’s own making.

  2. Hairy Goomer says:

    This whole “issue” smells to me of a concerted effort to trash Apple and iPhone 4. The FUDsters have managed to shift the debate away from iPhone 4’s new and amazing display, significantly improved battery life, much improved cameras, Facetime, etc., and onto what I consider to be a minor issue, one that neither my wife nor I can duplicate on our iP4s.

    There are many powerful forces that don’t like Apple, have never liked Apple, and will do just about anything to trash them. These forces have successfully shifted the entire discussion of iP4 so that the focus is entirely on what is at most a minuscule “problem.”

  3. Joseph Futral says:

    Couldn’t replicate the problem with my wife’s phone. And to find a way to hold it in the affected way was most uncomfortable. I don’t know how anyone can hold this phone in such a manner unless trying to replicate the issue. In the end this is an EASY user fix. As arrogant as it might sound, Jobs is right. Don’t hold it that way. Move that pinky. How hard is that? I can’t figure out why my head hurts when I hit it against this brick wall. I need bumpers.

    And really, if this is an issue for someone, return the phone. I don’t get why that is so difficult to understand, either.


  4. Lazer Wolfe says:

    What the heck people? I like this forum because it is reasonable, so let’s keep it that way.

    The data indicates that there is some kind of problem, and more importantly, as far as I can tell, it is REPEATABLE, by different groups in different locations. So it is likely something more than mass hysteria and Apple bashing. It is now time to move beyond the opposite conclusion, that there really isn’t a problem, and find a fix for those affected.

    You can argue about how easy it is to fix or that some testing isn’t real world or that all phones suffer from it. CR showed that the problem can be attenuated, and for me that is the final nail in the coffin.

    Time for the Apple engineers to get back to the lab and work this out. In the meantime, Apple should simply say “if you are experiencing problems, please bring your phone to an Apple Store and we’ll look into it.” (ie give people a bumper until you find a permanent solution).

    No one is perfect.

    No big deal.

    • @Lazer Wolfe, Although I’ve not duplicated the phenomenon in my brief testing (remember in a high-signal area), a friend, who is a Linux administrator and very tech savvy, has reliability perfected the secret handshake.

      I’d like to see more intense testing of other smartphones, just to say under what circumstances, and there have to be some, reception deteriorates.


  5. Hairy Goomer says:

    @Lazer Wolfe,

    Apple has already informed buyers they can return their iPhone 4 within 30 days of purchase and receive their money back.

    This whole “issue” has been caused by Apple bashers. If it wasn’t this, they’d be filling forums about something else. In addition to Apple competitors having vested interests in getting the media all in a froth, there are the stock price manipulators who talk the stock down prior to what will be more blow-out numbers from Apple’s upcoming quarterly financial results (next week).

  6. Joseph Futral says:

    I disagree. The issue really isn’t that there is a problem or even that it is repeatable. There are THOUSANDS of problems out there and the results are all at least likely if not repeatable. Smoking does more harm than good. Consuming more calories than you burn will result in weight gain. Driving recklessly will likely cause an accident. Stepping on a tack with bare feet will likely hurt the average person.

    This issue is primarily deliberate but avoidable. And for the truly few who can cause the problem without thinking about it, the problem is fixable now, without Apple needing to do anything. And the fixes are simple. Don’t eat more calories than you burn.

    No big deal. We are not talking about lead paint on toys here.


    • Lazer Wolfe says:


      I see your point. But I am not sure how deliberate one has to be to generate the issue, although I haven’t watched many of the videos either. I think that if the issue can be observed and can be repeated, at the very least it may lead to an inconsistent user experience. And as we can all agree, inconsistent user experience can be maddening, ESPECIALLY when it’s a dropped call to or from a loved one.

      From what I can gather, the issue seems to be more frequent in low-signal areas so those who complain the loudest, may have some reason to.

      I agree there is a remedy but that it requires extra stuff, implies to me that the original design was suboptimal, at least for those in low-signal areas (maybe). I don’t think we’re talking about some extreme environment here, these low-signal areas seem to exist in the real world.

      Again, it’s not the end of the world. It seems to be an issue for some and should be looked into more, as Gene rightfully suggests. Apple could just send an engineer to CR, compare the iPhone to other phones and see if the problem is unique to iPhone. If it is and Apple considers it serious, fix it. If not, then they continue to get piled on by the tech media, and now the mainstream media, until more reasonable voices prevail.

      I guess to me, this actually seems to be more of a legitimate issue than those throwing their iPhone across the room and then blogging about how weak the glass is (what kind of journalism is that?)

      But we’ll see how it turns out. I’m sure Apple will do the right thing so we can focus on what is right about the iPhone and what needs to be done to advance it into the future.

  7. rwahrens says:

    @Lazer Wolfe;

    Nobody (at least not me) is saying that some people don’t have the problem. But it is only SOME people. Many others don’t have it, can’t repeat it and are using their phones with better results than with previous models.

    That indicates to me that the problem is likely to have more than one cause, resulting in more than one solution.

    I can easily repeat the falling bars issue – but I see no phone conversation problems – just data stoppages, which I can avoid by not holding part of my hand on the offending spot.

    Do I have a problem? Sometimes, but it is controllable, and I have no issue with waiting for Apple to come out with a solution. Your milage may vary, since you may be able to repeat a different set of symptoms in this issue.

    I think that it likely that many groups may be taking the opportunity to smack Apple down over this. What’s wrong with that? It is obvious when reading sites that are traditionally anti-Apple that they are taking full advantage of this issue to get in more smack time on Apple.

    That does not mean that there aren’t folks with legitimate gripes with this phone, just that some others are unfairly making it seems worse than it is.

    • Lazer Wolfe says:


      And that’s a great point about the bars. I can imagine some people moving their fingers and watching the bars drop. But like you did, they need to ask themselves if that has any real affect on call quality or connections.

      That seems to be part of Apples response. The bars aren’t really reflecting what’s happening. Fair enough.

      So I guess we need some real numbers. Just how many people are really being affected, under what conditions and to what extent? This seems to be Gene’s contention as well.

      Having said that, if the issue is egregious for a subset of people, and is easily fixed, then it should be acknowledged, corrected and put to bed.

      I imagine Apple is looking into it, but as anybody who works in tech, medicine or science knows, these things take time.

      As I first stated, the problem seems real enough, but as you state, we need to know how wide spread the issue is, and as Gene states, what are the conditions that cause it and is it unique to the iPhone?

      Now that’s an article I’d like to read!

      May cooler heads prevail……

  8. Joseph Futral says:

    First, I wonder how many times the issue results in actual dropped calls, not just reduced signal.

    Then I kind of wonder if the formula Apple used for calculating the bars was originally intended to “fix” the problem. Think about it. If the issue only really exhibits dropped calls in poor signal areas, then one would expect dropped calls and low bars. So pump the bars to reflect “strong enough” as four or five bars, less reflects signal more likely to be dropped (rather than some sort of linear matrix), then technically nothing unusual is going on.

    And if Apple thought they had a design that would _hold on to weak signals more_ than other phones and more than previous iPhones, then “effectively” more bars can be displayed than before.

    If the formula was more linear, then what the bars reflect might not reflect what the iPhone 4 is capable of. Such that people might complain that the iPhone is only getting 3 bars and they were expecting better reception, never mind that the actual result is better performance on those three bars than other phones or previous iPhones.

    Now add on that the possibility of the bars visually reflecting the issue at four, three, or two bars more frequently. And how many more people would be able to say they can “replicate” the issue, even though they may not be dropping ANY calls.

    The problem could actually be that ATT has more marginal areas of reception than Apple thought or was lead to believe.

    Just some speculation,

Leave Your Comment