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Did Consumer Reports Finally Get the iPhone Right?

The news spread like wildfire Tuesday morning. Consumer Reports, America’s largest product review publication, has granted the iPhone 4s a cherished “Recommended” status. This seems especially important, because the original iPhone 4 wasn’t recommended, due to that notorious antenna defect.

As most of you recall, the iPhone 4 got a bad rap because, if you held it in a way where your hand covers the separation in the antenna on the lower left of the unit, reception would seriously degrade, particularly in weak signal areas. Consumer Reports duplicated this problem in a laboratory, they report, rather than in a real world setting. But for some strange reason, they were unable to confirm similar problems with other phones, perhaps because they were looking at the same “G” spot, which is, of course, downright foolish. There are, after all, loads of YouTube videos showing how you can create similar symptoms with every other smartphone, to a greater or lesser degree. But the sensitive locations happen to be different. Some handset makers warn you about such problems with labels affixed to the product, or in user manual warnings.

So why didn’t CR get that? Are they suggesting all those videos and handset maker warnings are wrong? Antenna experts, and I don’t know if anyone in CR’s testing department is qualified in that regard, have made it quite clear that Apple’s position on the Antennagate controversy was correct. All mobile handsets exhibit reception problems if you hold them in a way that covers critical portions of the antenna. So what are we missing here?

No doubt you’ve read the specs, that the iPhone 4s has a diversity antenna system, similar to what you find in many autos, in which the unit switches to the antenna that gets the best reception. The system works, and thus CR encountered no further troubles, though it appears they simply tried to duplicate the same symptoms in the same position as they did with the iPhone 4. Does that make any sense to you?

But that doesn’t mean the iPhone 4s was rated number one with a bullet. CR found some Android handsets that got better marks because they have larger screens (4.3 inches) and support 4G, or LTE, networks. Yes, the iPhone 4s offers higher download speeds with GSM wireless networks that are optimized for better performance, employing a technology known as HSPA+. Real world benchmarks make it competitive with “genuine” 4G, but CR seems to be religiously devoted to specs above real world experiences and usability.

So the question arises: Is a larger smartphone, with a larger screen, as convenient to use as an iPhone? Does the larger form factor make it more difficult to place in pocket, shirt pocket, or purse? How does it feel during routine handling, or is the larger gadget perhaps a little too large?

Unfortunately issues of usability elude CR. It doesn’t mean that the somewhat bigger smartphone is going to be inconvenient, although I can tell you that any gadget larger than the iPhone would be somewhat difficult to place and remove from my pants pockets, and the pockets of the few fancy shirts I own also seem able to accommodate Apple’s smartphone, but nothing much larger.

And what about iOS 5 versus Android? Where’s the hands-on comparison to demonstrate which offers a better, more reliable, more fluid user experience without having to engage in complicated setups? What about the software repositories? Which platform offers a richer selection of titles? What about getting critical OS patches when bugs are discovered, and forget about a new, feature-laden upgrade? You know the answers, I’m sure.

Did CR consider such critical concerns in their tests? If they did, it would be a huge change, but there’s nothing  to indicate that CR is aware of such practical considerations? If they are, they don’t reveal it in the reviews posted on their site (though you may have to be a subscriber to read all but the summaries).

But CR is notorious for a serious lack of understanding about tech gear. They do not, for example, attempt to grok the differences between Mac OS X and Windows when evaluating personal computers. They concentrate strictly on specs, unspecified performance measurements, and the perceived ability to expand hardware. Here, Apple suffers because, except for the Mac Pro, internal upgrades are limited to memory and, with sometimes extreme efforts, the hard drive. But the actual user experience, and how the OS might impact that experience, eludes them. The Mac is just a pretty, premium priced computer, and nothing more.

Even worse, although CR reps make frequent appearances on radio and TV shows, they are seldom tasked to provide answers to such critical questions. The interviewers generally fawn over CR’s supposed expertise on all consumer matters, and ask the expected softball questions. You will never see the magazine’s spokespeople being forced to consider possible flaws in their test methods. Yes, I realize lots of readers complain about CR, but not enough, clearly.

Any time a product or service gets high marks, or a huge thumbs down, CR will be quoted without question. But not here, of course, and not until they own up to their shortcomings and change their ways.