Consumer Reports says it can't recommend iPhone 4

July 12, 2010 1:35 PM EDT

The most respected brand in consumer purchasing struck a blow against Apple's iPhone 4 today, saying it "can't recommend" the device, due to reception problems when touching the lower-left edge of the case. Consumer Reports's recommended fix: Duct tape.

It's official. Consumer Reports' engineers have just completed testing the iPhone 4, and have confirmed that there is a problem with its reception. 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.

The organization's tests were thorough. They tested three iPhone 4s, purchased at three separate retailers in the New York area. Engineers did the tests in a radio frequency isolation chamber impervious to outside signals. They used a base-station simulator that simulates cell signals, and tested several other AT&T phones the same way, including the iPhone 3GS and Palm Pre. "None of those phones had the signal-loss problems of the iPhone 4," Consumer Reports said.

Our findings call into question the recent claim by Apple that the iPhone 4’s signal-strength issues were largely an optical illusion caused by faulty software that “mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength.”

Consumer Reports recommends a fix: "Cover the antenna gap with a piece of duct tape or another thick, non-conductive material. We also expect that using a case would remedy the problem. We’ll test a few cases this week and report back."

Duct tape?

For a company like Apple that prides itself on the minimalist beauty of its products, the duct tape recommendation's gotta hurt.

The so-called "death grip" problem was first reported when the iPhone 4 shipped a few weeks ago, and it's been difficult to ascertain how much of a problem it would be for most users. After all, every product has bugs when it ships, and people tend to scream loudest about bugs in Apple's new products. Later, customer-satisfaction ratings for Apple are high. So at first, I thought the problem was much ado about nothing.

Later, independent lab engineers at Anandtech confirmed the problem is real. But there's still no explanation why so many people don't seem to be affected; early reviewers have been overwhelmingly positive, with some singling out iPhone 4 reception for praise.

I got my iPhone 4 last week, and I'm very happy with it. For me, signal strength has been great. I have had difficulty reproducing the grip bug. I do notice a drop-off in bars when touching the lower-left corner of the phone, but the drop-off is delayed by a few seconds, as is the return to five bars when my grip shifts, so much so that I can't swear that it's not simply random. And even with a small number of bars, calling quality is usually good, lending credence to Apple's explanation that it's a software problem in how the bars are displayed, not a problem with real signal strength.

I think the most likely explanation is that the seriousness of the problem depends on signal strength in your area. If your phone is getting a strong signal, the grip bug will be no big deal. In a weak signal area, however, the grip bug could make the device unusable as a phone. Here in San Diego, where I live and work, AT&T coverage is good.

Despite my positive personal experience, Consumer Reports's negative recommendation carries great weight with me. When I was a boy, my father subscribed to Consumer Reports, we had a stack of dozens of back issues in the dining room, and consulted that oracle every time the family made an appliance purchase. From cars to refrigerators to alarm clocks, Consumer Reports was our guide. It's a huge deal for Consumer Reports to withhold its approval from the iPhone 4.

Mitch Wagner Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn pageFriend me on Facebook is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist.