AT&T Sours iPhone 4 Reviews

While early reviewers of the iPhone 4 raved about what a great phone it is, they had some complaints, and AT&T network quality was at the top of the list.

"AT&T still sucks, and the best engineering out of Cupertino won't change that," writes Boing Boing's Xeni Jardin. She says she rode her bike around town carrying the new iPhone 4, iphone 3GS and original iPhone, and observed signal strength differences:

AT&T's network includes black holes and Bermuda Triangles in many places around my town, Los Angeles. Even where signal strength was terrific, dropped or garbly calls did still occur sometimes with this new iPhone. But a little less often.

Overall performance and reception capabilities with iPhone 4 did seem improved, during my limited tests. The connectivity improvements engineered into this device seem to help you make the best of a very imperfect carrier (and, of course, none of them are perfect).

Standing in one familiar trouble spot that used to drive me crazy, I often had one or two "signal strength" bars on the first-gen iPhone, maybe one or two more bars on the 3GS, and 4 or 5 bars on iPhone 4.

Bottom line: I think the engineering is better. But issues of call quality and dropped calls will not be completely gone with this improved device. As we're now four hardware iterations in, I believe that has everything, or nearly everything, to do with the carrier.

AllThingsD's Walter Mossberg says "network reception was a mixed bag."

Compared with the previous model, the new iPhone dropped marginally fewer calls made in my car, both in Washington and in Boston, and was much louder and clearer over my car’s built-in Bluetooth speaker-phone system.

Yet, in some places where the signal was relatively weak, the iPhone 4 showed no bars, or fewer bars than its predecessor. Apple says that this is a bug it plans to fix, and that it has to do with the way the bars are presented, not the actual ability to make a call. And, in fact, in nearly all of these cases, the iPhone 4 was able to place calls despite the lack of bars.

However, on at least six occasions during my tests, the new iPhone was either reporting “no service” or searching for a network while the old one, held in my other hand, was showing at least a couple of bars. Neither Apple nor AT&T could explain this. The iPhone 4 quickly recovered in these situations, showing service after a few seconds, but it was still troubling.

The New York Times's David Pogue notes improvement over earlier call-quality "wigginiess:"

With the iPhone 4, Apple tried to relieve the wigginess. Sound is much better on both ends of the call, thanks in part to a noise-canceling microphone and an improved audio chamber (which also helps speakerphone and music sound). The stainless-steel edge band is now part of the antenna. The new phone is also better at choosing the best channel for connecting with the cell tower, even if’s not technically the strongest one. (Ever had four bars, but a miserable connection? Then you get it.)

Does any of this mean no more dropped calls in New York and San Francisco? No. But there do seem to be fewer of them.

Early reviews are overwhelmingly positive, including the three I'm quoting here. But call quality remains a problem for the device. Mossberg sums up:

Just as with its predecessors, I can’t recommend this new iPhone for voice calling for people who experience poor AT&T reception, unless they are willing to carry a second phone on a network that works better for them.

For everyone else, however, I’d say that Apple has built a beautiful smartphone that works well, adds impressive new features and is still, overall, the best device in its class.

Mitch Wagner is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist.

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