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Serious iPhone 4 Defects Make It More Lemon Than Apple

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Discolored displays? Faulty antennae? Early adopters of Apple's latest gadget aren't happy.

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Uh oh.

We've finally come to the official launch date of Apple's (AAPL) fourth entry in its iPhone line and reviews are pouring in. Gadget gurus are calling it a vast improvement to last year's model and some, like Joshua Topolsky at Engadget, are deeming it the best smartphone available now. The upgraded A4 processor, crystal-clear display, and HD-video support have both analysts and Apple fans salivating over finally, at long last, getting their multitouching hands on the impeccably designed iPhone 4.

But there are just a few problems with that. Early reports are calling out two glaring design flaws in the first-run model that would dampen any iPhone owner's excitement.

A few weeks ago at the developers conference, Apple's head honcho Steve Jobs placed great emphasis on the iPhone 4's sharp display resolution -- dubbed "Retina Display" -- which he claimed was, to a person with normal vision, as vivid as and imperceptible to actual print. And it is, without a doubt, a wonder to see firsthand. That is, when it's not marred by dead pixels and yellow spots.

Gizmodo and The Unofficial Apple Blog are fielding numerous complaints over newly delivered iPhone 4s with defective screens. Readers are noticing faded yellow spots and bars along the top and bottom edges of Jobs' illustrious Retina Display. One reader wrote to Gizmodo, "I was shocked to find this many dead pixels. This was fresh out of the box. It looks like a constellation." If Apple modeled the screen to mimic human vision, the company should have checked to see the person didn't have glaucoma.

But the Retina Display isn't the only iPhone 4 selling point affected by faulty construction. The already poor cell reception that iPhone users have come to accept is made even worse by the newly designed external antenna band. Intended to act as both the device's stainless steel frame and tap into wireless signals, the antenna band is greatly reduced in power simply when held in the user's hand. While resting on a table, the iPhone could have five bars, but when gripped by the edges with bare skin, the signal drops to one bar or, in some cases, "no service." However, iPhone 4s wrapped in a case seem to be unaffected.

Once again, Gizmodo is collecting shared evidence of the defect. Submitted YouTube clips and speed tests show a significant disparity between "normal" and "held" signal quality -- one user reported almost a 70% drop in download speeds and couldn't place a call while the phone was in his hand.

Wall Street Journal editor and perennial Apple apologist Walt Mossberg touched upon the reception problem in his review of the iPhone 4 and even deemed it a reason certain customers shouldn't buy it:

[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 (T) could explain this. The iPhone 4 quickly recovered in these situations, showing service after a few seconds, but it was still troubling.


Despite what Apple claimed, the user reports prove that the problem goes beyond a slight and easily fixable "software bug." But Mossberg is correct about one thing: The defect is very troubling.

While feeling disappointed with their new purchase, many disgruntled owners are left wondering how Apple could miss such a huge design flaw during the testing phase. Some suggest the answer comes from the manner in which the prototypes were field-tested. Back in April when Gizmodo came into ownership of a leaked iPhone 4 prototype, the device was masked within a case that made it appear to be an average iPhone 3GS and there to thwart off nosy passersby. As the device wasn't touching the testers' bare hands, there wasn't enough proof of signal fallout.

But Gizmodo also cited a more "cynical view" that suggests Apple knew about the defect and it was the impetus behind the company manufacturing a line of bumper cases itself rather than hand off the responsibility to third parties. After all, what's a subsidized $300 when you can also add another $30 for the special case?

Still, the two glaring defects are bad enough that customers care less about the "why" and more about the "when," as in, "When can I get a replacement?" Apple Stores claim to have reserve supplies in case of a faulty device here and there, but judging by how widespread these problems seem to be, customers will have to face a long wait in addition to long lines in order to maybe get a better model.

The reception issue does evoke an interesting memory. If you recall, at the Apple conference earlier this month, the device's network connection failed as Jobs was demonstrating it -- causing an audience member to loudly suggest Verizon (VZ) as a solution. AT&T has long shouldered the blame for the iPhone's poor reception, but in light of the iPhone 4's woeful defect, the issue seems to reflect AT&T's claims last year that the problem is with the iPhone design and not the network.

Holy cow! Could AT&T have been right?!

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