Mossberg: iPhone 4 the best of the super-smartphones, except for U.S. voice calls on AT&T

“When I reviewed Apple’s new iPhone 4 last month, I said that, overall, it was still the best of the super-smartphones,” Walter S. Mossberg reports for The Wall Street Journal. “But I warned that, in my tests, its performance in making voice calls on AT&T’s network in the U.S. was decidedly mixed.”

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“This week, I am presenting a follow-up on the reception issue. It is based on my real-world experience—not lab tests—over six weeks of daily use with two different iPhone 4 units: the original one Apple lent me for testing, and a second one I purchased on which I installed the fix for the display of the bars,” Mossberg reports. “As in most unscientific cellphone tests, my experience was affected by many variables, including the locations where I used the phone (in this case, the Washington and Boston areas), and the coverage and congestion on the cellular network at various times and places. So, your experience may differ.”

MacDailyNews Take: Not may, Walt, will; iPhone users’ experiences will differ. For example, MacDailyNews reader Dave N. tells us that in certain areas along Florida’s east coast, getting any Verizon signal is impossible, while his iPhone 4 on AT&T has five bars and it’s basically impossible to drop calls. The AT&T problems seem to be centered around high population areas that do not have enough cell tower capacity to handle the load and where, not coincidentally, it is difficult, if not impossible, to get legal clearance to erect more cell towers. That said, we believe that Apple is not only missing an opportunity to kneecap competitors making phones based on Google’s iOS knockoff (and possibly patent-infringing) Android by moving to a multiple carrier model in the U.S. (Android’s only real toehold), but also failing to delight their iPhone customers in New York City, San Francisco, Boston, etc. – areas where it just so happens that the major media is located, thereby amplifying AT&T’s issues and spreading the incorrect perception that AT&T’s coverage sucks uniformly everywhere.

Mossberg continues, “After my six weeks of constant use of two iPhone 4s, I still believe it is, overall, the best device in its class, for reasons including its ultra high-resolution screen; easy, integrated video calling; slick software; strong battery life; a remarkably thin body; and a world-beating selection of 225,000 third-party apps. As for reception, I am sticking with my initial conclusions. I have found that in areas with average or strong AT&T coverage and capacity, the iPhone performs better than its predecessor and about as well as other AT&T smartphones I’ve recently tested. It still drops too many calls for my taste on AT&T’s heavily stressed network, which has experienced a stunning 5,000% rise in data traffic since the iPhone’s introduction in 2007. That data traffic reduces the network’s ability to handle voice calls.”

“What about the dreaded ‘hot spot,’ a seam at the lower left of the external antenna where the cellular radio is connected to the external portion of the antenna? In my experience, deliberately touching that spot can, indeed, make the bars fall, from say, three to one. But, sometimes, it actually makes the bars rise. In general, I’d say it makes the bars fluctuate,” Mossberg reports. “But touching the hot spot doesn’t always ruin the call, even if it lowers the number of bars. In several cases, when I was already on a call with three or four bars showing, I deliberately covered the hot spot with my hand, and the call continued normally, strong and clear, even though the bars dropped to one or two.”

Mossberg reports, “I also spent a few days testing the ‘bumper’ case Apple is now giving away to every iPhone 4 user. It greatly reduced what call problems I experienced, even in weak areas, though it didn’t entirely eliminate dropped calls, which occur even in good coverage. The iPhone 4 does better than the 3GS for me in decent coverage. But I still wouldn’t advise adopting it as your primary phone if you live, work or travel in areas with poor AT&T reception, or if you prefer a network under less stress.”

There’s much more in the full article – recommended – here.

MacDailyNews Take: It’s nice to see Mr. Mossberg back on top of his game. We agree with pretty much everything he writes in this article. Readers must, of course, keep in mind that this is one man with two iPhone 4’s testing them in a 6-week window in and around Washington (D.C) and Boston. If you live in Cocoa Beach, or in many other places, this review isn’t really very helpful to you except to explain why you keep hearing that your perfect cell phone reception is so poorly regarded in some places and so terribly perceived (the media is situated in the worst AT&T coverage areas). If Walt did his tests in Cocoa Beach or in any one of a thousand other places, he’d likely be shouting AT&T’s praises from the rooftops.

Bottom line: We concur with Mossberg’s advice. If you live in areas with poor AT&T reception and voice calls are important to you do not buy an iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4 until Apple adds additional carrier options in the U.S. or, if you still want an iPhone for everything else it offers, get a cheap small cellphone that uses another network for your voice calls. You’ll have to carry two devices, but if voice calls are important to you and you live in areas with poor AT&T reception and you want an iPhone, this is the best advice we can offer at this time.

BTW: Our iPhone 4 units have better reception than our iPhone 3GS, iPhone 3G, or original iPhone in exactly the same place. We can make and hold calls with our iPhone 4 in places where we’d never even bother attempting to place a call with any of our previous iPhones. iPhone 4’s antenna is the most sensitive iPhone antenna ever – for good and bad (it can attenuate when held in certain ways, like any phone; put your iPhone 4 in a case or bumper).

Apple’s decision – and believe us, when you have $45 billion liquid at your disposal, any contract can be bought out, so this is Apple’s decision – to remain with a single carrier model in the U.S. is failing to delight many of their iPhone customers who live and work in some major metropolitan areas. Apple needs to wake up and add U.S. carrier options if they really want to delight all of their customers.

[Thanks to MacDailyNews Readers too numerous to mention individually for the heads up.]


  1. “except for US voice calls on ATT”

    I’m happy Walt tested his i4 in all 50 states so he could confidently make this statement. My i4 is still naked and I have zero call issues here in S.Florida. Walt needs to amend that statement.

  2. DED says it best: in a market (the U.S.) where Apple would just pick up a few million customers – mostly ones defecting from ATT – it just doesn’t make sense for them to develop a CDMA phone for Verizon.

    In markets where the iPhone is on other carriers, Apple is absolutely smashing competition. It’s actually kind of embarrassing. And there are *many* remaining unexploited markets for Apple to do this with the same phone they have now.

    From a global market perspective, until Verizon moves to LTE, you can forget about another carrier getting the iPhone in the U.S. Dems da brakes.

  3. Am I perceiving a mellowing on MDN’s opinion and portrayal of the reality that is AT&T’s diverse coverage strengths/weaknesses? I have nothing but good service. I just learned last week that the cell tower on the school campus where I work is owned by AT&T. That may add to my great service.

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