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The iPhone 4 has been out since last Friday, and the reception isn’t great. In fact, it reminds me an awful lot of my last three iPhones. So why all the sudden fuss?

My former co-workers at Gizmodo have done a great job pointing out all the technical fail points of the new iPhone’s antenna, and all the ways to make reception drop out.

The reporting is sound, but the end result is just that the iPhone 4 has an easy way to demonstrate a very common effect. Crowding your hand around the bottom of any previous iPhone was enough to cause it to lose reception and drop calls too. In fact, I’ve been very conscious of causing reception loss by wrapping my hand around any cell phone with a bottom antenna since I used a Motorola RAZR (on Verizon Wireless).

More importantly, when I walk down the street, talking and holding the iPhone 4 in a normal manner, I don’t automatically experience sudden reception loss. You almost have to mean to do it.

What’s annoying is that lawyers catch wind of this healthy debate and think, “How can I use this to make money?” So, within a week, the first anti-iPhone 4 class action suits have been filed. There are a lot of serious terms being hurled hither and yon, my favorite being “breach of implied warranty of fitness.”

But how on earth is anyone going to prove this stuff? It’s not enough to show that the iPhone 4 has some reception quirks — I imagine you’d also have to prove that other phones don’t. Good luck with that.

Bad Apple

Just because a class action suit against Apple is asinine doesn’t mean that Apple gets off the hook. Apple is plenty guilty of not improving on one of the final key shortcomings of its miracle phone: call quality.

It’s a well-known sneaking suspicion that a lot of the AT&T hatred you can spot on Twitter or in the streets of San Francisco and New York should really be directed at Apple, because it’s the iPhone — both in its individual engineering and in the seething mass of its fanbase — that causes calls to fail and reception to be unpredictable and shoddy on AT&T’s network.

Let’s put it bluntly: If the only reason you wanted an iPhone 4 was improved call quality, don’t do it.

That’s no condemnation. I don’t for a second regret spending the $300 for mine. The updated style, the gorgeous screen, the HD video, not to mention the beefier platform for running the newest, multitasking iPhone OS — Apple made good on all of those promises. An iPhone is a personal do-everything device that happens to make phone calls, and this one is the best.

But when it comes to call quality, the user experience is unchanged. Steve Jobs’ promise that calls would be better because of the new body design? That must have been wishful thinking. Apple’s June 23rd hiring call for iPhone and iPad “antenna engineers” may not prove the point, but it does drive it home embarrassingly well.

Carrier blues

AT&T is another loser here. As the iPhone’s sole U.S. carrier, it mostly just has to put up with all the swearing and cursing.

A key of the iPhone’s success is that it made more people want to use their phones for data-intensive stuff, like visiting websites, flying through e-mail, downloading media and using all manner of connected apps. Only the combined lineup of smartphones running Google’s Android across all four carriers can even come close to taxing phone networks as hard as iPhones do, and AT&T has to bear all the iPhone brunt solo. Despite a big network-building push over the past year, AT&T still appears like it has a hard time keeping up. So is it a victim or a culprit?

One thing’s for sure, AT&T has serious quality-assurance issues. During the past few months, I have been trying out a MicroCell, which connects to my home broadband network, and gives my phone full bars of reception for both calls and data. It works like a charm — except when it doesn’t.

AT&T reportedly had a MicroCell outage, coincidentally the week that iPhone 4 launched. I noticed that the MicroCell in our house was out, but didn’t realize how widespread it was. Ours only started working again today. Though that outage was the longest, the MicroCell does tend to crap out for short periods on a regular basis, even dropping calls in the process. I’m not opposed to the MicroCell concept, especially in rural areas with decent broadband reach but few cell towers, but this inconstant performance is discouraging, especially when the thing costs $150.

At the risk of ending on a sour note, grab some Pepto Bismol and understand what I’m really saying: Just because there may be an iPhone sold by Verizon Wireless in as early as six months, there’s no guarantee its reception will be any better. Be prepared to feel burned.

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