How Did Consumer Reports Miss the iPhone 4 Antenna Flaw for So Long?

iPhone 4
iPhone 4

It's been nearly three weeks since the iPhone 4 went on sale. But it wasn't until yesterday that Consumer Reports, the ultimate authority in which big-ticket items to buy and which to bypass, warned its readers to steer clear of the trendy new device, citing a by now infamous antenna design flaw that leads to reception problems.

Consider that Apple (AAPL) sold 1.7 million units in the first three days alone, the magazine's advisory is the equivalent of recommending to the farmer that he shut his barn door after his cows have already made it over the state line. For any other publication, this would be a minor embarrassment, but Consumer Reports has built its name on a foundation of rigorous testing of products. Its reputation for finding hidden flaws is such that more than 2 million people pay $26 a year (or $5.95 a month) to read its reviews. It's one of the few media brands with a large paying Web audience.

"Early Impressions"

Surely, some of those 2 million people went out and bought an iPhone 4, especially after a blog post declared it "the best iPhone yet." But Paul Reynolds, the publication's electronics editor, insists there was no lapse. "We never recommended the iPhone," he says. "We did blog on some early impressions, but if you look at those blogs, they're quite specific about it being preliminary."

One reason it took until now for Reynolds and his colleagues to determine that the new iPhone's flaws make it un-recommendable is that famously secretive Apple didn't provide them with a unit in advance for testing -- meaning it was inevitable that people would already be buying it by the time they could give it a thorough going-over.

Will Consumer Reports do anything differently in the future to avoid endorsing -- however tentatively -- another device with a similarly crucial weakness? "We are loooking at that, and we look at that from time to time anyway to change test procedures in response to what has emerged in the field as issues," Reynolds says. "So we'll certainly take a look more at sensitivity, but I don't want to say that's a reaction necessarily to this."