Consumer Reports knocks Apple for ending iPhone free case deal

'Not acceptable' to put onus on customers for antenna flaw, says mag

Consumer Reports bashed Apple's plan to ditch its automatic free case program for iPhone 4 owners, saying the move was "not acceptable" because it put the burden on customers.

Late Friday, Apple quietly announced that it would stop offering free cases to all iPhone 4 buyers at the end of September, terminating a program triggered by what CEO Steve Jobs called "Antennagate" two months ago.

After Sept. 30, new iPhone 4 owners must contact Apple support to request a free bumper.

That didn't sit well with Consumer Reports.

"Putting the onus on any owners of a product to obtain a remedy to a design flaw is not acceptable to us," Paul Reynolds, the magazine's electronics editor, said in a post to the Consumer Reports blog on Monday. "We therefore continue not to recommend the iPhone 4, and to call on Apple to provide a permanent fix for the phone's reception issues."

Apple defended the decision to halt the case giveaway for the majority of its iPhone 4 customers.

The iPhone 4's antenna problem is "even smaller than we originally thought," Apple said in a statement posted on its site. "[Only] a small percentage of iPhone 4 users need a case."

Consumer Reports attracted attention in July when it refused to recommend the iPhone 4 because of the antenna problem. That advice remains in effect, said Reynolds in an e-mail to Computerworld on Tuesday.

Calling the new deal "less consumer-friendly," Reynolds criticized Apple for making users ring up the company to plead for a case, and for limiting the case selection to Apple's own bumper. The still-current case giveaway lets customers choose from several third-party cases as well as ask for Apple-made bumpers.

"Once there's the need for a case, as there is here, it's desirable, and more consumer-friendly, to offer a choice of styles," said Reynolds.

Consumer complaints about the iPhone 4 dropping calls surfaced within hours of the smartphone's late-June launch. Apple quickly acknowledged that touching the external antenna could reduce signal strength, but it offered only generic advice, telling users to "avoid gripping it in the lower left corner" or "use one of the many available cases."

The problem, users' reactions and the resulting fallout prompted Apple to stage a press conference on short notice July 16, during which Jobs announced the free case program but argued that all phones suffered from the same problem, and said it was all much ado about nothing.

"This has been so blown out of proportion that it's incredible," Jobs said then.

At the time, Apple promised free cases only until Sept. 30 and said it would re-evaluate the program before then.

Apple also said it would drop the other measures it had taken in July, when it extended the grace period for returns from 14 days to 30 days and discarded the 10% restocking fee that customers must pay if they have opened the iPhone's packaging. After Sept. 30, the " normal returns policy" will again go into effect, said Apple.

The rollback to the usual returns policy did not play a part in Consumer Reports's decision to retain its not-recommended advice.

In its most recent smartphone evaluations, Consumer Reports gave the iPhone 4 the highest rating in the category, 76 out of a possible 100. At times, the magazine refuses to place highly-rated products on its recommended lists, often because competing products cost less.

The highest-rated smartphone that Consumer Reports recommends is the LG enV Touch from Verizon, which received a score of 74.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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