The iPhone is the worst phone in the world

The iPhone gets more press than a Brangelina sex video, and acts like it's the only smart phone on the planet... so why is it so rubbish at doing what it says on the tin?

Flora Graham
7 min read

That's right, we said it -- and we're not taking it back. The iPhone may be the greatest handheld surfing device ever to rock the mobile Web, and a fabulous media player to boot. It may be the highest-rated mobile phone on CNET UK, rocking the pockets of half of our crack editorial team. It's certainly the touchscreen face that launched a thousand apps. But as an actual call-making phone, it's rubbish, and we aim to prove it.

Say what? iPhone call quality is bad

Call quality on the iPhone is pathetic, and it's mostly because of the tiny speaker. It has to be aligned with your ear canal with the accuracy of a laser-guided ninja doing cataract surgery, or else the volume cuts down to nothing as the sound waves bounce uselessly around your ear shells.

The earbud headphones that come with the iPhone include a hands-free microphone, but they're tinny and as weak as a kitten, with no sound-isolating rubber nubs. Rumour has it Steve Jobs is hard of hearing and Apple has been criticised for making iPods too loud. We don't want music players blasting the hearing of future generations into fleshy tatters, but we could use some of that power in our iPhones' speakers.

The microphone is similarly craptastic, letting in all and sundry sounds to pollute your important calls, from fire alarms to passing unlicensed mopeds. Thank heavens the 3.0 version of the iPhone's software supports Bluetooth, so we can get our headset on and make some calls.

Dropped calls and data gaps

If, like Will Smith in Enemy of the State, you're trying to avoid the eagle eye of Big Brother, the iPhone could be for you. It drops calls, fails to connect and doesn't even ring sometimes -- not for everyone, but more often than any other phone we're currently using.

Most iPhone 3G and 3GS users can share stories of phone calls that disappeared mid-chat or voicemails that frighteningly appear, fully formed, without the phone ever ringing. But the people we've talked to who own the first iPhone, which sticks to the 2G network, don't tend to report the same problems.

Unsurprisingly, where voice is bad, data is often worse, and cries of 'no network' are a familiar sound for some iPhoners -- there's even a blog about it. Others complain about failed text messages, but it could be worse: some 52 people took the time to mention in Apple's support forum that their iPhone calls random people by itself.

For iPhone users, there are no straight answers about where the problems come from. As usual, Apple sticks to, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all," and has kept its mouth shut about the issues.

We could point the finger of blame at O2's network, which has the thinnest 3G coverage in the UK, according to maps released by Ofcom this year. In our tests, however, it's common for other O2 phones to work well in places where the iPhone gets nothing.

O2 admits it does have capacity problems "from time to time", and notes it has seen an 18-fold increase in data in the last year. Traffic continues to double every 3 months. Apparently, "watching an average YouTube video on a smart phone can be the network equivalent of sending 500,000 text messages". But O2 claims it's investing £100m over the next year on pulling its socks up, with £30m of that going to the over-burdened London network.

Others blame the iPhone's hardware, but an antenna test for a Swedish newspaper found the phone's antenna works fine. Bluetest, an antenna-testing company that spun off from Chalmers University, took some iPhones to their lab -- including phones that seemed to work perfectly and samples from people wth complaints -- and decreed, "If these mobiles do not keep the connection with the network like they should, the reason is not the antennas or how they are mounted."

But the antenna is just one part in a phone that's packed with doohickeys and whatsits. Those plucky Swedes struck again when Swedish engineering mag Ny Teknik wrote about a report from an unnamed expert that some iPhones are less sensitive to 3G than they should be. According to AP, the news agency, the report said the most likely cause of the 3G problems is defective adjustments between the antenna and an amplifier that captures very weak signals from it. This could lead to poor 3G connectivity and slower data speeds.

Whether it's the network or the phone, users have been left languishing in support threads by O2 and Apple, and left to try voodoo such as adding a piece of sticky tape to the SIM card to try to make their phone work properly. At least thanks to its tight iTunes integration, the iPhone has the option to wipe everything and restore all your apps, content and settings from a backup.

You can't answer if it doesn't ring

Perhaps the worst of the iPhone's problems is its ability to sit there stealthily and ignore incoming calls. With no ring or vibrate to clue you in, your friends and family are redirected to voicemail... or just treated to silence. If you're in a two-iPhone family, it can be a case of the deaf leading the mute.

But even if your phone works like a dream and nary a call is missed, the iPhone's very beauty can be its undoing. The default ringtones and message alerts are so soothing and melodic they can barely penetrate a pocket, and they certainly can't out-wail a crying baby on the bus. iPhoners can change to a custom ringtone, but most just select the most irritating, blasting option from the built-in list -- leading to a massive over-subscription to the traditional 'Old Phone' ringtone. For text messages, we recommend the honking horn -- you'll look like an idiot, but at least you'll hear it.

You'll suffer again if you want to increase the number of rings so you have a chance in hell of getting to the phone once you realise the lovely marimba tune is coming from your backpack. On most phones, this is a simple matter of changing the settings in some menu. On the iPhone, you have to type in an umpteen-digit number -- possibly the number of the Beast -- to reprogram the voicemail settings, in the manner of writing a BASIC program on the Sinclair Spectrum.

The iPhone might burn your face off

ultra-sciencey test
According to our ultra-sciencey test, it is extremely unlikely that the iPhone will burn your face off. It's probably just as likely that any smart phone will burn you, or even your laptop, thanks to the masses of techno gubbins that are being packed into ever-thinner cases.

Nevertheless, holding the the iPhone up to your face can be uncomfortable, and not just because it gets rather warm. Pressing a large, flat surface to your cheek is always going to be sweaty, especially as you press it ever harder against your ear in a bid to hear through the tinny speaker. Thus the current trend for people to walk down the street with their phones on hands-free, yelling into the mic at the bottom while they hold the rest of the phone away from their faces. They look like idiots, but at least their faces aren't sliding sweatily along a touchscreen.

iPhone battery life

Battery life is the first casualty of smart-phone development, as the power of 3G, GPS, Wi-Fi and heavy-duty processing sucks the power out of over-miniaturised cells. But the iPhone was the first to really flaunt its slim body while you watched the bars drop almost in front of your eyes. A couple of hours of Google Maps over 3G and you'll be lost in the woods without even the possibility of phoning for help. Compare that to the good old days when your phone would last a week without charging, and you'll wonder why you ever bothered to switch.

The iPhone 3GS is an improvement over the iPhone 3G. In our tests, it lasted over 45 per cent longer -- but we were comparing a new 3GS to a six-month-old 3G, and batteries do hold less charge over time. And, if you turn off 3G, GPS and Wi-Fi, you can squeeze a weekend out of the iPhone 3GS... but why would you want to, without the best features of the phone?

The iPhone sucks -- so what?

If the iPhone is inaudible, unconnected, on fire and out of battery, why is the thing so popular? The fact is, although the iPhone is the worst phone in the world, it's the best handheld computer there is. Web browsing is a revelation, it's a fantastic music- and movie-playing iPod, and it's easy as pie to install thousands of apps that do everything from editing your photos to tuning your guitar. And unlike its competitors, its responsive touchscreen and crystal-clear user interface make tapping away on the iPhone a real pleasure.

Making calls just isn't what it used to be, back when Grandpa used to dial by shouting down the party line at the operator. Many of us prefer Facebook and text messages to chatting on the phone, and the home phone is dying out altogether. Meanwhile, for some of us, finding a new venue without a little Google Map help is like trying to navigate by the stars, and we can't bear to wander without Wikipedia. For all these features that make smart phones live up to their names, the iPhone does a bang-up job. Just don't try to actually make a phone call on one.