My wife Jane and I just returned from a
3,500-mile driving vacation, traveling north from San Diego to
Vancouver and Victoria, along the coasts of Northern California, Oregon
and Washington, and back through the Willamette Valley and California.
Over the two weeks I tried out a variety of gadgets designed for the
road.

One of the most useful, of course, is a GPS, and
I used three different devices; the built-in GPS in our 2009 Toyota
Highlander, a Garmin 1690 ($250) (garmin.com), and the Google
navigation app built into the new Motorola Droid X cell phone from
Verizon.

While none of these devices were without their
faults, it seemed to be that the less you pay the more you get. The
Toyota unit was the most error prone and fidgety, particularly with its
confusing user interface, older maps, and the difficulty of inputting
your destination and searching for local attractions. For example,
there was no consistency on when to use "3rd Street" or "Third Street,"
and, as a passenger, I couldn't use the GPS while the car was moving.
In one instance when we headed down a highway in the wrong direction,
the Toyota GPS couldn't figure out what to do, since it has no option
to allow u-turns. Searching for businesses was slow and brought up
stores 2,000 miles away near the top of the list.

The Garmin was much easier to use, had more
up-to-date maps, provided local search, traffic, and, unlike older
models, quickly connected to the satellites. It even navigated around
traffic accidents. But its capacitive touch screen often required
multiple key presses to register.

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With the buildup for the iPhone 4 reaching
astronomical heights, it was almost inevitable that it couldn't live up
to all of its hype.

Having been on the development side of scores of
products, I've seen it time and time again. No matter how well you test
and retest products during their development, until they get into
thousands of customers' hands, you really don't know what will become
the big issues.

Apple set the stage for a harder fall than normal. When Steve Jobs announced the iPhone 4 at the
Apple Developers Conference in June, he passionately described the
details that Apple agonized over in glowing terms, from the double
glass enclosure to the antennas built into the stainless steel sides.
He implied how the company solved one of the flaws of earlier models,
the propensity for dropped calls, while never admitting that to be one
of the iPhone's major weaknesses.

But soon users discovered one of the product's
major faults, the loss of signal strength when the phone is held near
the bottom left corner.

Apple uncharacteristically offered a feeble
response, first suggesting users hold it differently and then blaming
it on the signal strength meter. Then it made the situation worse by
removing comments from its discussion forums. It seemed to be digging
deeper and deeper rather than offering a believable response.

How could Apple have missed this? Or did it know
it and assume it wouldn't be noticed? Its intense focus on privacy
may have contributed. The phones Apple used for testing in public were in a case
to disguise the actual product, which masked the problem.

So how big an issue is this? Consumer Reports
said it could not recommend it, backtracking on its original praise for
the product. Considering the magazine has praised the earlier iPhones
with poorer overall call performance, I think they've changed their
standards or are just jumping on the media bandwagon.

Clearly, it's a flaw on an otherwise excellent
product. But I've experienced similar antenna issues with other phones
as well, particularly as more features are packed into smaller volumes.
Designing antennas is as much an art as a science and compromises are
always made. I've been using an iPhone 4 since it came out and have
rarely experienced this problem, but I can make it happen.

What has been more annoying to me is the
unpredictable operation of the proximity sensor that turns the screen
off when you put the phone to your ear. On occasion the screen remains
active and my cheek triggers the mute or end call button. And in a nod
to this issue and to get out ahead of it, Apple said it was  working on a fix.

But the fact is every product has design
compromises, as in the iPhone, and, even worse, deficiencies and
defects, often not obvious to the users. Companies ship products
knowing that some will fail prematurely, some will break if dropped a
certain way, and others will occasionally lock up and need to be reset.
That's the nature of tech products being much more complex and often
being rushed to beat a competitor without being thoroughly tested.

There's no perfection no matter what the company
says. Examples? Amazon shipped Kindles with some displays that would
fade when in sunlight. Apple shipped products with defective hard
drives and power supplies subject to early failure. Dell shipped computers knowing a high number of motherboards would fail due to
defective capacitors.

It happens with every company. It doesn't make it right, but it's a common occurrence. Responsible companies correct any flaws they or
their customers discover, and repair or replace products even
after the warranty expires. (Among the examples above, only Dell failed
to act responsibly, covered up its problem for years while it continued
to sell defective products.)

Then there are other questions to ask. How much
of the issue of dropped calls with all of the iPhones are related to
GSM vs. CDMA, and how much is due to AT&T vs. the iPhone?

Many iPhone users have switched from Verizon and
Sprint that use CDMA technology. Are GSM phones more problematic for
them? Are iPhones more troublesome than other brands of GSM phones, and
is AT&T unfairly being blamed for the dropped calls when the cause
is Apple's equipment?

I don't have the answers, other than some
anecdotal evidence that's contradictory. I've rarely had GSM calls drop
using iPhones or Blackberries in Asia or Europe. I've had many fewer
dropped calls in the United States with Blackberries than with iPhones,
both on AT&T's network. Consumer Reports could perform a real service and conduct tests to answer some of these questions.

So what about the iPhone 4? I think it's a product that excels in every way but in its phone, which is average. Apple has offered a free case to owners to solve
the problem and an offer to take back phones from those that are still not
satisfied. Considering that this issue is not as significant as some of
the press would have you believe, and the product excels in so may
other ways, I still think it's the best smartphone and  recommend
it.

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BlackIphone-suede-upright-md The iPhone 4 is so slim that you may want a case that adds minimal bulk. The two that I'd  recommend are the leather Sena Ultraslim (left) at $30 and the ultrasuede WaterField iPhone Suede Jacket (right) at $16. I've used each of these products in the past (for a 3G iPhone) and they're great. One advantage of the WaterField is the extra pocket to hold a headset or earphones.

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