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Tilting at Windmills

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July 11, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

iPHONE KVETCHING....OK, I gotta ask: I know the iPhone is very cool, but doesn't it bother all the iPhone-aniacs out there that the actual voice quality of an iPhone sucks because AT&T has a sucky cell network? I was reminded of this once again last week when a friend of mine with AT&T service happened to use my Verizon phone and was astonished at how good the voice quality was.

Of course, I suppose this varies by location, and most of the iPhone blogging I read comes from Washington D.C. Is AT&T service better in the District than in other places? Or what?

Anyway, it just seems like this would be a bigger deal to people. I don't like talking on cell phones all that much to begin with, and it drives me crazy whenever I have to talk to someone with AT&T service. It's like talking through a tin can phone. All the cool features in the world can't make up for that.

UPDATE: Commenters confirm that AT&T voice quality depends on location, just like you'd expect. On the other hand, voice quality in DC is apparently not so hot. On the third hand, David Pogue (whose Mac book is currently teaching me to love my Mac) says of the new iPhone: "The third improvement is audio quality, which has taken a gigantic step forward. You sound crystal clear to your callers, and they sound crystal clear to you. In fact, few cellphones sound this good." However, it's not clear from his article if this is true only if you happen to be in one of AT&T's 3G coverage areas or if it's true everywhere.

Kevin Drum 12:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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Using an iPhone for talking on the phone? I've never heard of such a thing.

Posted by: enozinho on July 11, 2008 at 12:29 PM | PERMALINK

Apple sucks. Sure, they used to be the hip alternative to Microsoft, but now they are ten times worse than MS when it comes to screwing their consumers, whether that means only selling the iphone through AT&T or putting DMR on every song they sell through itunes. Meanwhile, the evil MS has embraced open source to the point where it's possible to power your PC with totally free software that equals the best MS and Adobe have to offer.

Hahaha, and yet I still find myself tempted to buy an iphone. God, I'm a sucker.

Posted by: owenz on July 11, 2008 at 12:30 PM | PERMALINK

They say the voice quality on the iphone is greatly improved on both sides of the iphone. Don't know if that is true and don't know how much it's dependent on the network and one's location on the network.

Posted by: heymister on July 11, 2008 at 12:32 PM | PERMALINK

AT&T's coverage in the DC area is not nearly as good as Verizon's or even T-Mobile's. You can even make calls on the metro w/ Verizon. (Whether or not you're an obnoxious jerk for doing that is another story.)

Posted by: James on July 11, 2008 at 12:37 PM | PERMALINK

I imagine it depends on where you are in the nation. Here in Denver we had to switch all our work cell phones from Verizon to AT&T because Verizon phones won't get any reception inside the building and only get 3 bars outside the building (in the middle of the most densely populated part of town).

Posted by: Michael Ditto on July 11, 2008 at 12:40 PM | PERMALINK

This is a quote from David Pogue's NYT review of the iPhone 3G.

"The third improvement is audio quality, which has taken a gigantic step forward. You sound crystal clear to your callers, and they sound crystal clear to you. In fact, few cellphones sound this good."


Full disclosure...I own an iPhone (1st gen) and I love it. It doesn't drop calls. I can hear people and they can hear me. My old RAZR was much much worse in the dropped calls department. By that standard alone, I am happy with the iPhone. Given all of the other benefits of the phone, I would say it's a great great device.

However, if you don't want one, don't get one. No big deal. You don't have to complain about it and the Apple fans don't have to try to sell you one.

Still, if you're intent on nitpicking the phone, I think voice quality should be taken off your list of gripes.

Posted by: bassque on July 11, 2008 at 12:41 PM | PERMALINK

I'm not sure what standards you're using for voice quality, but I use AT&T from San Antonio south to the border, ranging from Brownsville to Laredo, regularly and the signal and call-quality is very good.

Even in the Big Bend region of West Texas I now can get clear calls in Marfa and Marathon. Which is sad, because those used to be areas were no one could reach me.

Posted by: Dave In Texas on July 11, 2008 at 12:45 PM | PERMALINK

Depends on where you live. I'm in lower manhattan & ATT quality here is way better than verizon or t-mobile.

Posted by: mars on July 11, 2008 at 12:48 PM | PERMALINK

I got an iPhone for father's day (curses! Just a month too soon!), and I really like it. I would say that the primary value of the iPhone lies not in it's functionality as a telephone, but that it gives you the ability to carry the internet with you everywhere in a very convenient way.

My old provider was Verizon, and yeah, I'm annoyed about the drop-off in both reception (I can't receive phone calls in the grocery store anymore) and sound quality. But I hardly ever use it as a phone, anyway.

It's a PDA, it's an iPod, it's a camera, it's the internet! The fact that you can send and receive calls on it is merely icing on the cake.

Now, if only I had one of those cool NEW ones . . .

Posted by: David Bailey on July 11, 2008 at 12:50 PM | PERMALINK

My experience in the Northeast has been that Verizon's reception is much better than the others. I live in downtown Brooklyn and both T-Mobile and AT&T (pre cingular merger) didn't work well in my apt. Verizon works pretty much everywhere I go. However, my roommate has an iphone and it seems to work alright for him so maybe the post cingular AT&T network works better.

Posted by: Mike on July 11, 2008 at 12:55 PM | PERMALINK

Obama sucks for not doing something about telecom immu.... Ooooh! iPhone! Shiny! How much is the AT&T contract? Sign me up!

I might get one now that I've heard they're pretty easy to hack to use with another carrier.

Me: I won't use AT&T because they're helping the government spy on me.

A friend: Yeah, but they're all doing that.

Me: I'm sure they are, but I use T-Mobile. I'd rather have the Germans spying on me than my own government.

Posted by: Equal Opportunity Cynic on July 11, 2008 at 12:55 PM | PERMALINK

You are full of crap. I live in Denver and AT and T sucks throughout the city.

Posted by: karl on July 11, 2008 at 12:58 PM | PERMALINK

I'm pretty sure a lot about voice quality and connection quality is location and phone specific.

Posted by: B on July 11, 2008 at 1:02 PM | PERMALINK

@owenz: There's an entire section of songs (iTunes Plus) that does not have DRM on it. The DRM that is there is because of the record labels; Apple has publicly stated they would prefer to ditch all of it. And if you're talking about Linux, Microsoft has hardly embraced it, or most any open source.

Posted by: vandicov on July 11, 2008 at 1:06 PM | PERMALINK

In Northern CA, bay area, AT&T coverage and sound quality used to be awful, in my experience. This was a couple of years ago. Switched to t-mobile and it got 300% better.

Posted by: flubber on July 11, 2008 at 1:13 PM | PERMALINK

I've never had trouble with voice quality on my iPhone in Chicago or most anywhere else.

I have constant trouble with finding AT&T cell towers in some areas of the country, but that's not all bad. Last week in Yellowstone I was perfectly delighted to find I could only get a signal at Old Faithful, since I didn't want to talk to anyone anyway and I could use that as an excuse. Those Verizon losers' phones kept ringing all the way to the canyon! Ha! (An aside: Dave in Texas, I SO want to go to Big Bend National Park...)

Posted by: shortstop on July 11, 2008 at 1:20 PM | PERMALINK

Let's pile on Mike today! We went from Qwest to Verizon at our TV station because we couldn't get Qwest in our basement. The only place we can't get Verizon is in the vault. AT&T works OK in the basement sorta kinda. Depends on the phone.

Posted by: Carol on July 11, 2008 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

I live in central Illinois, where we think a phone is s'posed to be for calling people and talkin' to 'em. I dumped Verizon a year and a half ago because customer service sucked so bad.

I switched to Cingular, which became AT&T, and cell service has been just fine. When I call my cousin who has an iPhone, the voice quality sounds as good as anyone else. For the record, my phone is an LG CU500.

Posted by: Lifelong Dem on July 11, 2008 at 1:33 PM | PERMALINK

I don't own an iPhone, but I have have had AT&T (nee Cingular) since ever. In Dallas, AT&T was great and better than the others by a long stretch (taking cost into consideration). In NoVa, AT&T is pretty hideous.

['AT&T does great on the flats and lousy in the hills.']

Posted by: max on July 11, 2008 at 1:37 PM | PERMALINK

If it doesn't bother iPhone fans that Apple's ridiculous activation scheme has completely broken down and left them with bricked phones, I hardly see how they're going to quibble about call quality problems.

Posted by: Pete on July 11, 2008 at 1:50 PM | PERMALINK

"but doesn't it bother all the iPhone-aniacs out there that the actual voice quality of an iPhone sucks because AT&T has a sucky cell network?"

Yes. Yes, it bothers me very much. The AT&T coverage sucks in Maine, to the point that I don't bother making calls on large parts of my commute, since I know they're going to drop, anyway,

Posted by: drdannyu on July 11, 2008 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

Hey, Apple fascists:

If you can't even use the damn thing when you take it out of the store, as today's hot news says ...


Posted by: SocraticGadfly on July 11, 2008 at 1:59 PM | PERMALINK

Not one person in this thread has exhibited any "Apple fascism," Fly. WTF is wrong with you? You're constantly angry and almost constantly wrong (still without ever acknowledging it when you're corrected) nowadays. Calm the hell down for one day.

Posted by: shortstop on July 11, 2008 at 3:00 PM | PERMALINK

Here in lowcal, ATT works good, no dropped calls. Could be louder though. Mine is a hacked iphone using a store bought GSM card that I refill when needed, so fairly cheap. But ended up turning EDGE off because it was very expensive. I can get free wifi though, works great.

The iphone isn't much of a phone anyway. Takes two hands to pickup a call. Gotta traverse menus to get to the phone keyboard and the ear hole doesn't feel natural.

BTW, does McCain even know what an iphone is?

But like the first poster said, the phone function is merely incidental to all the other fun toys.

Posted by: the fake fake al on July 11, 2008 at 3:01 PM | PERMALINK

BTW, does McCain even know what an iphone is?

According to his spokeswoman, Mayberry operator Sarah, Senator McCain is aware of the iPhone and of all telephonic traditions.

Posted by: shortstop on July 11, 2008 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

My, my, the great divide between Apples and anti-Apples doesn't create much civility, does it?

Aside to shortstop: when you do get to Big Bend, you'll never regret it. The highlands of the Chihuahuan desert are beautiful - and a river runs through it.

And cell service in the national park itself is still spotty - which is a blessing.

Posted by: Dave In Texas on July 11, 2008 at 3:14 PM | PERMALINK

You can always jailbreak/unlock your phone, and use whatever provider you want.. but then you won't be able to use AT&T's wifi..

Posted by: Andy on July 11, 2008 at 3:17 PM | PERMALINK

Voice quality should not make a difference if you are in a 3g network or not. 3G handles data hpackets differently, but not voice.

Posted by: cedihcou on July 11, 2008 at 3:20 PM | PERMALINK

The only thing stopping us, Dave, is that it's so far away from airports (which we'd need, coming from Illinois). Still, we'll get there someday, and with luck no one will be able to call us when we do.

Posted by: shortstop on July 11, 2008 at 3:27 PM | PERMALINK

In D.C., Verizon is widely recognized as having the best cellular coverage, service and quality. I don't have an Iphone myself, but I've heard quite a few of them locally complain about the switch to AT&T in terms of dropped calls (can't say I've heard complaints about voice quality, though).

Posted by: Erika on July 11, 2008 at 5:01 PM | PERMALINK

Upgraded v1 iPhone to 2.0, half way through, iTunes store went down and phone appeared "bricked". Turns out, only half way. It still functioned as a phone, just the other stuff did not work.

Kept it connected and 45 minutes later, it resumed and works great now. Maps is wonderful. Even the funky psuedo GPS seems more accurate. Kept the color coded freeway traffic info, too.

It seems faster, overall.

Posted by: IntelVet on July 11, 2008 at 5:05 PM | PERMALINK

I have a verizon phone in an area where all the networks have pretty good coverage (Los Angeles), and I still think the call quality sucks. When talking to anyone using any kind of cell phone, I frequently find myself desperate to ask them to hang up and call back from a landline.

It's just too hard to hear what people are saying on the damn things; to save bandwidth they filter out the high frequencies (because these are more costly to transmit), but those frequencies are the same ones that carry all the intelligibility in consonants.

Mobile phones still universally suck.

Posted by: IdahoEv on July 11, 2008 at 8:27 PM | PERMALINK

The new 3G iPhone uses AT&T's UMTS system, since UMTS is a version of CDMA (the Verizon network's technology) it's going to sound a lot better than AT&T's GSM network.

The GSM network sounds so bad because in order to squeeze as much out of the spectrum as they can, AT&T runs most of it's GSM voice on a low-bitrate vocoder (known in the bidness as "half-rate"). When their GSM network was first turned up, it had great voice quality, but as traffic picked up on it, they moved to a 'thinner' vocoder, as it's a lot cheaper to change a parameter than to add a bunch of GSM radios.

The same will happen with UMTS - it'll start out great, but as more people move to it, it'll get worse, but probably not as bad as their GSM network.

Posted by: lurker on July 11, 2008 at 8:55 PM | PERMALINK

Do what you need to do, Nathan, but I have no idea whatsoever who you are and zero memory of any of your posts. If I promise not to call you, will that help?

Posted by: shortstop on July 11, 2008 at 8:57 PM | PERMALINK

I've been satisfied with the voice quality and overall signal strength of ATT with my first gen iPhone. My company gave us Blackberries, some on Verizon, some on ATT. They sound terrible. Like your talking in a barrel. One guy tries using it with a Bluetooth headset and that combination is totally cryptic. I haven't noticed any difference in dropped calls whether I'm speaking with a Verizon or ATT user. After having gone through a number of phones I've concluded that most people will simply blame the provider for lousy service when it could just as well be a bad phone or bad location.

Posted by: JohnK on July 11, 2008 at 9:12 PM | PERMALINK

After having gone through a number of phones I've concluded that most people will simply blame the provider for lousy service when it could just as well be a bad phone or bad location.

Probably, but in our post-telecom immunity world, taking possibly unfair shots at providers is the only small comfort we have left.

Posted by: shortstop on July 11, 2008 at 9:34 PM | PERMALINK

Will you promise to leave Joe Liberman [sic] alone the next time you see him?

Of course not. Joe loves me. He enjoys walking too close to the edge.

Posted by: shortstop on July 12, 2008 at 8:22 AM | PERMALINK

Did someone take this photo with your iPhone?

Posted by: shortstop on July 12, 2008 at 11:59 AM | PERMALINK

You're right; it's obviously a studio shot.

Posted by: shortstop on July 12, 2008 at 2:14 PM | PERMALINK

Um, now that Charlie's comments have been deleted, I sound like I'm talking to myself. Not that there's anything wrong with that...

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