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Free bumper mars iPhone's lust-worthy design

The free bumper may save iPhone 4 from some dropped calls, but the design cost is significant.
The free bumper may save iPhone 4 from some dropped calls, but the design cost is significant.John Brecher /

Apple's free bumpers are starting to arrive in mailboxes around the country, as promised. They're surprisingly nice, well built with embedded buttons and a snug shiny plastic frame. Others have said that it works to minimize reception loss, and in my limited testing I couldn't disprove that. But the phone is now a different phone ... and not the forward-looking design statement I paid my hard-earned money for. The question is: Will people actually use their free bumpers?

After Apple announced its free bumper fix, it became a running joke, along the lines of "Sure, I'll take a free case that I probably won't use." Some people aren't laughing, though, the people who have experienced chronically poor call performance — those who live with tricky cell coverage, for whom the difference between one bar and none is an entire social life. They'll try any remedy. But once the bumper is in place, the iPhone 4 becomes a different phone entirely, a rubber and plastic member of the black phone brigade, which includes nearly all of Apple's competitors.

If you were one of the millions who scrambled for the iPhone 4 at launch, you paid up to $300 for a bold new design, a slice of stainless steel and ultra-hardened glass. When placed on a table, it could lay lower than any smartphone you'd ever seen. It was strong and elemental. It slayed the competition and made its predecessor look like a toy. It was fundamentally different.

Slip on the bumper and the steel disappears completely. Held to your ear, the iPhone 4 looks like any other phone. It becomes thick, feeling as thick as older iPhones (though it's not ... quite). The rubber bumpers define the phone's edge in a way that makes me think back — and not fondly — on the Swatch Guards of the 1980s. The phone now sticks going in and out of pockets, where it once slipped frictionlessly.

If I do use the bumper, it wouldn't be the first time I surrendered aesthetic purity for better functionality. My iPad lives inside that ugly case Apple sells (for $39). Thank God it does, because the screen otherwise would have probably smashed by now, seeing as I share the thing with my 2-1/2-year-old daughter. My dad is quick to enshroud all of his personal electronics in various cases, hard and soft, and his phones stay pristine while mine get dinged up. The bumper will most likely save the screen in event of a fall. And in fact, my iPhone 4 is already showing some scratches on its back glass panel, despite the claim that it's 30 times harder than plastic. (For the record, I don't walk around with diamonds in my pockets.)

I don't know if I will leave the bumper on or take it off by the end of the week. I've said all along that I don't think this was as big a deal as some made it out to be — the iPhone 4's not better at handling calls than previous iPhones, but it's no worse either. There are other nagging problems that the bumper does not fix, such as a proximity sensor that's supposed to blank out the screen when it's near your face, but sometimes doesn't, leading to awkward pauses in conversation. But if I do leave it on, it will be with a heavy heart, as I bid farewell to what made this phone the most desirable one in history, the impossibly beautiful design.

So, will you use the free bumper, or just stick it in the junk drawer?

Catch up with Wilson on Twitter at @wjrothman. Bumper advocates welcome.