10 Poseur, 10 Perfect Toys, Including iPhone 4

WASHINGTON (TheStreet) -- When Consumer Reports announced a week ago that it "can't recommend the iPhone 4" because of Apple's (AAPL) antenna issues, the media reaction was a collective "Oh, snap!" But what did Consumer Reports really mean?

Despite finding that touching the side of the iPhone 4 on the lower left reduced reception "enough to cause you to lose your connection altogether if you're in an area with a weak signal," Consumer Reports kept the iPhone 4 atop its ratings. That decision came, the publication said, "in part because it sports the sharpest display and best video camera we've seen on any phone, and even outshines its high-scoring predecessors with improved battery life and such new features as a front-facing camera for video chats and a built-in gyroscope that turns the phone into a super-responsive game controller."

They've concluded that, while the iPhone 4 is the best-performing phone on the market, the antenna flaw actually makes it a misfit toy compared with the next phone in line -- oddly enough, the iPhone 3GS. Consumer Reports' "Recommended" label gives special consideration to "high-scoring models that combine performance, features and value." The iPhone 4 isn't alone among unloved leaders, as Consumer Reports has slapped its "recommended" label on second-best products in categories ranging from MP3 players and LCD televisions to pickup trucks and two-slice toasters.

"We test thousands of products every year, many score well, but that doesn't always mean every product that scores well receives a Consumer Reports Recommends designation," Consumer Reports spokesman C. Matt Fields says. "It can be confusing."

It can, especially when Consumer Reports slaps a product with the "Don't Buy" designation, as it did with Toyota's Lexus GX earlier this year after a rollover test exposed flaws in the vehicle. The designation was removed after a recall, but it shows the thin line between Consumer Reports not supporting a product and being completely against it based on safety or performance. TheStreet combed through Consumer Reports' ratings and, while we found more instances of the top-rated product not getting a recommendation, we've focused on 10 instances in which the better product wasn't the better buy.

AT&T SMARTPHONES

Poseur: iPhone 4

Perfect: iPhone 3GS

As mentioned earlier, the iPhone 4's high-clarity Retina display, 720p HD camera and front-facing camera are improvements over the 3GS. The antenna issue was a sticking point for Consumer Reports, though, even after Apple called its press conference last week and gave away $87 million in free cases. In its initial criticism, Consumer Reports wanted Apple to come up with "a permanent -- and free -- fix for the antenna problem before we can recommend the iPhone." Apple got the "free" part right, but the stopgap measure earned golf claps from Consumer Reports. It credited Apple with a "good first step" but scoffed at the short-term solution, its Sept. 30 refund deadline and lack of reimbursement for customers who bought third-party cases. "We look forward to a long-term fix from Apple," in consumer speak, translates roughly to "we're not recommending this, so spend $100 less on the old model."

8-GIGABYTE MP3 PLAYERS

Poseurs: Samsung YP-P3 and Sony ( SNE) Walkman NWZ-5544

Perfect: Apple iPod Nano

The Samsung and Sony players had the Nano beat on price ($140 and $100 to the Nano's $150), while the Walkman gave users almost a half-day more of playback time than its Apple counterpart. So why didn't they get the nod from Consumer Reports? The camera was one issue, with Samsung's in particular performing poorly against the Nano's. Size was also an obstacle, with the Samsung and Sony players each taking up more room than the Nano and doubling its weight. The biggest drawback, however, is that neither are Mac compatible, limiting their versatility and making them about as useful as portable cassette players to music fans who aren't a PC.

LAPTOPS

Poseur: Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch MC372LL/A

Perfect: Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch MC371LL/A

Notice anything about those two models? Same make, same size. What's the difference? A slightly bigger hard drive, roughly 30 minutes more battery life and an average price tag $200 higher than the model below. Is that seemingly marginal difference enough to recommend the added expense? Consumer Reports didn't think so, giving its prized recommendation to the MacBook's skinflint little cousin.

40-INCH LCD TELEVISIONS

Poseur: Samsung UN40C5000

Perfect: Toshiba 40XV6484

Are you kidding? The Samsung has LED backlighting along its edges, uses 57% less energy than the Toshiba and has an Ethernet connection the Toshiba lacks. What's the problem? Well, for starters, it's $280 more, which Consumer Reports just hates. The value proposition is huge in Consumer Reports' world, so charging more for a 60-hertz refresh rate when the lesser model has a faster 120-hertz rate just isn't going to fly. Though Samsung's model offers access to movies, music and photos stored on your PC through a network connection and can communicate with your Samsung smartphone to show text messages on screen, the proprietary nature of these offerings and a lack of streaming services found on other models makes it only an incremental step up from the Toshiba -- screen quality be damned.

SUBCOMPACT CARS

Poseur: Nissan ( NSANY) Versa Sedan S

Perfect: Honda ( HMC) Fit Base AT

For a subcompact, the Nissan Versa Sedan S rides like a dream. It can take a pothole without jolting the whole car, it's as quiet as vehicles well above its class, has tons of legroom in the front and back and plenty of airbags to ensure safety. The problem: It's about as reliable as Saharan rain. The fuel system, brakes, body hardware and power equipment have all shown signs of trouble after a bit of wear and tear. Plus, at an average 27 miles per gallon, the Versa isn't nearly the fuel sipper a car its size should be. The Fit, meanwhile, is similarly priced and just as roomy, but gets 33 miles per gallon and has sparkling reliability credentials. The ride may not be as quiet, but it beats sitting in a mechanic's waiting room.

SPORTS CARS

Poseur: BMW 135i

Perfect: Subaru Impreza WRX STI

Going zero to 60 in 5.2 seconds in a cushy leather-and-wood interior while listening to Vivaldi is nice, but difficult to do when your car is up on the lift with fuel system troubles. This is why, despite a near-perfect score from Consumer Reports (97 out of 100), the BMW 135i couldn't get Consumer Reports' recommendation. That, and a base price nearly double that of the next car down on the list. While the Impreza WRX STI still gets lower fuel mileage than the BMW (21 miles per gallon to the 135i's 23), is a lot noisier and has lower overall customer satisfaction, it has similar acceleration (zero to 60 in 5.4 seconds), tighter emergency handling and flawless reliability in nearly every category (though paint and body hardware were sore spots). Though the Impreza wins on points, the quality of the BMW and the depreciation of the Subaru makes this a much closer call for consumers than it seems.

ROADSTERS

Poseur: Porsche Boxster

Perfect: Mazda Miata

Let's just go out on a limb and say this right now: If you really want a Boxster, there's no way in Hades you're going to settle for a Miata. In Consumer Reports' eyes, that's unfortunate. Despite being seemingly worlds apart in prestige and performance, the Boxster and Miata are similarly rated (90 and 89), have similar acceleration (zero to 60 in 6.5 seconds for the Porsche and 7 seconds for the Miata) and equal owner satisfaction. The big difference, again, is that the Porsche has had big-time reliability issues. We're not talking about rust or wonky door handles, but engine, cooling, electrical system, power equipment and especially egregious brake problems. All this contributes to future owner costs the Miata doesn't share for a car double the Miata's price.

FULL-SIZED PICKUP TRUCKS

Poseur: Chevy Avalanche

Perfect: GMC Sierra

It's not just the frou-frou office fat cats in their sports cars and subcompacts that have tough decisions to make with their top vehicles. The Chevy Avalanche is an absolute beast with its 5.3-liter V8 engine that goes from zero to 60 in an untrucklsh 10 seconds, full-time four-wheel drive and a unified cargo bed that allows extension once the partition between it and the cab is taken down. The problem is that it's a fuel hog -- averaging a scant 13 miles per gallon -- has a huge blind spot in the rear and has had sketchy reliability from its drive system, body and power equipment. The Sierra, meanwhile, has its GM ( MTLQQ) stablemate's bruising engine, four-wheel drive and impressive payload and towing capacity without the Avalanche's spotty reliability (though the drivetrain has had similar issues). The $8,000 discount in average price also weighs heavily in the Sierra's favor.

GRIND-AND-BREW COFFEE MAKERS

Poseur: Kalorik Magic Bean CCG24104

Perfect: Cuisinart Grind & Brew Thermal DGB-600BC

If coffee makers don't seem like a controversy-laden market niche, you must not know many coffee enthusiasts. The Belgians don't play games with their coffee, and the Kalorik Magic Bean looks out for javaphiles with a programmable interface, thermal carafe and brew-strength control. Unfortunately, in a category where the best device is separated from the worst by only two points, cost counts. Sure, that $240 price tag may be worth it for some Euro coffee cred, but if you're someone who believes good coffee is in the mug and not the machine, the $120-to-$160 Cuisinart should suffice. While louder, less hot and more complicated to clean than its Belgian counterpart, it is similarly programmable and has the same carafe. Sure, you can't set the brew strength, but the added small-batch setting makes it a better bargain.

TWO-SLICE TOASTERS

Poseur: KitchenAid KTT340 WH

Perfect: Cuisinart CPT-170

This is another instance where the higher-rated, lower-priced model didn't get the CR recommendation. Whirlpool's ( WHR) KitchenAid toaster does well in toasting full batches and successive batches, but has a hard time mustering up enough power to brown an English muffin, let alone a bagel. The plastic casing is a nice buffer from burns, but the "bagel" and "reheat" settings leave much to be desired -- even at a $50 average price. Meanwhile, the Cuisinart comes in at nearly $20 more, but is laden with such features as a countdown timer and bagel, warming and defrost settings that actually work. It's as reliable as the KitchenAid in toasting full and successive batches, but toasts those batches into colors other than light brown.

-- Reported by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, The Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.

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