Let's just come out with it: The

iPhone

is still terrible.

Despite improvements in the new 3GS model of

Apple's

(AAPL) - Get Report

flagship toy, the

iPhone's

nagging flaws have kept it a slow learner among smart phones. Blame Apple for refusing to let users change batteries or take flash photos. Blame

AT&T

(T) - Get Report

for soaking users in more than $1,000 of annual data-plan costs to use a network so flimsy that, in parts of New York, shouting is a more reliable form of communication.

But, before doing so, turn the mirror on yourself and your love of silhouetted indie-pop commercials and time-sucking applications that are the technological equivalent of shiny, jangling keys.

"The phone is OK, but it's a secondary feature to the other things," says Mike Gikas, senior editor for electronics at Consumer Reports. "There are other drivers besides voice quality and dialing issues when buying a smart phone, and the

iPhone

happens to be attached to the world's greatest multimedia player -- it's an iPod."

It's that love of iTunes and the apps store that have saved the iPhone from the same fate as the

Samsung

Instinct, the scrappy little feature phone being pulled beneath the waves by its ties to

Sprint Nextel

(S) - Get Report

. Never mind that the Instinct has turn-by-turn GPS and GPS-activated search features (nearest White Castle, please), while the iPhone relies on a newly released

TomTom

app. Or that the iPhone's "upgraded" camera is only 3 megapixels when the low-end

Nokia

(NOK) - Get Report

N85 touch screen has five. Or that, while it finally

can

send multimedia messages, AT&T won't be ready to help it actually do so until later this year.

Despite paying an average of $90 a month for an AT&T data plan, even the most angst-ridden iPhone jailbreaker has been trained to put up with mild inferiorities and muddled conversation.

"One thing in all our years that we've been testing mobile phones, probably before Gordon Gecko started carrying around his walkie-talkie on Wall Street, is that voice quality hasn't improved in quite a while," Gikas says. "Perhaps consumers find it acceptable, but you find improvements in battery life, multimedia and camera but not in voice quality."

It's not that better options aren't available. They're just not as sexy. The

Motorola

(MOT)

Tundra was designed as an ugly phone that could take a beating, but its exceptional voice clarity all but exonerates AT&T from the iPhone's static-riddled sound. The Samsung A90 nearly predates YouTube, yet had video capability that had escaped every iPhone but the 3GS. Meanwhile, any phone for which you've signed a two-year contract in the past decade has had better voice command than the iPhone's, which was nonexistent until last week.

Don't feel too badly, iPhone owners. (And now there are a lot more of you: Apple sold more than 1 million 3GS models in its weekend debut.) The saga of the smart phone is marked by compromises and collateral damage.

As Apple,

Palm

(PALM)

and

Research In Motion

(RIMM)

have provided more features, they and their service providers have forced users into more tradeoffs. The Palm Pre's cult is so enamored of its iTunes capability that it might take them the length of a Katy Perry song to forget they're losing the Bluetooth file transfers that have been a Palm staple. The BlackBerry Storm's usership has marginalized hackers who feel

Verizon Communications

(VZ) - Get Report

has restricted the device's GSM global roaming abilities. Meanwhile, an entire populace has been so mesmerized by its narcissistic reflection in smart phone touch screens that it has sacrificed the raised keypad to the God of Progress -- despite the fact that it's still the best way to dial a phone.