I went to see Apple's new phone. T-Mobile did what AT&T couldn't

Some phone stores are actually open. This doesn't mean they're all entirely ready to see actual customers who want to see the iPhone SE.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Prepared to help.

Corinne Reichert/CNET

AT&T knew exactly how to excite me.

The company texted me last week and said: "We are carefully reopening our stores around the country. And your safety remains our top priority." Accompanying this was a link to those stores that were open.

I wasn't going to resist. I go to phone stores like some people go to McDonald's. For me, they offer instant sustenance, a fine window into the human psyche and the occasional source of deep(ish) rumination.

I therefore found an appropriate location, grabbed my large, black mask and resolved to witness an iPhone SE. Apple's latest little phone is, perhaps, the first that's being sold largely without people seeing it and touching it in real life. Or that's what I thought.

At AT&T, A Strange, Noisy Representation.

Before entering any building these days, I want to know the rules.

So I stood outside this AT&T store and read the signs. No more than four customers were allowed inside at any one time.

The problem, however, was that -- at this store, at least -- you couldn't see how many people were in the store.

I girded my innards and pushed open the door. I tried to count the customers.

Inside, though, it was distractingly noisy. No, it wasn't that there were twenty people in the store. At first, I thought it was a radio show being played on the speakers.

Then I realized it was that two customers were perched at a table, trying to get the attention of AT&T's customer service.

For reasons that were entirely unclear, these two people were talking hands-free, microphone at full blast, into a phone. My equilibrium was severely affected, as if I'd caught a flight to Kansas City and had landed in Las Vegas.

Here these people were, in an AT&T store, calling the company's customer service line when there were plenty of real-life AT&T employees in the store.

Worse, these customers couldn't get past the maddening AI. Every time the man said "representative," the machine would say it understood he wanted to talk about an individual, not a business account. Was that correct? The man patiently repeated himself. The machine robotically repeated itself. It was the Kabuki theater of the future. And the present.

I had temporarily forgotten my purpose, so I shook myself and tried to espy the iPhones. It was then that I realized there weren't any. In the far distance, I could see quite a few Samsungs on display. The iPhone section, however, was a truly sad sight, wires protruding, enticements entirely lacking, as if a mob of surly burglars had made off with them all.

A kindly AT&T saleswoman approached. When I asked if I could at least take a look at an iPhone SE, she replied they hadn't got the display up yet. She was extremely apologetic. We chatted about the strange circumstances that life had thrown at the world and then wished each other if not a good day, then at least a safe one.

I walked out the door to the sound of "Representative! I said, representative!"

What was I supposed to do now? I'd already tried a Verizon store. It was still closed. What was left but to find a nearby T-Mobile store.

At T-Mobile, Success. Of Sorts.

I found a T-Mobile store that enjoyed at least three employees and most definitely no customers.

I made sure my mask was secure -- they can get a little droopy -- read the rules and wandered in. I could already see through the window that the store had a full display of phones.

I've often enjoyed the style of service at T-Mobile. Somehow, the staff manage to pull off a reasonable level of cheerful without ever seeming fake. Yet I'm still an AT&T customer because the T-Mobile signal in my neighborhood isn't quite wonderful.

I walked in and was greeted by a delightfully engaging saleswoman. I explained my quest. From at least six feet away, she pointed toward the SE. I promised not to touch. She promised to appreciate that.

Everyone says the new SE is just an iPhone 8 with a nicer chip attached -- and a very much nicer price. This store cleverly displayed the black version, which made it look as if it was one of the family -- and not one Apple's ashamed of.

I approached it as I would a snake at the zoo, carefully peering without making any sudden moves.

I held my iPhone XR next to it -- less than six feet away, I confess -- and the size difference was evident. Still, a buyer can't yet get the feel of what it's like to hold it.

"It's an iPhone 8 with the iPhone 11 chip," the saleswoman helpfully declaimed from her distant position. "It's, you know, a good phone." She said it with a tone that suggested she'd be happy to be friends with it, but draw the line at dinner.

"For 400 bucks, it's a good deal," she added, continuing the tone. I asked her what phone she had. Instantly, she pulled a Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus from her back pocket.

"Wait, but that's a thousand bucks," I said. "You get it for free, right?"

"No, I pay for it."

"How much? 60 bucks a month? More?"

"Well, I put some money down, so it's only thirty," she explained.

She added that the storage and the camera made her feel like the thoroughly modern woman she wants to be. Not in so many words, of course, but this S20 Plus clearly made her happy. And of course she was excited to be ready for all three types of T-Mobile's 5G.

"Oh, you mean if it ever happens for real?"

She was almost affronted. I think she's a real believer.

She asked about my phone, but I explained I was performing reconnaissance in order to persuade my wife to finally, finally give up her Galaxy S7 and perhaps try the iPhone SE.

"You've gotta be very careful about switching systems," she said. "Everything's different and you've got a to learn a whole new way of doing things. It makes people mad."

I make my wife mad anyway. Would this be any worse?

The New World Is Still The Old One.

I sneakily suspected she wanted to keep my wife in the Samsung Galaxy fold, so I changed the subject.

"How is it working under these crazy circumstances?" I asked.

"We never actually closed," she replied. "We wanted to stay open so that people could come in and fix their bills and get anything else they needed."

To her, then, it was a mask and a six-foot barrier but otherwise business as usual. That's why the store looked very much as before, whereas the AT&T store was still in a reopening purgatory. In both cases, the saleswomen were trying their very best within the limitations they'd been given.

"You should get your wife to come over to us," the T-Mobile saleswoman said, as I made to leave. "Oh, and if you don't want to push the door, just kick that button at the bottom."

As I did, she offered a final flourish: "You see? That's what you get at T-Mobile. Hands-free!"

Her demeanor and sheer panache made me forget about the SE. Instead, I wondered what it took to train people well enough that they manage such an uplifting attitude in frightening and maddening times.

I may not have been able to pick up an iPhone SE, but I did pick up that humanity is, thank goodness, still alive.

Apple iPhone SE (2020) review: in pics

Editorial standards