The Sharp GX10 (2003) was awful for reception too, I found.
Whereas I have found the Panasonic GD52 (2000) to have really excellent signal, along with the Sony J-6 (2001).
I've always heard, though, that the older Nokias (pre 2000) and pretty much all Motorola phones have great radios and excellent signal.
My current phone, the Samaung Galaxy S2, has very good 2G coverage.. but since it is only my first 3G phone, I am not as familier with the properties of 3G signal to make a proper judgement, nor do I have experience with other phones to compare it to. I would say that you could quite often have 2 bars (~-104dBm [can't remember the exact number]) and not be able to use data; although that could well be down to the network as much as the phone.
Just my tuppenceworth!