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iPhone 4's Reception Redux: More Than You Really Need to Know
By Alvin Soon - on 05 Jul 2010, 11:22am

At the risk of flogging a dead antenna.

In case you haven't heard, the biggest news about the iPhone 4 isn't about its Retina Display, FaceTime, HD video recording, 5MP camera, or even when it's due on our shores. It's all about the mysterious iPhone 'Death Grip' - if you hold the iPhone 4 a certain way, signal reception drops precariously leading to slow downloads and dropped calls. It's been reported and tested numerous times by various users.

iPhone 4 owner Cameron Hunt demonstrates the signal drop in this video: 

Neven Mrgan, another iPhone 4 owner, tested out the reception using various grips and discovered that while the average signal drops significantly with the 'Death Grip,' individual results can vary significantly as well:

Graphic by Neven Mrgan.

So it seems pretty clear that the iPhone 4 has a reception problem, which happens when its external antenna comes into contact with human skin, particularly in the very ordinary grip (see graphic above) now known as the Death Grip.

But wait a minute - why then are there people who don't have the problem? Even Hunt who made the video above, said that he couldn't recreate the problem elsewhere. What's really going on here?

Let's ask Apple, they should have an answer, shouldn't they? Well, sort of.

In an email reply to an irate customer, Apple CEO Steve Jobs had a pretty curt answer: "Just avoid holding it that way." Brilliant! Except...Apple, you're holding it that way yourself! The more official statement later read:

Gripping any mobile phone will result in some attenuation of its antenna performance, with certain places being worse than others depending on the placement of the antennas. This is a fact of life for every wireless phone. If you ever experience this on your iPhone 4, avoid gripping it in the lower left corner in a way that covers both sides of the black strip in the metal band, or simply use one of many available cases.

Oh, so we suppose Apple's going to start giving out its official iPhone 4 bumpers (worth US$29) free to customers who have the reception issue? That'd be nice, wouldn't it, since they recommended - Ahem, no word on that. Instead, the latest word from Apple came last Friday in a letter to dear iPhone 4 users, where they discovered the cause of the problem to be "simple and surprising":

Upon investigation, we were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong. Our formula, in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength. For example, we sometimes display 4 bars when we should be displaying as few as 2 bars. Users observing a drop of several bars when they grip their iPhone in a certain way are most likely in an area with very weak signal strength, but they don’t know it because we are erroneously displaying 4 or 5 bars. Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place.

It turns out the problem wasn't with the external antenna - it was a problem in iOS's poor misguided software head, which thought there were more bars than there really should have been!



The iPhone 4 TruthsTM

Let me put my Encyclopedia Brown hat on and try to nail down what we know for sure:

1. Contact with the iPhone 4's external antenna with bare skin disrupts the signal and leads to slow downloads and dropped calls. This problem goes away with the use of an external bumper which prevents the antenna from contact with bare skin. This has been documented and reported several times.

2. At the same time, many other users don't have the same problem and can't reproduce it. This has also been reported several times.

3. Apple says that the problem isn't hardware, but software. In other words, there isn't an antenna issue, just issues with reporting the actual signal strength. And the lack of signal strength is what's really causing the problem.

4. However, testing by AnandTech shows that while the signal bar visualization could be improved, there is a drop in reception with skin contact and an improvement with the use of a bumper or case. Richard Gaywood, who has a a Ph.D in wireless network planning techniques, also tested the iPhone 4 and found that signal degrades with a bare-handed grip.

5. Both AnandTech and Gaywood also discovered that local coverage makes a difference, if you're in an area with strong reception you're less likely to notice any difference.

6. As has been reported elsewhere, AnandTech found that while signal reception on the iPhone 4 drops more readily than previous iPhones, the iPhone 4 is much more sensitive than previous iPhones. The iPhone 4 is able to get and hold reception in places where the previous iPhones could not. AnandTech and others have reported better and more comprehensive reception with the iPhone 4 overall.

The iPhone 4 TheoriesTM

That's what we know for sure right now. Without rigorous testing and first-hand experience of our own, we can speculate that there are multiple factors contributing to the reception issue. The fact that some people report the problem while others don't suggest that it could be a problem with specific sets. Some users have been able to create the problem at will in some areas but not in others, so it might be a coverage issue. Most seem to report that the problem goes away with the use of an external bumper or case.

So the only thing we can say with confidence now is that some people with some sets experience reception issues in some areas. It isn't that all people in all areas experience problems with all iPhone 4s. This statement of the blindingly obvious raises one question, which might be able to give us potential buyers some hope.

The Local iPhone 4 QuestionTM

The real question is, how bad is AT&T? Pretty spotty, from many third-hand accounts. Since users have reported the antenna problem in some areas and not others, it highlights how important the local coverage is. My colleague pointed out the other day that to be fair, we should wait until the iPhone 4 reaches our shores to see if we experience the same problems as well. For anxious early adopters, that means to simply wait when the iPhone 4 launches in Singapore for a couple of weeks, for the general consensus and our local testing results to emerge.

Consequently, since Apple has promised a software fix in the next few weeks for the problem, you could (again) simply wait to see if Apple can do what it promises.

(Although, if the problem really was that iOS was showing more signal strength than there really was, there's a chance you'd actually see less but supposedly more accurate signal bars than you usually would with the update - leading more people to panic about lousy signal strength. The only real test is the quality of calls and connections tested over time.)

Adventurous Early Adopters: What You Should Know

If you're feeling really adventurous and can't wait to get your hands on that brand new iPhone 4 however, the question you need to ask is simply how bad is bad? The iPhone 4 isn't the first nor the last mobile phone to experience signal loss with human contact. If you don't mind using your iPhone 4 with an external bumper or case, then it seems reception will be a non-issue. And while it can't guarantee perfect reception, at the least it looks like the iPhone 4 has improved reception over previous iPhones.

Like Spencer Webb, President and Principal Engineer of AntennaSys, said: "...sometimes an antenna that's not great, but good enough, is good enough."

At the same time, while Apple's previous responses of "just don't hold it that way" have been a disgrace, they do offer full refunds in the United States within 30 days. Check with your local telco if they also offer this way out in case your iPhone 4 doesn't work out and you end up with a lemon instead of an Apple.

Update: Consumer Reports confirms (with perhaps the most hardcore testing possible, inside their own radio frequency isolation chamber and base-station emulator) that the antenna is at fault, not the network and the problem affects all iPhone 4s, not just limited sets.

Alvin Soon

Alvin Soon / Deputy Editor

I like coffee and cameras, but not together.