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A good example of the current level of idiocy on the Web is undoubtedly the whole debate regarding the iPhone 4 reception issues.

The problem seems to be that holding iPhone 4 in a certain way (see the “Death Grip” picture in this post by Neven Mrgan), you can actively weaken the cellular/3G phone signal reception. The signal bars drastically decrease, and this is causing horror and concern.

In recent days, while cleaning up and reorganising my junk once more, I came across the box where I keep all my old mobile phones, all archaeological artifacts from various periods prior to 2007, when the iPhone effectively put an end to their stupid, complicated, and user-hostile interfaces. So I did a little test — of limited scientific value, I’m sure, but interesting nonetheless. I recharged them all, took my Italian SIM card and used it in each one in turn, moving around the apartment holding each phone in various ways. I am in an area where I get excellent Movistar reception (Movistar is my mobile carrier here in Spain and also provides international roaming to my Italian SIM card). Every phone I tried, in fact — from the old Philips Genie to the relatively recent SonyEricsson Z310i and Nokia 6630 — displayed the maximum number of signal bars, when I held the phone normally.

I’ll make this short. It didn’t take long before noticing that, with each of these phones, if I moved my fingers around them, changing the grip and holding them differently, I could find a weak spot and make the phone lose a couple of bars. That’s because it is normal. Of course, each phone has a different sensitivity to that phenomenon for structural reasons. And apparently the iPhone 4 is particularly sensitive in this respect.

As a prospective purchaser of the iPhone 4, I naturally paid attention to this problem, and I soon came to the conclusion that this is really a non-issue.

I want to avoid turning this article into an external link-fest, so I’ll just quote some essential excerpts by John Gruber.

In his excellent and detailed review of the iPhone 4, he writes:

There’s no doubt that [the 3G reception] is an issue for many — but I think a minority — of iPhone 4 owners. I haven’t been able to duplicate the problem on mine, though. Sometimes, but rarely, I can make it drop a single bar, but I can’t duplicate the drop to “No Signal” that many others can.

Best as I can tell, based on the reports I’ve read, including many emails from DF readers, the problem is multivariate. It definitely seems related to signal coverage (or cell tower proximity, or something like that). I’ve received many emails (and a few tweets) from DF readers who can reproduce the problem at will in one location, but can’t in another. Not much help, though, when the problematic location is, say, your home or workplace. But I’ve also heard from a few readers with fellow iPhone 4-owning friends and colleagues, who’ve been able to test several units side-by-side. Some iPhone 4 units seem more susceptible to the problem than others — which makes me question whether this is something a software update can address. I think it’s a combination of software and manufacturing.

It’s interesting to note how the issue turns up in such a varied and inconsistent way for different users and how, in practice, it doesn’t seem to be so unfailingly reproducible. But let’s move on.

In a subsequent piece, the ironic Translation From Apple’s Unique Dialect of PR-Speak to English of the ‘Letter From Regarding Apple iPhone 4’, Gruber writes:

[The iPhone 4’s antenna] really is a better antenna and gets better reception, overall, than any previous iPhone. That’s really the hell of this whole goddamn situation. It’s like a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ design, except maybe more like three steps forward, because this thing is faster at downloading, 10 times faster at uploading, and most importantly is better at not dropping calls with a weak signal. But, yes, there’s that one step back, wherein it can suffer from unintended attenuation when you bridge the lower-left antenna gap with your skin, and frankly [here Gruber is ironically interpreting Apple’s position] we’re a little pissed that this one step back is getting all the attention.

Irony aside, here there’s a point that, in the heat of all this finger-pointing at the iPhone, seems to escape many: the reception of the iPhone 4 is generally better than previous iPhone models. In the immediately preceding article — iPhone 4 3G Data Performance — Gruber made another interesting test: he measured 3G data performance on three devices: an iPhone 4, an iPhone 3GS and an iPad 3G:

I tested 3G performance on the iPhone 4 twice (three runs each) — once lying on a table, and once while held in my left hand, with my palm spanning the infamous lower-left antenna gap. […]

So I’m seeing download speeds twice as fast as on an iPhone 3GS, and upload speeds over ten times faster. Latency is about an order of magnitude better as well. The iPad doesn’t fare much better than the 3GS.

Holding the iPhone 4 in my hand drops the 3G download speed by about a third, but it’s still faster than the 3GS. Upload speed and latency didn’t seem affected by holding it in my hand.

In the original piece you can see the test results in detail.

So, what I’ve seen on the Web these past two weeks has essentially been a tempest in a teapot and little more. I agree that holding the iPhone 4 in a certain way you can witness some signal attenuation. But I have not yet managed to find a detailed testimony of someone who, using the iPhone 4 normally, has then claimed: “Yes, every time I receive a call and I hold the iPhone 4 in my left hand to answer, the call gets immediately dropped. Every time, without fail.”

In other words, everyone seems to say that this is a potential problem. Few, if any, claim that is an actual problem preventing the use of iPhone 4 as a phone. Sure, it can certainly become a problem when you are in an area where the cellular signal is already weak. In that case, the way you hold the iPhone 4 matters. This does not, however, prevent receiving calls, unless you constantly hold iPhone in the ‘Death Grip’ with your left hand wherever you go. That’s why I see the problem becoming a real one only as a set of unfavourable circumstances that must occur all at once, planets-alignment style.

One of the most recent chapters in this silly saga is the contribution of Consumer Reports, which advises against buying the iPhone 4 (although other tests they ran have shown that it is the best smartphone around) precisely because of these reception issues.

It’s official. Consumer Reports’ engineers have just completed testing the iPhone 4, and have confirmed that there is a problem with its reception. When your finger or hand touches a spot on the phone’s lower left side—an easy thing, especially for lefties—the signal can significantly degrade enough to cause you to lose your connection altogether if you’re in an area with a weak signal. Due to this problem, we can’t recommend the iPhone 4.

We reached this conclusion after testing all three of our iPhone 4s (purchased at three separate retailers in the New York area) in the controlled environment of CU’s radio frequency (RF) isolation chamber. In this room, which is impervious to outside radio signals, our test engineers connected the phones to our base-station emulator, a device that simulates carrier cell towers (see video: IPhone 4 Design Defect Confirmed). We also tested several other AT&T phones the same way, including the iPhone 3G S and the Palm Pre. None of those phones had the signal-loss problems of the iPhone 4.

Meanwhile some more details on those tests wouldn’t hurt. Also, I honestly can’t trust the validity of a test conducted under artificial conditions, when the root of the problem is that it greatly depends on real-world variables (area, coverage, signal strength, skin moisture, grip, etc.). In short, Consumer Reports’ tests do nothing but reiterate that, 1) with a strong cellular signal there’s an attenuation when you hold iPhone 4 in a certain way (but according to other iPhone 4 users it’s not enough to drop calls and cause problems); and 2) that with a weak cellular signal, the iPhone 4 (held in a certain way) could lose a connection which is already compromised in the first place by the weakness of the signal itself. What an amazing discovery.

Then the other morning I read an article on MacFixIt saying that, according to Bob Egan (an electromagnetic engineer who’s now a technology blogger and Global Head of Research & Chief Analyst at TowerGroup), the Consumer Reports study has many inherent flaws and can barely be counted as scientific. We also don’t know — Egan continues — if placing a finger on the antenna bridge is detuning the antenna or detuning the receiver itself. Joe Aimonetti, the author of the MacFixit article, adds:

Since this issue has come to light, I have carefully monitored my own 3G reception while using iPhone 4. My conclusions, though completely unscientific, are that while I can replicate the signal bar indicator issue (where the number of bars drops significantly when covering the antenna gap on the lower-left of the device), it does not seem to affect call quality or cause any dropped calls. That would lead me to believe that the indicator problem is a result of a software miscalculation and I fully expect a software fix to silence this issue for good.

Even before a software solution, I expected a solution based on common sense, but you can’t always get what you want.

Somehow corroborating my point of view, I read this piece on Engadget yesterday. Nilay Patel writes:

What’s more, at this point Apple’s sold well over two million iPhone 4s, and we simply haven’t heard the sort of outcry from users that we’d normally hear if a product this high-profile and this popular had a showstopping defect. Honestly, it’s puzzling — we know that the phone has an antenna-related problem, but we’re simply not able to say what that issue actually means for everyday users.

So we’re doing what we can do: we’ve collected reports from every member of the Engadget staff who’s using the phone, as well as reached out to a variety of tech industry colleagues for their experiences. As you’ll see, it seems like most of our peers seem to be doing perfectly fine with their iPhone 4s, but the people who are having problems are having maddening issues in an inconsistent way.

And tomorrow, Apple will hold a special iPhone 4 press conference. Let’s hope things will be clarified once and for all.

The Author

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  1. Corey S. says

    Hi, nice story. A little piece of advice, though — if I may:

    your english is not bad but it is far from idiomatic: not an issue, the english versions here being intended as nothing more than utilitarian — but

    > cleaning and reorganising my junk

    brought a malicious smile on my american lips :->

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts,


    • Interesting. You’re the first to remark that about my English in all these years. By the way, the part that you quoted was admittedly not as clear as I had in mind. I corrected it and now reads while cleaning up and reorganising my junk. Also, I don’t view my posts in English as being mere translations of the Italian ones. I tend to give both versions of a post only when I’m talking about something that might be interesting to both audiences.

      Thanks for your comment, and enjoy your Italian sojourn.

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