The "death grip" problem is unfortunately real for the iPhone 4. When skin comes into contact with and bridges the two metal bands in the lower left corner of the iPhone, the displayed signal strength drops. This may or may not affect voice calls or data sessions on the iPhone. I've been able to replicate the signal drop, but haven't experienced any actual performance problems. Others have reported dropped calls in areas with weak signal coverage when the antenna is obscured.
Image Gallery: Apple iPhone 4, A True Teardown
|(click for larger image and for full photo gallery)|
If the signal strength attenuates on your iPhone and you want to prevent this from happening, here are a handful of ways that do the trick:
1. Use a Bumper or Case: This is the official solution for the issue provided by Apple. Apple recommends that iPhone 4 owners buy a $30 bumper or other case, which alleviates the problem. It does what Apple says it does, but why is it the owner's responsibility to fix it?
2. Hold It Differently: When first questioned about the signal reception issues, Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously responded in an email to a customer that he was holding it incorrectly. His words were, "Avoid holding it that way." This works, too, but could leave lefties in a lurch.
3. Use Duct Tape: This one is my favorite. Consumer Reports, which this week said it can't recommend the iPhone 4 to consumers due to the "death grip" issue, suggested that users slap some duct tape on the section of the phone in question. This prevents your skin from touching the antenna and solves the problem. If duct tape can't fix it, nothing can! Of course, your iPhone will gain a new level of street toughness with its taped-together look.
4. Use Any Other Type of Tape: I actually tested this. You can solve the problem with masking tape, electrical tape (my personal favorite, plus, it's black), scotch tape, and packing tape (clear or brown). These solutions are better than duct tape, in my opinion, because they leave less of a sticky residue when the tape is removed from the iPhone.
5. Wait for Apple's Software "Fix": Apple has promised a software update to "solve" the antenna problem -- only changing the number of bars displayed on the iPhone's signal meter doesn't actually change the physics involved with the antenna itself. This might help to change the perceived performance problem, but won't prevent the iPhone 4's signal from degrading when the antenna is covered up.
Suggestions for Apple to make this all go away:
1. Give Away Free Bumpers: Apple clearly doesn't want to admit there is a problem with the iPhone 4's antenna. Apple needs to own up to it, and at the very least make the $30 bumpers a free option at the time of purchase so the antenna is covered properly. This alone wouldn't solve the problem, but it would prevent the symptoms from occurring. That likely will be enough to make most people happy. Also, a $30 fix per iPhone (on a product that has to cost less than $1 to make) is probably the cheapest option Apple has.
2. Install Plastic Film On New iPhones: Most brand new phones are packaged and shipped with a clear plastic film covering them. This is to prevent damage and scratching before the phone is sold. Apple could easily add a piece of this clear plastic film to the left side of the iPhone during the manufacturing process. Problem solved.
3. Recall the iPhone 4: I don't think this is going to happen, and I think it will be more of a pain to iPhone 4 owners, but it could help. First, however, Apple would need to redesign the iPhone 4's antenna, adjust its manufacturing processes, package and the ship the millions of replacement iPhones. That will take months and will cost Apple dearly.