Mobile // Mobile Devices
Commentary
6/25/2010
09:18 AM
Eric Zeman
Eric Zeman
Commentary
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iPhone 4's Reception Trouble Not Unique

A firestorm of reports have demonstrated that when held a certain way, the iPhone 4 loses bars of cell signal. The iPhone isn't the only phone to do this.




Image Gallery: Apple iPhone 4, A True Teardown
(click for larger image and for full photo gallery)

I have been able to independently confirm that, when held in your bare left hand, the iPhone 4's signal will drop by several bars after about one minute. What does this mean and does it really matter?

According to Apple, the iPhone 4's cellular radio antenna was designed into the metal band on the outer edge of the phone. Specifically, it is placed near the lower left corner of the iPhone 4. Covering it up with sweaty hands (i.e., conductive hands) will smother the radio and reduce the amount of cellular radiation being detected by the iPhone. Hence the drop in signal as reported by the iPhone's signal strength meter.

The drop in bars displayed at the top of the phone doesn't always matter. I've tested thousands of phones, and if there's one thing I've learned, it is that the number of bars you have doesn't always play a role in how the phone performs. The real test is to determine how the phone actually performs when held in the left hand. I conducted a few tests.

In my home, I have five bars of AT&T coverage. Holding the iPhone in my left hand, I waited for the bars to drop down to one bar and then made a phone call. Guess what? The phone call connected. With the call still active, I walked down to my basement. In my basement, AT&T coverage drops to three bars on most phones. The iPhone's signal meter dropped to zero bars. However, the call didn't drop. Others I know who tested the problem said that in weak AT&T coverage areas (where only two bars were available to begin with), calls were more prone to drop with the left side of the phone covered.

I performed the same experiment with a speed test running. My results mirrored those of PCMag, which noticed a 50% slow-down in data speeds with the left side of the phone covered by a bare left hand.

Apple issued a (flabbergasting) response to the issue towards the end of the day. It said, "Gripping any 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 Phone 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."

Telling consumers that they are holding the phone incorrectly and should purchase a $15 - $30 accessory to fix the problem is not the way to handle this mess, but that doesn't necessarily mean that Apple is wrong.

Many of the phones I review come with stickers on them. Those stickers often warn users of certain things. One of the stickers I've seen on many phones is one which warns users to avoid touching certain parts of the cell phone in order to not block the antenna. Covering those parts of phones will result in the same phenomenon that we're seeing with the iPhone: a drop in signal strength.

I have a Microsoft Kin device laying around. I turned it on, waited for it to connect to Verizon's network and register four bars of service. I then covered it up with both hands. Guess what happened? The signal dropped to two bars. Where was the outrage the first day the Kin went on sale?

I'd argue that Apple and the iPhone are open to 1,000 times more scrutiny that most phone makers, especially when any sort of problem comes up. To be quite frank, I think this is almost a non-issue, but obviously people are upset about it.

I am much more concerned with how easily the iPhone 4's glass backing and front are being shattered by common drops. That, to me, is a much bigger design problem than a few dropped bars

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