The Curious Case of iPhone 4 Antenna and Reception Issues

by Bharat Suneja on July 6, 2010

Quick Summary

  • Apple’s new iPhone 4 causes a furore due to dropped calls and demonstrated lowering of signal strength when held from the lower left-hand side
  • Apple CEO Steve Jobs responds to iPhone 4 customer complaint with “Just avoid holding it in that way.”
  • Law firm files class action law suit against Apple for dropped calls and signal strength issues
  • Apple sells rubber bumper for $29 to give your iPhone “a splash of color”
  • Apple writes letter to customers, says the issue is related to wrong formula used for displaying signal strength on iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS and iPhone 3G, promises to release a software update to fix it

Apple’s explanations of the iPhone 4 antenna, signal strength and reception issues get interesting by the day. Many iPhone users reported the phone’s reception quality drops significantly when it’s gripped from the lower left-hand side — not entirely an unnatural way of holding the phone, nor unreasonable. It’s also been demonstrated in plenty of videos all over the interwebs. (See video).

When faced with user furore over the issue, Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ widely reported email response to an iPhone customer:

“Just avoid holding it that way.”

In other words— it’s not us, it’s you! Apple customers must love the fact that Apple’s redefining the way they should hold their phones. Coming as this was directly from iSteve, there’s no doubt it must have made iPhone customers feel iStupid for complaining.

The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg noted in his review of the iPhone 4 (see New iPhone Keeps Apple Top of Class on All Things Digital):

However, on at least six occasions during my tests, the new iPhone was either reporting “no service” or searching for a network while the old one, held in my other hand, was showing at least a couple of bars. Neither Apple nor AT&T could explain this. The iPhone 4 quickly recovered in these situations, showing service after a few seconds, but it was still troubling.

It’s not clear whether Walt was holding the phone according to Apple’s instructions when this loss of signal occurred.

Apple emphasized the iPhone 4’s excellent design and the metal band that also serves as the antenna, when it launched the phone earlier last month. Notes on the iPhone 4 antenna design from Apple’s web site:

Created from our own alloy, then forged to be five times stronger than standard steel, the CNC-machined band is the mounting point for all the components of iPhone 4. The band provides impressive structural rigidity and allows for its incredibly thin, refined design. It also functions as both iPhone 4 antennas.


The Apple iPhone Bumper, $29 from the Apple Store

No mention was made whether customers will require a rubber bumper to cover it up, which Apple would gladly sell to its customers for $29 (Apple iPhone Bumper on the Apple Store).

The reception issues have generated multiple class action lawsuits. (See Here come the iPhone 4 antenna-gate class-action lawsuits on Computerworld.com”)

Gizmodo’s Petition to Apple – Give Free Bumpers

Gizmodo’s urging Apple to do the right thing and provide iPhone 4 customers with free cases to help mitigate the antenna issue. Head over to Gizmodo to sign the petition— Sign Here If You Think Apple Should Give Free Cases to Fix the iPhone 4’s Problems.

A letter from Apple

Amidst reports of Apple looking for 3 new antenna engineers, indicating its desire to up the ante on cell phone antenna design, comes the latest missive from the company— a letter to iPhone 4 users!

In the latest communique, Apple states the new iPhone 4 has been wrongly reporting the signal strength due to a software issue. The letter begins with a self-congratulatory note. Any opportunity to remind customers how lucky they are to be provided an opportunity to own the most awesome product ever known to mankind must not be missed!

The iPhone 4 has been the most successful product launch in Apple’s history. It has been judged by reviewers around the world to be the best smartphone ever, and users have told us that they love it.

As the Wall Street Journal’s Martin Peers states in The Curious Case of iPhone 4:

If the iPhone 4 has become “the most successful product launch in Apple’s history,” as the company says, one wouldn’t want to imagine the worst.

Next, we’re back to the “you’re holding it wrong” explanation, this time dragging competing products into the mix:

To start with, gripping almost any mobile phone in certain ways will reduce its reception by 1 or more bars. This is true of iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, as well as many Droid, Nokia and RIM phones. But some users have reported that iPhone 4 can drop 4 or 5 bars when tightly held in a way which covers the black strip in the lower left corner of the metal band. This is a far bigger drop than normal, and as a result some have accused the iPhone 4 of having a faulty antenna design.

This is followed by the big revelation that’s already been talked/blogged/tweeted/Facebooked about and analyzed ad nauseam in the media within the span of a few hours of its release:

We have discovered the cause of this dramatic drop in bars, and it is both 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.

Interestingly, it’s all about the formula — the word “bug” doesn’t figure anywhere in this upfront communication with the world.

Some independent thinkers don’t buy this explanation and question why the iPhone 4 drops calls when held in a way Jobs doesn’t want you to hold it. It also doesn’t explain why many other phones, including Apple’s own iPhone 3GS and 3G show exactly the same number of bars when held next to each other. There’s a chance all the cell phone manufacturers got “the formula” to calculate signal strength wrong, although I doubt even Apple’s trusting and adoring customers would buy that theory.

The Apple solution: Less bars in more places?

Apple’s fix for what is now a signal strength display issue:

To fix this, we are adopting AT&T’s recently recommended formula for calculating how many bars to display for a given signal strength. The real signal strength remains the same, but the iPhone’s bars will report it far more accurately, providing users a much better indication of the reception they will get in a given area. We are also making bars 1, 2 and 3 a bit taller so they will be easier to see.

In other words, we’ll just make it show less bars, and change the sizes of the bars. Not sure how Apple’s chosen carrier, AT&T, likes this “less bars” solution after their “More Bars In More Places” ad campaign. What’s also not clear is how this affects the issue with dropped calls— and if the forthcoming iOS 4 update will be shipped with Steve Jobs’ advice on how to hold your iPhone right.

If you still don’t want your iPhone 4, Apple will gladly allow you to return “your undamaged phone” within 30 days of purchase. “We hope you love the iPhone 4 as much as we do.”, the letter reminds customers.

The Jobs Letters

Today’s letter from Apple isn’t the first, and it won’t be the last. But in the past these letters have been attributed to Mr. Jobs himself:

  • Letter to all iPhone customers, aka the “open iPhone letter”, or the “we really thought we could get away with it” letter, written shortly after the original iPhone launch and the immediate $200 price drop, from $599 to $399
  • Letter from CEO Steve Jobs, Jan 5, 2009, informing customers about his sick leave
  • Thoughts on Flash, April 2010. Jobs expressed why it’s such a horrible idea to allow Adobe’s Flash plug-in, a format that’s as popular as Adobe’s PDF document format, to be available on the iPhone/iPad, and other iOS variants. The big takeaway from this letter:— Jobs, and Apple, redefined what being “open” was to suit its world view.
    Of course, Apple is “open”. Adobe— not so much.
  • A Greener Apple, undated, selling Apple’s green cred to an already-sold customer base.

The latest letter isn’t attributed to him. One suspects he had his say, at least on the iPhone 4 antenna issues, with his widely reported you’re-holding-it-wrong response.

Jobs, and Apple, like to repeat how the company is redefining everything, to an increasingly mesmerized and forgiving customer base. The current reception issues aside, there’s one thing that Apple needs to redefine— its respect for customers’ intellect.

And while you’re at it Apple, would you please date your letters?

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