iPhone 4’s reception

Hours after receiving their iPhone 4s, many users noticed that holding it in a way that covers the lower left-hand corner can significantly degrade or even kill its 3G connection. Initially considered an isolated incident, the issue was soon replicated by several users and nicknamed the Death Grip (I think David Pogue started that).

It’s a sensational story. The seemingly invincible Apple has sold a fatally-flawed iPhone, spawning frustration and disappointment. In many cases the frustration is warranted. These customers have purchased a product that can’t reliably perform its primary function. It’s like owning a car whose engine stalls whenever the steering wheel is touched.

Actually, there are two stories here, each hinging on a definition of “reception.” The first is about the iPhone’s ability to send and receive broadcast signals.  The second is about the way the public has reacted to the iPhone 4. In many ways these stories are completely different, though you’d never know it.

Reception: the receiving of broadcast signals [1. The funny part is that Gizmodo paid $5,000 for the scoop of the year yet still managed to miss the biggest part of the story, all because their iPhone wouldn’t turn on. Well, funny to me at least.]

From what I’ve gathered, the drop is most detrimental to users in low-signal areas. A drop from 5 bars to 3 is tolerable; a drop from 3 to 0 isn’t. For those affected to such a degree, it’s extremely and understandably frustrating. In a great article for AntennaSys, Spencer Webb described the science behind the antennas on mobile devices. Essentially, he says that as “bags of water,” human beings can affect this type of reception with a touch. Others have said the same thing, leading to the conclusion that the iPhone 4 has a fundamental, hardware flaw. In other words, it’s doomed.

Reception: the way in which a person or group of people reacts to someone or something

As word spread, the iPhone’s reputation suffered. While purchasing my iPhone 4 at the AT&T Store on the 29th … a week after the US release … I heard many disparaging remarks from passers-by. I wasn’t the only one.

Meanwhile, pundits like Julio Ojeda-Zapata are advising people not to buy an iPhone 4 until the antenna issue gets sorted. Earlier this week, Consumer Reports failed to recommend that their readers buy the iPhone 4, despite giving it the highest rating of all smartphones tested with 77 out of a possible 100 points (their #2 phone was the iPhone 3GS).

Earlier today I saw this clip from CNN suggesting that customers buy a roll of duct tape as an iPhone accessory. Tongue-in-cheek, yes, but also quite damaging. The tacit implication is that the iPhone is damaged, needs to be bandaged and only something as ugly an inelegant as a piece of duct tape will do the job.

Real world use

How does the public’s perception of the problem match up with the experience of users? Apple has sold over 2 million of these things. If the problem is as serious and common as reports would have us believe, the US should be full of frustrated owners of useless iPhones. Engadget has compiled the anecdotal experiences of several notable techies, including Joshua Topolsky, John Gruber, Jacqui Cheng and more. While there’s no clear consensus among the 24 notables polled, they all said that, while they have dropped calls (and many can reproduce the “Death Grip” drop), it hasn’t affected their day-to-day use of the iPhone. My experience has been much the same.

My kitchen

My kitchen is the Bermuda Triangle of domestic carpentry. I first noticed its powers when I brought my original iPhone home. If I was on a call and wandered into the kitchen, it dropped almost immediately. When I left the kitchen for any other room in the house, the signal came right back.

The same thing happened with my 3GS and sisters’ Verizon and Sprint phones. Something in that kitchen loathes cell phones, and lashes out swiftly and violently whenever they enter.

Here’s the thing: my iPhone 4 works perfectly in the kitchen. Not only that, it also works on that peculiar 3-mile stretch of road that always befuddled my 3GS. Also, it consistently out-performs my 3GS and my original iPhone when it’s down to one bar. Previously, 1 bar meant that I was moments away from losing a signal entirely. Today, I’ve maintained phone calls on 1 bar that would have dropped within minutes on my old iPhones.

Yes, I can reproduce the Death Grip drop. But that’s the thing: if I sit and try to get the signal to drop, my hand wrapped tightly around that infamous corner, the signal degrades and sometimes drops. However, my day-t0-day use of the iPhone has been unaffected. I use data-intensive apps and place and receive calls without a problem. Note that I do not use a case.

Part of that might be that I’m right-handed. It’s certainly not due to where I live, as 4 bars is about as good as it ever gets for me. Part of it could just be that it’s not that big of a deal.

But let’s talk about you. I’m not interested in your ability to reproduce the Death Grip drop. It’s been established that nearly everyone can. What I want to know is this:

If you’ve upgraded to the iPhone 4 from a previous model, has your experience with placing and receiving calls and using data-intensive apps (mail, Internet) over 3G been better, worse or about the same? If you feel like sharing, send a brief narrative to comments [at] 52tiger [dot] net. [2. Yes, I realize that I’m asking for self-reported, anecdotal evidence, so don’t write lecturing me about the scientific method.] I’ll compile the more interesting responses for a future post.

Thanks for participating.