Apple explains iPhone 4 antenna issue

Apple issued a press release today explaining the reception trouble that many users have experienced. In short, the iPhone is erroneously reporting signal strength:

“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.”

In other words, when users saw their iPhone’s signal drop from 5 bars to 2, they were in fact dropping from 2 bars to zero. Apple’s only crime here was unknowingly exaggerating the strength of AT&T’s signal.

Apple will release a software fix “…within a few weeks” for the iPhone 4, 3Gs and 3G (Apple determined that issue has always existed on the iPhone) that utilizes AT&T’s modern formula for representing signal strength with those infamous bars.

This means that the worst case scenario — a hardware flaw — has been avoided. It also means that Jobs was right when he said, “There is no reception issue.” The reception is fine. The graphic representation of that reception has been wrong.

Finally, users like David Pogue who couldn’t reproduce the drop  (the majority of users, actually) are most likely in areas with strong coverage, where a drop from 5 bars to 4 or 3 isn’t significant. In fact, NYC (where David lives) recently received a major upgrade from AT&T. Good on Apple for the research and timely reply. If proven effective this fix should put an end to the lawsuits. In other words…

Blame AT&T.

Microsoft kills the Kin

Engadget:

“Sources close to Microsoft tell us that Andy Lees has rolled Kin into the Windows Phone 7 team and has canceled the existing product’s launch later this year in Europe on news that sales weren’t as strong as expected.”

That only took a few weeks, and was a dumb idea to begin with. More of a social media vuvuzela than a phone. Here’s an idea. Re-introduce it as “Mojave” and explain to people why they’re wrong for disliking it.

WIRED for iPad updated

This app from Condé Nast continues to evolve with the release of version 1.1. Changes in this update include in-app purchases, 50MB preview downloads (similar to what Outside is doing) and support for back issues.

They’ve also added 360 degree panoramas and an in-app browser, so you can visit links without leaving the app. Plus, it’s a dollar cheaper at $4.

It looks great and I’ll have a full review up soon. For comparison, I’ve re-posted my review of the initial release below, originally published at davecaolo.com.

For more on using the iPad as an eReader, check out

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A long time ago, I read The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. At one point, a character is described as “listening to a book.” It was a minor detail with no special significance; just a bit of color used to establish a setting.

As an 8th grader with Star Wars PJs, it blew me away.

Years later, when the story was adapted for television, that character used a thin object about the size and shape as a clipboard for reading. No pages, no cover. How, I wondered, could something that incredible exist?

Much was made of the iPad‘s potential as an eReader before its release. Comparisons to the Kindle and Nook were inevitable. Now that some months have passed, users can explore publishers’ initial attempts at electronic distribution. Earlier this week, Condé Nast released an iPad version of WIRED magazine ($4.99) and sold 24,000 copies in the first 24 hours.

That number demonstrates that users want to read magazines on their iPads, and that they’re happy to reward well-done apps. Despite some flaws, I can say that WIRED for iPad is definitely well done. Here’s my experience with reading WIRED on an iPad.

The Good

The Ads. That’s right. Many of the ads in this issue (and there’s a lot of them; more on that later) offer something interesting for my time. For instance, a GE ad lets me rotate a high-def CT scan of lungs and a heart in 3D space. A Heineken ad asks, “Can I touch it?” while the iPad is in landscape orientation and answers “Yes you can!” when turned to portrait orientation. A Pepsi ad plays an embedded video about two kids who won an academic scholarship. It’s sappy, heart-stringy and the kind of thing you won’t see on TV or in print. Yes, it’s odd to identify advertisements as a feature, but I can’t deny that they are.

Bookmarking. Unlike other apps (Kindle for iPad, for example), bookmarking is completely invisible. There’s no need to remember and bookmark a page. The app takes care of that for you. The next time you launch, it will remember where you left off.

The iPad’s display. This isn’t really a feature of the app, but it does look terrific. The display is bright and text is razor sharp. Colors are bright and beautiful. The Kindle’s E-Ink technology has won many fans (it is superior in direct sunlight, after all), but this would be a completely different experience in greyscale. Unfortunately for Kindle customers, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says that a color Kindle is “still a long way out.” Of course, this is demonstrative of the app’s real strength…

Takes advantage of the platform. Before the iPad was released, I hoped that video, audio and other goodies would enhance electronic magazines and books. Wired for iPad is a great example of that wish realized.

For instance, the “Invaders from Mars” feature presents an image of the red planet and the man-made machines that have paid it a visit. Slowly swiping across the image rotates it, revealing a photo and brief history of each mission. The illusion of “spinning” the planet is very well done and kind of addictive (you’ll find yourself whirling the planet around even after you’ve read all of the text).

Some articles, like “Riverboat Resurrection,” let you toggle between related photos without leaving the article. A great example of this explains what goes into Lea and Perrin’s Worcestershire Sauce. As you tap between the numbered steps, a new ingredient is revealed. Others include a clip of related audio or video. It feels like a webpage, so it’s familiar, but it’s much faster, so it’s more satisfying.

This issue’s standout is the Pixar feature, as it combines all of the above. There’s an exclusive clip from the movie. A “Building A Frame” section highlights how a single frame is created, step by step, culminating in a gorgeous, high-resolution image that you’re free to zoom and explore. It looks absolutely fantastic on the iPad’s display.

The Bad

The app has some flaws. Here’s what I found.

The ads. As I mentioned, there are a LOT of ads. Yes, some of them are clever but most aren’t. Several of the ads with extra content want to push you out of the app and into Safari which is disruptive.

The price. At $5 per issue, you’ve met the cost of a year’s subscription to the paper version in two issues. I imagine Condé Nast will explore electronic subscription models, but until they do, 5 bucks per issue just isn’t sustainable.

Swiping. This might sound silly, but there’s a lot of swiping to do. While I love the publication’s use of graphics, it ends up with small amounts of text on the screen at once, even within lengthy articles. This complaint probably represents the height of laziness, but there it is.

The size. At half a gig, the first issue is huge. I’ve got a 16GB iPad and after syncing it full of photos, apps, movies and TV shows, space is at a premium.

Conclusion

It’s fun. It’s impossible to deny how much fun it is to read this version of WIRED.

It’s appealing to non-geeks. In the day that I’ve owned this, I’ve shown it to three people, none of whom are geeks. Each one was completely smitten with the app and took the iPad right out of my hands. I had to wait to get it back. Granted, WIRED is for geeks, but it if the experience can be carried over to other magazines … well, you see where this is going.

It makes me eager for the app’s future. I can’t wait to see what future updates bring.

At the end of the day, what have you got? A killer implementation of a digital magazine. It’s not all eye candy, but the fantastically written and researched WIRED magazine that I’ve read for years. Despite my complaints (most of which are completely fixable), I’m enthused by what the developers have done with this app. I’m looking forward to the app’s future and whatever subscription plan is in the works. If you’ve got an iPad, definitely check this out.

I bet Ray would love it.

Poll results: You’re still buying

When the iPhone 4 went on sale in the US on June 24th, AT&T announced that its stores would have no stock for walk-in customers until June 29th. In the meantime, the antenna issue was widely reported.

Steve Jobs claims that “there is no reception issue,” but I agree with Jason Snell. If this is a hardware problem, and it could be, it’s “…a disaster.”

I won’t buy until that’s been determined. Surely I’m not the only one. Yesterday I asked you: “Has the iPhone 4 antenna issue affected  your decision to buy?” The results surprised me.

  • Out of the 270 who responded, 79.2% (214) answered “No.”
  • The remaining 20.7% (56) answered “Yes.”

Why the huge discrepancy? Perhaps people believe Apple will fix the issue, or believe it won’t happen to their iPhone. In any case, my readers weren’t alone, as customers lined up at AT&T stores today for another shot at buying the flawed phone.

Hulu Plus

For $9.99 per month, users can stream a full season’s worth of HD TV episodes, plus the rest of Hulu’s library (ad-supported 1), to their iPhones (3GS and 4 only), iPads or Macs with the new app (free).

This is almost exactly the model I wished Apple would adopt a year ago at TUAW:

“If Apple charged me X amount of money per month and gave me unlimited access to their library of television and movies from any approved device, including Macs, iPhones, iPods and, of course, Apple TVs, I’d be a happy customer … Yes, I want to have my music files physically on my hard disk. But if the shows and movies I want to watch all lived on a server farm in Cupertino, that’d be fine with me.”

Good luck to Hulu; I’m eager to test this.

  1. I’d rather be free of ads for ten dollars, but that’s not my decision.

iPhone 4 repair manual

The folks at iFixit have compiled the insight they acquired while breaking down/re-assembling the iPhone 4 into a comprehensive (and unofficial) repair manual.

I’ve relied upon iFixit for years, and the detail in this manual is a great example of why.

Hold the phone [Updated]

Just hours after the iPhone 4 was delivered last week, some customers noticed an apparent data connection issue. Specifically, if one touches the lower left-hand corner of the phone with bare skin, the 3G connection immediately dies, and stays dead for as long as contact is maintained. Release the corner and the connection is re-established just as quickly. Cameron Hunt has posted a clear demonstration of the issue:

He isn’t the only one. Fraser Speirs posted a video of his iPhone demonstrating the problem, and Shawn Blanc charted his iPhone’s network performance while resting on his desk vs. while held in his left hand with clear results.

Meanwhile, others can’t replicate the drop at all. For example, David Pogue writes:

“I have never seen it on the iPhone unit I have been reviewing. I cannot even reproduce it, no matter how hard I try. I’m sitting here right now. I’m wrapping my hand every which way — I’m even holding it with two fists, completely concealing the silver band around the edges — and my four-bar signal strength doesn’t waver.”

What’s going on? To find an answer, let’s look at the band.

I’m with the band

When Gizmodo published photos of the early prototype, readers were struck by the metal band that edged the phone. With obvious seams and convex buttons, it veered from Apple’s aesthetic. Some suggested that the band was typical of unfinished, prototype hardware, and wouldn’t be a part of the final product. They were wrong. So what is it?

It’s a band of stainless steel, machined from Apple’s own alloy. Aside from holding the iPhone together, it integrates the iPhone’s UMTS, GSM, GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth antennas. iFixit called it “…a work of genius.” Clearly, using the iPhone’s entire perimeter as the antenna was meant to address the chief complaints from earlier models: Dropped calls and spotty connectivity. Here’s how they’re arranged:

The issue arises when some users touch the seam between the right-hand side (UMTS/GSM) and the left-hand side (Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS). How? According to WIRED, Danish blog ComON found one possible explanation by interviewing Professor Gert Frølund Pedersen of the Department of Electronic Systems at Aalborg University. Professor Pedersen:

“Human tissues will in any case have an inhibitory effect on the antenna. Touch means that a larger portion of the antenna energy turns into heat and lost. This makes the antenna less efficient to send and receive radio signals.”

Additionally, Spencer Webb of AntennaSys (Spencer has designed quad-band GSM antennas for the AT&T network) makes the issue quite clear:

“The iPhone 4 has two symmetrical slots in the stainless frame.  If you short these slots, or cover them with your hand, the antenna performance will suffer.  There is no way around this, it’s a design compromise that is forced by the requirements of the FCC, AT&T, Apple’s marketing department and Apple’s industrial designers, to name a few.”

Finally, Jobs himself confirmed the inevitability of human skin affecting an antenna’s performance in an email to a customer last week. Jobs wrote:

“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.”

Location, location, location

Let’s look at that “placement of the antenna” that Steve mentions. The iPhone 4’s antenna reaches around the bottom. If touching an antenna can cause trouble, as Spencer Webb and Professor Pedersen attest, why would manufacturers move it from the top, where my hand is not, to the bottom, where my hand is? Why not keep it on the top and avoid the issue all together? That’s a question for the FCC.

Not so long ago, the FCC defined the amount of energy that the human body may absorb from a handheld device. This limit is called the Specific Absorbtion Rate, or SAR. Mobile devices with top-mounted antennas were blasting more energy into human heads than SAR allowed. As a result, we’ve got bottom-mounted antennas in all of today’s mobile phones.

In short, we’re stuck with bottom-mounted antennas. Apple placed it on the rear of the original iPhone. By placing it on the side of the iPhone 4, Apple increased the likelihood that a user would disrupt its performance with a grasp.

Hot hands

As I said, not all users are experiencing this issue. So what’s keeping the unlucky ones down? The trouble seems to crop up most often:

  • With lefties. Of course, a left-handed user will press more skin against the left-hand side of the phone than a right-handed user would.
  • With sweat. Several customers have reported that damp/sweaty hands worsen the issue.
  • With naked phones. If you can, apply a case. 1

You’re doing it wrong

Amid a torrent of complaints, Apple has made statements on the issue. In an email to a customer, Steve Jobs made a simple suggestion:

“If you ever experience this on your iPhone 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.”

If you dislike being told that you’re holding your phone the wrong way, take heart in this other email Jobs reportedly issued to a customer:

“There is no reception issue. Stay tuned.”

Sure sounds confident, doesn’t he? Perhaps a fix is in the works. Which brings us to the conclusion.

What does this all mean?

That depends on the answer to a crucial question: Is it a software issue or a hardware issue?

If it’s a software issue, as Steve’s terse email implies, then it’s really no big deal. Apple will release a free patch that will restore normal functionality for all users. A week later, they won’t remember this even happened.

If it’s a hardware issue, as Webb and Professor Pedersen suggest, well…that’s a disaster. A few things will happen.

  • Anti-Apple blogs (Gizmodo especially 2) will have a field day. Haters will come out of the woodwork in full Hate Mode with Kung-Fu Grip.
  • Users will demand restitution/replacements. I don’t think Apple has ever issued a recall.
  • The iPhone will suffer a huge PR failure.
  • Future sales will stall. I haven’t bought one and until the above question is answered, I won’t.

I hope this issue can be fixed with software. Perhaps one area of the antenna can be told to take over if it notices that another area is compromised. Here’s hoping this gets resolved this week. For now, it’s a real problem.

Update: Even Nokia says don’t hold it by the bottom.

  1. Believe me, I get the principle of the thing. You shouldn’t have to buy a case to get your phone to work.
  2. Gizmodo has had a palpable chip on its shoulder since the iPhone prototype fiasco. Their reporting of the AT&T email leak — which they were intent on blaming on Apple — was downright gleeful