Before I installed iOS 4.01 on my iPhone 4, I took screenshots in the persistent trouble spots in my house: the kitchen, living room and kids’ playroom. Below are those images, showing 1 and 2 bars respectively.
After installing the update, I stood in the exact same spots and again took screenshots. The iPhone reports the same number of bars, but now they’re noticeably taller.
Next, I stood in the kitchen and placed a call. Despite having 1 bar, I talked for 15 minutes without interruption (holding the phone in my right hand). Finally, I applied the so-called death grip and could not make the bars budge. It was only while in my concrete-walled basement that 1 bar would drop to “No signal.” Other than that, the iPhone flat-out refused to give up that last bar. Impressive.
Finally, here’s a video of myself completing and maintaining a call to my landline that started with two bars then dropped to one with the iPhone in a full death grip. The iPhone never gave up that last bar. Previously, this call would have dropped in seconds. I’m now very curious to hear Steve explain what type of spell iOS 4.01 has cast on my iPhone.
Update: AnandTech has published a thorough look at what’s new.
Tomorrow Apple will hold a press conference about the iPhone 4, presumably to discuss the antenna issue that has gained so much attention. Here’s what I think will happen.
Apple will offer a $30 Apple Store credit to all current iPhone 4 owners. That will allow those who want a Bumper case to get one for free.
Apple will continue to accept returns without charging customers a restocking fee.
The forthcoming software patch (iOS 4.01) will be explained again and released.[1. Strike one agains me]
Steve (I assume Steve will be the one talking) will insist that the iPhone 4’s design is the best Apple has ever made and that it offers a superior experience over its predecessors (In my experience, that’s been the case). He’ll describe the record-setting sales that Apple and AT&T experienced.
Steve will announce the availability of the white model.
In other words, they’ll appease those who are having trouble and stand by their conviction that the iPhone 4 is the best yet. The short event will conclude with Steve (and maybe Scott Forstall) taking questions.
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 severalusers 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
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 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.
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…
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.
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:
“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.
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. [2. Believe me, I get the principle of the thing. You shouldn’t have to buy a case to get your phone to work.]
“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.”
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 [3. 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]) 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.