PC News Archive

iPhone 4 Reception Drama

July 15, 2010 – by Per Christensson

Ever since the release of the iPhone 4, there have been complaints about reception issues with the phone. Specifically, users have complained that when they hold the lower left corner of the phone, the reception drops off significantly. I was able to confirm this problem when I tested an iPhone 4 in the Apple Store a few days after its release. As I held the phone, the signal bars dropped off one by one until there were no more bars left.

I was concerned about this issue when I bought my iPhone, but fortunately my iPhone 4 has not exhibited the same behavior. I have noticed a slight drop off in signal strength when gripping the lower left corner of the phone, but nothing as dramatic as the iPhone I tested in the store. This is interesting, considering Apple has described the problem as a software issue, not a physical defect. Since both my iPhone and the iPhone I tested earlier have the same software, it seems the problem is hardware related.

The iPhone 4 is the first iPhone to have an external antenna. It actually has two – one for GSM and UMTS signals (for cell phone reception) and one for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS signals. These antennas form a band around the outside of the phone, but are disconnected at the top and the lower left hand corner. My theory is that when you grab the lower left hand corner of the phone, your hand acts as a conductor between the two antennas and creates negative interference. In other words, a significant amount of the signal transmission gets cancelled, much like how sound waves get cancelled by noise-cancelling headphones. It appears that Apple has modified this design in newer shipments of the iPhone 4, but it is surprising that the company did not catch this problem with the first batch.

The drama concerning the iPhone 4 signal problems came to a tipping point when Consumer Reports said they could not recommend the iPhone 4 based on reception issues, which they were able to reproduce. They said current owners could fix the problem by buying a case for the iPhone 4 or by placing a piece of duct tape over the lower left corner of the phone. Wait... duct tape on an iPhone 4? I never thought I'd hear those words used in the same sentence. In my review of the iPhone 4, I stated how amazed I was by the meticulous craftsmanship of the phone. To apply duct tape to such a beautifully designed device is laughable. If nothing else made Steve Jobs need to formally address this issue, I believe this statement got his attention. I don't know Steve Jobs personally, but from what I do know about him, he would be absolutely appalled by images of duct taped iPhones.

Not surprisingly, Apple has scheduled a formal press conference about the iPhone reception issues for tomorrow morning. Hopefully, the company will confirm that they have fixed the issue with currently shipping models. I'm guessing they might also offer a free bumper case to current iPhone users or a credit towards a third-party case. It would be great if Apple also provides a way to fix iPhones that have reception issues and offer replacements as necessary. Any of these responses require a genuine admission of a mistake from Apple, which is rare. But now that images of duct taped iPhone 4s have begun floating around, it's clear Apple needs to take action.

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