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The iPhone 4 Signal Loss Paroxysm

For the last week or so, I’ve been following the news of Apple’s latest generation iPhone: the iPhone 4. Since AT&T made most of the owners of last year’s iPhone 3GS eligible for upgrade immediately, I decided to go ahead and get an iPhone 4, then sell my 3GS to make up the difference. It was a potentially net-zero-cost transaction for me, so I couldn’t really lose.

Yesterday, however, as the first of the iPhone 4 pre-order customers began to receive their phones by mail, something strange and unnerving happened. There were lots and lots of complaints. I occasionally follow the discussion forums at MacRumors.com, one of the premier Apple fan sites, and the vitriol was really flying around in there.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Serious aficionados of just about anything, from electronics to fine wines to sports cars, tend to be the most vocal nitpickers. Accordingly, there are always complainers during every Apple product launch. Last year, for example, when the iPhone 3GS arrived, many people were complaining because the color tone of the screen was too warm compared to earlier models. Others pontificated that the sleep/wake switch was loose and rattly. I didn’t experience these problems, either that or I’m just not hardcore enough for them to affect me. Since I bought it a year ago, I would describe my experience with my 3GS as “outstanding.”

The iPhone 4 launch was different. I started seeing many threads of complaints, some about trivial matters as you would expect (“My speaker sounds tinny!” or “Does anyone else’s phone rattle when you tap on the back, like, really hard?”), but others about potentially showstopping problems. One thread that seemed to be gaining traction was the “proximity sensor” thread. The iPhone has a sensor so it knows when you’re holding it up to your ear to make a call, and thus shuts off the touch screen so you don’t press buttons with your face. Apparently, a handful of people received iPhone 4 units with faulty sensors and were pressing all manner of buttons with their cheek, even hanging up in the middle of calls. Ouch.

The worst issue, however, and by far the fastest-growing one, was the signal loss issue. Specifically: What happens when you hold your iPhone 4 a certain way, and your palm, thumb or finger happens to cover up the small black seam between the Wi-Fi / Bluetooth / GPS antenna band and the UMTS / GSM antenna band? Apparently, as some users were finding out, it causes their iPhone to lose almost all reception, drop calls and completely stall data traffic.

Now, to be fair, there are people who are reporting that they cannot recreate this issue. I happen to know one of them. But there are also way, way too many people reporting that it is a problem for this to be an “imagined” defect, or a case of PEBCAK (or PEBCAP, in this case). I mean, there are problems that aren’t really problems, like the moron who posted “Every picture I take with the iPhone 4’s flash enabled is all washed out!” only to discover that he had forgotten to remove the protective plastic sheet from the back of the phone (and, thus, the camera lens). But then there’s something like the antenna issue, where you have dozens of people posting YouTube videos demonstrating it. (Want more videos? Oh yeah, there’s more.)

It’s also true that many — if not all — wireless phones will exhibit a loss in signal strength if you, y’know, wrap your big bear hands around them, particularly in the areas where their internal antennas reside. If I cup my hand around the lower half of my iPhone 3GS, even, I’ll lose a couple of bars of signal. But I never drop calls on it, unless I’m in an area with spotty AT&T coverage (such as, say, my parents’ entire property in Michigan…no kidding). A number of iPhone 4 users, however, have reported that the problem is so pronounced on their phones that they will actually drop a call every time when they are holding their phone, and their signal strength meter will fail over to “No Service” until they put the phone down. Others have uploaded YouTube videos showing their iPhone 4 running a download speed test app, and when they pick up the phone and hold it in their hand, the data transfer grinds to a halt.

The key seems to be the small black seam at the bottom left corner of the phone, which is a by-design gap that separates and insulates the phone’s two antennas from each other. Apparently, when some people hold the iPhone 4 in such a way that their skin is covering that gap, they are actually bridging the two antennae together and causing RF signal interference. The amount and nature of interference may vary depending on the strength of the wireless signal in their location, what frequency their wireless tower is using, or even how sweaty or oily their hands are. One user reports that both his own iPhone 4 and his girlfriend’s iPhone 4 will lose signal and eventually drop every call while he’s holding it, but his girlfriend, using the same phones in the same location, has no issues at all. Incredibly bizarre.

All of this is being brought to the forefront not just because a phone that can’t make calls for a significant subset of its user base is a giant crock pot of Not Good, but because the iPhone 4 actually incorporates a new, supposedly groundbreaking antenna system. The stainless steel trim ring around the perimeter of the unit is not only the phone’s primary structural element, it is also connected directly to the antenna system and is thus a part of it. It’s a new system that’s designed to help mitigate the complaints about poor reception and dropped calls, most of which have been blamed on the AT&T wireless network (and rightfully so, I think).

So with all of this going on, you’d probably imagine that Apple would have its engineering department working feverishly on a possible remedy for those who are having issues, be it an operating system update, a baseband revision or whatever. But you’d be wrong, as this evening’s breaking news would seem to suggest. Several dissatisfied users wrote email directly to Apple’s Steve Jobs asking what could be done about the signal loss issue that crops up when they are holding their iPhone 4s, to which Steve responded:

Non issue. Just avoid holding it in that way.
Steve Jobs, CEO, Apple Inc.

Shortly thereafter, media outlets like Engadget received a boilerplate-style response from Apple stating, in a few more words, essentially the same thing:

Gripping any mobile 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. 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.
Apple Inc. statement

Conveniently, for $29, Apple will sell you a rubber bumper case for the iPhone 4, something that they have until now left up to the aftermarket industry. The “case” covers only the stainless steel antenna trim ring on the phone. And yes, most iPhone 4 owners with the antenna problem have noted that the bumpers solve it, ostensibly by serving as a non-conductive layer between the skin of their hand and the phone’s two antenna bands. (Some conspiracy theorists have gone so far as to speculate that Apple created the bumper case precisely because they knew this issue would arise, and by the time they realized it, revising the iPhone 4’s antenna design would have been too costly.)

Anyway, the initial reaction to these responses on the MacRumors forums was one of disbelief. Some commenters asserted that Steve Jobs simply could not have sent that email reply, in which he appears to snidely assert that Apple could not possibly have designed an imperfect product and that any flaw is naturally owed to operator error. To dispel any doubt, the administrator of MacRumors.com was given access to the recipient’s email account, looked at the email headers and verified that, yes, the email did in fact come from Steve Job’s account inside Apple’s domain. (Whether Steve himself actually wrote the message is a matter of some debate, but the similar official statement from Apple renders this matter largely irrelevant).

As someone who has been an avid supporter, aficionado (and at times, even an evangelist) of the iPhone for over two years now, I can say that I am pretty taken aback by the company’s response to this issue. “You’re holding the phone the wrong way”? I’m sorry, what if that’s always how I’ve held a phone? What if I commonly tuck the lower left corner of my phone into the heel of my left palm so that it doesn’t fall out of my hand while I’m holding it, especially during long calls? Or am I just SOL because I use my phone left-handed? And for Apple to then suggest that people spend yet more money on one of their bumper cases in order to make a $600 phone (unsubsidized retail price) work — a move that aesthetically ruins the industrial design of the unit, if you ask the artsy-fartsy side of me — is adding insult to injury.

When these problems started to surface last night, I bailed at the last minute on my plans to join the line early at my local Apple store and get in on the fun. I had the morning all planned out: I was gonna head down to the store and check out the crowds, wait around for a phone, stop for some breakfast afterward and run a couple of errands on my way to work. Instead, I did none of this because I was not about to drop $300 — not a sum that I have the luxury of spending lightly in this day and age, let me tell you — on a phone that might not be able to make a call if I hold it the wrong way. Especially when I don’t have a landline, and my mobile is the only phone I have. So I waited it out, and checked up on the news today to see how things turned out.

Now, thanks to Apple Inc.’s arrogant lah-de-dah response to this problem, I will not be replacing my iPhone 3GS this year. It seems clear that no action will be taken to help stave off, remedy or even slightly improve the signal loss issue. Instead, the onus is on the consumer to wrap their phone in a rubber condom or spend every moment worrying that their hand is in the wrong place on the trim ring. And if I bought an iPhone 4 tomorrow and experienced no signal loss issues myself, what about when we move to Texas? Will the towers there operate on a different frequency, causing the issue to arise? Will the difference in relative humidity play a role? By then I’ll be months into a new contract with no way out except to pay an early termination fee. As a responsible man who does not have bottomless pockets, I cannot and will not take risks like that.

It’s extremely disappointing to see all this uncertainty taint the launch of the iPhone 4, especially after the tremendous build-up and the wonderful specs of the hardware itself. I was looking forward to using the newly improved camera with its LED flash and reading my eBooks on the gorgeous Retina Display. But when I see legitimate complaints from users and the CEO of a company responding with little more than “UR DOING IT WRONG,” then in good conscience I really have to draw the line. If I spoke to customers that way at my job, I would likely be fired.

So I’ll stick with my iPhone 3GS, which — thanks to the new iOS 4 system software — I am loving even more than ever before. And next June, I’ll take a good look at not only the “iPhone 5,” but whatever the Android platform has to offer as well. I don’t wish to be led solely by blind faith.

For now, I’ll leave you with this dose of irony:

“There is no right or wrong way of holding it, I don’t have to change myself to fit the product, it fits me.”
Apple Inc.’s Jonathan Ive, speaking about the Apple iPad

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