iPhone 4 reception problem has me baffled

Gizmodo has been posting several user reports and videos showing the iPhone 4 losing wireless reception when held firmly in hand. After Warner pointed it out to me, I began to try to replicate their results, and I must admit, the issue has me stumped.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ixIHyEPO5g

Basically, if you hold the iPhone 4 in hand, contact with the frame, which acts as the wireless antenna, causes the signal strength to fade. Releasing the frame restores it. The folks at FameFoundry (their video) have narrowed the trouble spot down to the bottom of the left edge (side with the volume buttons). I can confirm contact with the frame divider there, specifically contact that bridges both parts of the metal frame, can lead to decreased signal strength. Emphasis on “can.”

Last night, after some early mixed results, I did manage to do replicate the problem consistently enough that I feel confident this is the trouble spot. However, I can’t do it every time, it doesn’t work nearly as fast for me as for others, and contact with that spot alone doesn’t seem to do it. Furthermore, I’m finding the problem isn’t nearly as severe in my office this morning. One hand position that worked last night at home takes at least a minute before dropping a bar and doesn’t kill the signal. Nothing else seems to affect the signal at all. Whatever the problem is, and yes, it is a problem, the trigger is more complex than holding the phone.

The obvious fix would be a protective case, much like the Bumper that Apple is selling, the first protector they’ve produced in-house. This leads me to suspect this is a known issue and Apple is trusting that it won’t be a problem since most people use some type of case, similar to my suspicions about the drop problem. If so, I think they’ve really handled the situation poorly. On one hand, they could have included a Bumper with every iPhone 4, perhaps with an option to swap colors like they did with the 2nd gen candy-colored iMac. On the other hand, their accessory partners would take a major hit if every iPhone 4 came with a Bumper. Yes, there is a slight dilemma here, but Apple should have erred on the side of the consumer. I’m guessing their backup plan is to send a free Bumper to anyone who files a claim.

On a related note, reception problem or not, I’m getting a case for my 4 anyway, probably a Bumper (especially if they give them away to claimants). I find the steel frame edges to be less comfortable than the rounded body of my iPhone 3G. Could be I’m just not used to it, but I don’t see the point of trying to get used to something I already don’t like. Maybe making it feel uncomfortable was part of the plan.

Update: Engadget reports their review unit had no problems but one received today did. They also got a free Bumper for standing in line, so perhaps the “Bumper giveaway” is already starting up.

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Comments

  1. GTaylor says

    Sumocat, this reminds me of the problem that many have had, and others have not had, with the fingerprint reader on Motion M1400 tablets (and others). Working with electrical capacitance in connection with human skin has all sorts of variables which cannot be defined in day to day use.
    My wife seldom had trouble with the fingerprint reader on my tablet, but I rarely could get it to read in less than five swipes, sometimes not at all. When she did have trouble with it, I did not. I only got it to read the scroll swipe once in three years.
    Could be the same kind of human/machine interface problem.

    • Sumocat says

      Sounds about right, but the critical difference is this is a preventable problem. Can’t do much about shielding a fingerprint reader, but Apple clearly thinks a case around that frame is important enough for them to make their own.

  2. Jason says

    Really… I didn’t think the iPhone’s PHONE functionality could get any worse… If everyone is OK with saying (oh well just put a case on it anyway) then this is crazy… hidden in a case what make the iPhone 4 any better than the 3GS? The screen looks a little sharper but EVERYTHING else is the same… the biggest difference was the design… case it up and you lose one of the biggest “cool factors” about this phone. If this holds up to be the issue this is a HUGE blunder!

    • RobertM says

      Yes, it is a huge blunder. But that won’t stop me from buying it, since it’s the best phone I can buy according to my needs. I can live with it’s shortcomings, and so will many others.

  3. John says

    Ok, first a little radio theory here: As you know, cellphones are nothing but very small transmitter/receivers in the 1.8/1.9 GHz (that’s Gigahertz) range. In order for the transmitter part of the phone to transmit correctly, you need to have the correct size of antenna (receivers will work without the correct size antenna, but the closer to the correct size, the better they receive). This antenna will be some even fraction of the full-wave signal length. To find the length of the “wave” you would use the formula 936 ft / Frequency in MHz(Megahertz)….so for a rough guess, our math is 936/1900 = 0.49263 feet or 5.9″. But that’s for a full-wave length. Apple may have used 1/2wave or 2.956″, or a 1/4wave or 1.477″. Now, human skin is mostly a “conductor” of electricity…not a great one, but it can allow for an electrical signal to travel along it, and the level of conduction varies from person to person….so, if Apple used bare metal along the outside of the case for the antennas, and your skin touches both the cellular and bluetooth antennas, you could be “extending” the electrical length of the antenna. This causes the transmitted signal strength to weaken…and depending on how much longer the electrical length of the antenna looks to the transmitter, you could have almost no signal going out. Worse yet, all that transmit power has to go somewhere, and it’s bouncing right back into the transmitter! I suspect the transmitter part of the cell phone is made to withstand some of this kind of abuse, but long term, its not good for the phone. If the phone signal is not getting out to the cellphone tower, that radio will eventually drop the call. It would be best to get a non-conductive case for this phone!

    • diJenerate says

      I have to agree with you on this one John as you are absolutely right. Essentially, the user becomes part of the antenna but to add to what John has pointed out, there are two additional factors to take into consideration:

      1). The user’s skin is not the only thing conducting the radiation at that frequency and with the power output from a modern cellular phone – and what is being received from the tower for the first split second until you sever the link. So all those ‘cellular phone radiation on the human body’ concerns we have had over the years… I think this phone should be the one to take most seriously.

      2). The signal strength drops for another reason… The phone’s radio and power source are not built to take an antenna of the size of the human body into account. More radio theory (without the details): The higher the wavelength, the more energy required to get the distance, so your phone can get to the tower with its own power source by boosting its own antenna… Its power source can’t boost the user!

      There is another thing that concerns me… The FCC approve this phone with it’s exposed antenna bands… Over they past 10 years, they have denied numerous designs that have small antenna ‘patches’ in their surface that the user ‘may’ come into contact with… How does Apple’s exposed antenna that the user ‘will’ come into contact with get approval by the same FCC? Have the rules changed?

      • Sumocat says

        That is an interesting point. Apple has kept most of their iPhone 4 FCC filing under wraps, including the antenna design. That does not assuage my suspicions.

  4. Paul Harrigan says

    My guess is that the external metal band is not intended to be an antenna and wasn’t tested as one, which is why the FCC permitted it.

    It should not be hard to test whether that surface is conducting a signal. If it is, can you say “recall”?

  5. tivoboy says

    Could of data points. I can re-create this with signal strength of between 2-4 bars. With that sort of signal, in about 20-30 seconds I can get the signal to degrade and go OFF. Even showing the rare but equally deadly GPRS DOT. Anyone seen that lately.?

    IF I have FIVE bars, full signal, I CANNOT RE-CREATE it. It would appear that the phone is going into some form of searching or channel hopping (ala early nexus one) when the signal is a bit low. IF I have a five bars signal, I can hold the phone in ANY WAY POSSIBLE and do NOT lose any of the signal.

    Another data point. IF I have the headphones in, the signal STAYS STRONG even on 3-4 bars. Historically there was some evidence that the headphone cord was used in the antenna, but I don’t think that was ever confirmed.

    Of course, touching it with a gloved hand or through cloth, NOTHING HAPPENS.

    I’m also pretty down with the impedence argument. Indeed, if the external antenna when being EXTENDED by the human contact thinks there is a MUCH LARGER antenna then it might THINK erroneously that the signal is low – BUT what it DOES with this information is start the process of searching for a better signal/band. That is when all hell breaks lose.

  6. tivoboy says

    But, what REALLY baffles ME is HOW this could get through the QA process of a company like apple. I mean, welcome to the 21st century man!

  7. Rob says

    This is a serious problem with the design of the phone. Many, if not all buyers have been able to replicate this exact problem, therefore this problem exists in all the units, not just some.
    The radiation conduction to the human body as an extension of the antenna is definitely something we should all look into. I too am surprised if/that the FCC would have approved this.
    Some people claim this problem exists in previous models such as: 3G, 3GS. I however was unable to replicate the problem so far on my 3GS. I would assume because it’s antenna is internal, and not external like the iPhone 4.
    This will most likely have to be solved with a recall by apple, they cannot sell “bumpers” to fix this problem, because that would mean the phone is not correctly functioning by itself without the use of an “external addon” which is bs, if you’re paying that much money for an apple device.

    • Sumocat says

      Actually, a recall does not preclude an external solution. The Toyota floor mat recall, for example, dealt with an add-on. (Yes, there were other problems but people were legitimately having problems with the floor mats too.) More accurately, I believe you are arguing for a redesign rather than a patch.

  8. Rob says

    I’m not arguing for a redesign necessarily but rather just saying that apple should accept responsibility for this hardware problem and deal with it appropriately by either refunding the phone, having it serviced and fixed free of charge in a
    timely manner (not sure if this is possible) or some kind of compensation making it worthwhile for the consumer to keep the phone.
    You cannot compare an iPhone to a toyota and floor mats… The iPhone lost reception when holding the antenna band (which is always going to be held when using the phone in any manner) making it unable to make/recieve calls properly. This gadget afterall is a “phone” and I think the reception and ability to make and recieve calls would be its number one purpose, and therefore number one concern, if not working properly.

    • Sumocat says

      Yes, the second option you presented would necessitate a redesign. Refund or compensation are valid options as well. I’m simply pointing out that recall is not the actual solution.

      As for the Toyota comparison, there were fatalities tied to that problem, so I’d still consider it an operational flaw.

    • Mike says

      apple – take responsibility for a hardware problem !?
      Come on man, I nearly spit my tasty beverage out all over my keyboard.

  9. jason says

    i have the new iphone 4.
    antenna problem is definite.
    i can duplicate it everytime by simply holding the phone.
    i may return the phone if problem is not fixed.
    huge disappointment!

  10. Chris Hickie says

    I just heard on the news that one suggestion is to put your iphone 4 in a nonconducting case to keep you from touching the antenna.

    Maybe not what everyone wants, but sounds like a fix

    (another alternative would be to use some sort of nonducting tape (duct tape, electrical tape, rim strip tape (for bicycle rims), etc that would insulate the band–I can see a whole new market of accessories popping up: iBands. )

  11. GTaylor says

    Two thoughts;
    Is not listening to employees problem here? A dramatization- “No Steve, it tests fine on the bench, but it drops call when I pick it up.” “well then, obviously the problem is that you are not holding it correctly!” [with proper reverence?]That might be how they settled on the name iPad or even iPod for that matter. Really, pod people?!
    Was Steve holding it in his hand at the demo when he couldn’t connect with wifi and it was the fault of everyone else in the room?

  12. stevejons says

    I have an iphone4 and I have friends who have an iphone4. None of us can even recreate this problem if we try. I fear this is the media creating a bigger problem than it actually is.

  13. Mark says

    Reception at my house has never been good and all it takes is for me to touch my finger to that magic spot and the call is dropped immediately, every time. I went to AT&T, bought a nice case that, oddly enough, they didn’t have out for sale, and the problem was solved. Now it’s not only fixed, reception is noticably better than that of the 3G and 3GS, partially because of the antenna that’s caused so many problems.

    Personally, however, I don’t think the antenna is the real crux of the matter. The real problem with this situation is Steve Jobs and his shortsighted, idiotic, inconsiderate and ingrate response that the user was holding it incorrectly. I hold this phone in the same manner I’ve held relatively large smartphones for the past several years. I’m not holding it incorrectly, Steve Jobs is an arrogant ass who has as much in common with his customer base as Marie “Let them eat cake” Antoinette had with the French who put her to death.

    • acerbic says

      Aw come on, maybe Jobsy just suffered from a rare bout of sense of humor and started riffing on the old “Doctor, it hurts when I do this” joke.

  14. George says

    “I find the steel frame edges to be less comfortable than the rounded body of my iPhone 3G.” Absolutelly true. Tried it at an Apple Store. Feels like holding a brick. Older model much more comfortable. I’ll stay one more year with my 3GS, just in case. I will wait for iPhone 5.

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