iPhone 4 on AT&T Drops Fewer Calls With Antenna Redesign

The iPhone 4S is the first iPhone on AT&T’s wireless network that I can trust to place and receive calls whenever I need to in my hometown of San Francisco, thanks to a redesigned antenna.

AT&T has a bad reputation in San Francisco for good reason: As the exclusive iPhone wireless carrier for many years, AT&T dropped far more calls than acceptable. It consistently frustrated iPhone users to the point where many jumped at a chance to sign up for a Sprint or Verizon iPhone.

When Apple introduced the iPhone 4S it emphasized a redesigned antenna system, one which used multiple antennas inside the phone and software that switches antennas on the fly to give users the best possible signal for that given moment. This was different than the iPhone 4’s antennas, both of which sat on the bottom of the phone (and could be covered by your hand, causing the phone to lose reception or drop calls).

iPhone 4S antenna

iPhone 4S antenna design

I took Apple’s announcements of the new iPhone antenna design with a grain of salt. But over the past week I’ve found that the new antenna design is much more than just marketing hype.

I live at the top of a hill in San Francisco. This is a city that is particularly difficult on wireless networks, and I’m all-too-familiar with AT&T’s many dead zones. For the past year and a half I put up with dropped calls in specific parts of the neighborhood and had to repeatedly apologize to friends and family.

For the past 10 days I’ve been using my AT&T iPhone 4S all around San Francisco and have yet to drop a call.There are a few intersections in the neighborhood where my iPhone 4 on AT&T reliably droped calls every time I drove past them. The iPhone 4S simply does not drop calls in these areas and I’m able to carry on my conversations without worrying about rudely hanging up on friends and family. Call it a miracle or better antenna design, whatever is going on here may be enough to keep AT&T subscribers from switching to rival carriers.

While AT&T’s wireless network is playing nice with the new iPhone 4S, it still doesn’t mean you should necessarily stick with AT&T. I have iPhone 4S units from Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T, and I’m currently carrying out tests to compare service between all three. And Verizon still offers better call quality in many areas and provides a stronger signal in hard-to-reach places.

For example, when I was in the underground level of the parking garage at 5th and Mission streets in San Francisco my AT&T iPhone 4S showed zero bars and I was unable to place or receive calls. The Verizon iPhone 4S had three bars of signal and I was able to talk without any issues.

I was in the elevator after a friends party on Saturday night in a building in Pacific Heights and saw something similar. Someone happened to call me on my Google Voice number, which forwards calls to all of my phones, and the AT&T phone didn’t even ring. Meanwhile the Verizon iPhone had enough signal for me to carry on a conversation while on the short elevator ride.

The AT&T iPhone 4S  seems to be the best choice for wireless data in San Francisco so far, with the iPhone 4S outperforming the Verizon and the Sprint iPhone 4S consistently in several neighborhoods.

My faith is restored in AT&T’s network, but I don’t trust it 100%. I’ve put up with four years of mediocre service from the carrier: it’s going to take a lot more than a week to trust AT&T with my safety. Here is an article that describes my frustration with AT&T’s network while I was in Las Vegas and my wife was in San Francisco.

If I had to have only one iPhone with me during a big earthquake or other emergency, I would want to have the Verizon version.