"Nearing Consensus": Consumer Reports Update on iPhone 4 Reception Issue | Daring Fireball Linked List


It’s not magic. It’s simple physics, and there’s no “consensus” to be reached. Of course, implementing the simple physics into a consumer product is akin to magic. But let’s go over a very simplified version of the physics bit now, shall we? Then we can see why there’s no consensus to be reached.

A while back, something on the order of twenty years ago, I took some classes in which we studied radio waves. Jack Derry taught me, and taught me well, he did. Though I don’t remember the details, here’s the gist of what is happening in the iPhone 4.

First, let’s remember that antennas are mechanically designed to best suit the electrical characteristics of the radio waves they are transmitting and receiving. Generally, their lengths are multiples (or halves or quarters, usually) of the wavelengths they are carrying. They are usually precisely tuned in this way because when the wavelength matches up nicely to the length of the antenna, the signal goes out and comes in relatively unimpeded.

Second, let’s remember that there’s a receiver in the iPhone 4 (and all other cellphones) which has what’s known as a sensitivity. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll just say that if the signal reaching the receiver is bigger than this sensitivity, the signal gets received. If not, then no bars.

Third, let’s also remember that cell sites are spread out and that the closer to one you are, the stronger the signal into your phone. The farther away, the weaker the signal. You know this already because you drive out of the city and your radio station fades into nothing as you get farther from it. Drive back into the city, and your morning DJ comes in loud and clear. Sometimes, too clear.

Finally, let’s look at the antenna structures of the iPhone themselves. These structures are on the outside of the phone. No, it’s not the first time cell phone antennas have been where you can see them. Remember all of those brick phones with rubber ducky antennas on them? How about the smaller Motorola StarTACs with the retractable thin antennas? Remember those? But what’s different here is that this is the first time (that I know of) where the antenna system has been exposed as part of the phone that you touch, intentionally and deliberately.

Now let’s put all of this stuff together.

What is happening to everybody—whether you notice the problem or not—who holds the phone using the Sweaty Palm Grip is that you are becoming a not-so-great part of the antenna. On top of that, you’re shorting across that plastic divider between two of the phone’s antenna elements. I will ignore the question of what bands or signals these elements carry—it’s irrelevant because at least one is related to the cell signal, and that’s all that matters. The net result of your putting your Sweaty Palm onto the antenna elements is that the iPhone antennas don’t work as well as they did without you since you’re not a finely tuned piece of antenna structure. No, you’re a blobby, resistive, funky-lookin’ piece of meat, and meat doesn’t work well as an antenna.

No, instead when you touch those antenna bits with the Sweaty Palm Grip or its equivalent, the Slimy Pinky Touch of Death, you screw up all of Apple’s antenna engineers’ obsessive and loving work. Your hand wasn’t part of their plan, or at least, not as you grip the phone. If you grip the phone the way these guys planned that you would, it wouldn’t be a problem. Or so says Apple, anyway.

The problem with your Funky Grip is that the signal that should be nicely entering the antenna doesn’t go in so nicely anymore. And if it doesn’t go in the antenna, it can’t be picked up by the receiver. And if it can’t be picked up by the receiver, no bars.

So why do some people notice it and others don’t? The guys at Wired Gadget Lab couldn’t reproduce the problem at all. Well, it all has to do with your distance from the cell phone site. The closer you are, remember, the stronger the signal. The farther away, the weaker the signal. When you are close, your Funky Grip does keep some signal from getting in (“attenuates,” to use the right terminology), but enough gets through that the receiver can pick it up anyway.

When you are far away from the cell site, however, your Funky Grip keeps the same amount of the signal from getting into the antenna system. The problem is that farther away from the cell site (or with more buildings in the way or whatever), there’s not as much signal to start with, and the net result of the Funky Grip is that there’s not enough left for the receiver to work with. No bars.

I can demonstrate this effect at my home in the boonies (far from a cell site) and at my desk in the city (right across the street from a cell site). At home, Funky Grip yields no bars. At work, the bars don’t budge.

It really is that simple. Q.E.D.

Now, there are, as I’ve said before, some other losses associated with having your meaty hands in the path of the signal, but all phones have that problem, not just the iPhone 4. What the iPhone 4 has that is unique, as I said above, is antennas (antennae are for bugs) which are exposed to electrical contact with your hands.

Other sites have done the electrical tape experiment I proposed in an earlier entry and have been successful in demonstrating that the problem goes away. I’d rather not screw up the appearance of my phone with electrical tape, however, so I’m still looking for a solution.

And I’m guessing Apple’s looking too, but maybe not as hard as we’d like, as their letter seems to indicate.

First, Apple has to back off its “You’re holding it wrong” stance. And it is also going to have to back off the “We’ll change the bars calculation” approach, too. It doesn’t matter how many bars there are. If the phone has service and works, then great. But if gripping it in a manner comfortable to me keeps it from working, the number of bars is irrelevant. And the fact that it has better reception than an iPhone 3G or 3GS is irrelevant, too, because that’s not what iPhone 4 users are holding in a manner comfortable to them.

Second, it’s going to have to issue a fix, and it won’t be cheap. It’ll either be $29 for a bumper (though I doubt that costs Apple anywhere near $29 per bumper) per phone, or it will be a clear, non-conductive coating applied to the phone itself. Maybe there are ways for them to do that in the stores, maybe via replacement via mail… I dunno’. Apple can afford a fix. They can’t afford the bad PR. It just doesn’t look good, feel good or work well. And those are Apple’s core values, according to me, and this problem and their current response tarnish those values.

In any case, Apple’s stance is simply wrong. Yes, they may be surprised in some ways, but, quite frankly, I have to side with the lawsuits on this one, and I’m torteophobic.

(Note to attorneys: Don’t come looking to me for expert testimony. You can’t afford me, though I dare you to try.)

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