Resolving the iPhone 4 Antenna Problem

Late last week, Steve Jobs cut his Hawaiian vacation short so that he could respond to iPhone 4 reception concerns with a press conference. The takeaway seems to be that most smartphones suffer degraded network performance when held in specific ways, but the issue is overblown in real world usage. Yet, to overcome the iPhone’s particular deficiency and because Apple really cares about their customers (except those who write for Gizmodo), they’ll provide bumpers or cases free of charge to any who purchase an iPhone 4 prior to September, 30th.

What’s significant about September 30th, you ask? According to Jobs“we’ll reevaluate then. Maybe we’ll have a better idea.” To assist Apple’s 18 PhDs in their 17 anechoic chambers totalling $100 million, I’m doing my part by Photoshopping together a trio of antenna design options above.

And from the Michael Jackson “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” (aka “No Glove, No AT&T Love”) collection, instead of accessorizing the current iPhone 4 with a case for improved reception, perhaps we should accessorize ourselves… with some anti-attenuating handware.

12 thoughts on “Resolving the iPhone 4 Antenna Problem”

  1. Of course this post is mostly tongue-in-cheek, and I do suspect the issue is overblown (yet very real). In my limited time with some iPhone 4s at multiple locations, anecdotal evidence has suggested improved reception – although I didn’t monitor how I held the handsets and didn’t make any voice calls.

    I will say that on the iPhone/AT&T platform (1st gen, 3GS), I’ve had more dropped calls and more calls that couldn’t be completed than should be acceptable and more than I’ve experienced on any other phone/carrier combo. Perhaps one day I’ll have the courage to make a permanent mobile platform change.

  2. I think the issue is somewhat overblown but my biggest disappointment in Apple is their avoidance of any kind of acknowledgement that there is an issue unique to the iPhone 4. First they said it was merely a visual or calculation issue. Now, they’ve made comparisons to other phones… all of which require you to hold the phone in ridiculous ways that are unnatural to holding the phone to your ear and STILL will not cause you to drop calls. I thought that was a fairly petty diversion.

    They should just be open and say “we’ve thoroughly tested our new antenna design and are confident in it’s ability to provide a better signal that the iPhone 3GS. At this point we are investigating whether this is a hardware defect or a coverage issue impacting a small amount of ours and AT&T’s customers. We ask that anyone who has antenna issues exchange their device so that we can test it…” or something along those lines.

  3. Honestly I agree with Fernando. This is way overblown. I dont think Apple really feels this was a problem with design in the first place. They understood the physics issue and the potential challenge, but chose to move forward on a compelling design in lieu of that. Like Steve Jobs said in the presser. They knew the antenna could have attenuation if the iPhone was held in a certain way (just like all phones). Bridging at the seam of the two antenna’s in this case. I think now that Steve and Apple have experienced the reaction that have received they are hell bent on making sure they resolve the physics challenge and patent the solution so they can put this behind them and prove all the naysayers wrong.

    I bought my iPhone knowing about this anyway and while I can make it drop two bars when I bridge the antenna it has not dropped a call or data when browsing. If I had to weigh this against having another design like what is on the market right now from other companies (i.e. Blackberry, Android) I would keep it regardless and buy it again. It’s industrial design, integration and usability is unmatched. Plus it doesn’t feel like your putting a brick in your pocket.

  4. “and I do suspect the issue is overblown (yet very real)”

    There are two things going on here:

    First, Apple has been building up so much bad karma over the past year that any tiny seed at all would crystalize a heavy thunderstorm.

    Second, Apple’s initial reaction to the issue was so tone-deaf that it makes one wonder if they hired the BP staff to do their PR. The infamous memo to all the Genius Bar staff telling them not to “appease customers” with free bumpers was my favorite part. They’re making $450 per phone, and they wanted to quibble over bumpers that cost them $1?

    The whole thing has played out in a way that makes the Dan Lyons schtick seem more reporting and less parody.


    For me, the iPhone 4 antenna is the same basic concept as the painfully sharp edges on the MacBook Pros. Apple’s first concern by a large margin is how the stuff looks in the Apple Store. How happy customers will be with their gear over time is merely a secondary concern.

  5. Apple could make a very simple change to the iPhone 4 design which would pretty much eliminate the problem.

    The problem is that they put the gap between the two antenna at the spot where people naturally cradle the phone. Simply moving the bottom left gap to the top or bottom of the phone would virtually eliminate the problem while leaving the external antennas the same length. The other gap can be put anywhere since from what I’ve read bridging that gap actually improves wireless and bluetooth performance.

    Can I have my consulting fee now Apple?

  6. Chucky, Apple has long considered usability when others haven’t. Yet, I agree, sometimes beautiful design has trumped function. Years and years of ergonomically-challenged mouse design (including no right click for a long time) is my usual example.

    Morac, yeah I was thinking similar. Somehow rotate that portion of the antenna to the top. Or just use the HTC PPC 6700 antenna nub, above right. ;)

    Interesting antenna trivia from a random CES concert venue conversation a couple years back … The Zing folks (acquired by Dell, and then euthanized) used oversized nubs on the top of some of their WiFi and satellite music devices to suggest or emphasize wireless connectivity… even though the antenna didn’t really need or claim the entire space. I forget which model specifically, but was told one didn’t actually have anything at all in the plastic extension.

  7. This is overblown. It’s not that big of a deal on my iphone4. I don’t hold it that way (death grip) anyway. I have a case that I already paid for and won’t get any credit (3rd party case from Amazon).

    The bigger problem is the proximity sensor. You need to use a bluetooth earpiece with this phone, because your cheek will push all kinds of buttons, like speakerphone, mute, or hang up. That’s the worst.

  8. “Apple has long considered usability when others haven’t. Yet, I agree, sometimes beautiful design has trumped function. “

    I’ve owned nothing but Apple computers for close to two decades (with Windows emulation for edge case situations). Apple’s software usability has been of a magnitude greater than the competition, and so that’s where I go.

    On the mobile front, iOS’s software usability is again of a magnitude greater than the competition. (I use a VZW phone cuz I care about my phone calls, but I do love my iPod Touch.)

    On the other hand, Apple’s hardware situation has always been sticky because of the single vendor situation. But Apple has always tried to be reasonable and ethical about hardware usability. They’ve understood their customers are in a single vendor situation, and they’ve been willing to “appease customers” in their design choices.

    That all changed a couple of years ago. Sometime around Steve-o’s transplant, or around the time Apple Officially Took Over the World™ with the iPhone, that all changed.

    It started with removing the $3 Firewire port from the entry-level MacBook, knowing that would force folks to spend an extra $200 to get any kind of disk Target Mode. That’s a choice that the Apple of 1985 – 2005 never would have made.

    Since then, there have been all kinds of “don’t appease customers” hardware moves like the iPhone 4 antenna and the MBP sharp edges. If it’s OK for 75% of customers and it looks better in the store, then the New Apple goes with how it looks in the store over “appeasing customers”.

    In short, Apple’s hardware design has become capricious and somewhat sadistic and unethical over the past couple of years.

    I mean, seriously, Steve uses his MBP on desk, so no one is allowed to use a MBP on their lap without sanding down the edges. And the internal reasoning was the same as with the iPhone 4 antenna: Steve learned how to not hold it that way, so just don’t hold it that way.

    “Years and years of ergonomically-challenged mouse design (including no right click for a long time) is my usual example.”

    See, IMHO, that particular example was never a problem. There were always shareware mouse extensions to handle real mice in the olden pre-NeXT days, and real mouse support has been built into the OS for a decade now. You just had to spend the $20 on buying a good third-party mouse. The OS could see it and use its functions.

    But stuff like the MBP sharp edges and the iPhone 4 antenna have no good workarounds. Other than “don’t hold it that way”, you’re left with an ungainly bumper that you have to unskin and re-skin every time you dock the iPhone, and sanding down aluminum and worrying about your warranty in the other situation.

  9. Some thoughts:

    I was in the same camp as everyone else after hearing the press conference, thinking this was way overblown. However, here’s an interesting read on Slate on how the numbers were selectively presented and the problem may be a little more serious than Apple would lead us to believe.
    So, at this point I think it’s just a little overblown maybe not WAY overblown.

    I do agree that Apple’s success has brought them far more scrutiny than most other tech companies. However, Steve should have taken the high road as others have stated.

    As a side note, after watching my press conference, I did notice that my Blackberry Curve has a nice rubber protector around its border which should prevent the antenna problem.

  10. I am planning to buy Iphone 4 maybe in the next week or so.

    I am only fearing that they come up with a new design after 30th September.

    Plus I will be using it in Saudi Arabia where i know they don’t offer micro sims as yet.

    I will be buying a Zagg skin anyway if I go for It!

  11. It needs to be pointed out that Michael Jackson repeatedly used the “Death Grip” on his genitals…..Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  12. Seriously overcovered, if a real issue. Don’t care about it personally–I’ve always put my iPhone in a case so it won’t break if I drop it, and I don’t like the weird feel of the glass back in my hand, so I’ve got my iPhone 4 in an iFrogz case.

    My personal experience is I’m not dropping calls where the iPhone 3GS always did on my commute, and I’m getting better data performance as well.

    My only real concern at this point is WHY the iPhone 4 in Apple/AT&T’s own analysis drops MORE calls than the 3GS when I think it should be dropping LESS. Sure that whole cases not available thing might be it, but still… it does bother me.

    Given that different people hold the phone in different ways the obvious way to handle the issue would be to have two or more alternate antenna segments to switch between. Assuming you can come up with enough real estate.

    Seems more likely they’ll just powder coat the thing or something in the next go round.

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