I’m an early adopter so I didn’t hesitate to download and install Apple’s latest update for iPhone 4, iOS 4.0.1. There were times and places where I could replicate the iPhone 4 ‘death grip’ and get the signal bars to drop from five to three, or from four to two, and sometimes, from two to nearly zero. However, I could never grip and hold my iPhone 4 in such a way as to drop a call. This iPhone is better at holding calls on AT&T in Manhattan (where I work) and Brooklyn (where I live) than iPhone 3GS. What about iOS 4.0.1?
iPhone 3GS, AT&T, And Dropped Calls
Without question, AT&T and Apple have iPhone problems in New York City. If you can’t throw a rock and hit the cell tower, chances are good you’ve dropped calls with your iPhone, even when the signal strength on the iPhone measured five bars.
Is that AT&T’s problem? Or, Apple’s problem?
Many other areas of the country don’t seem to have the same dropped calls problem as New York, and my experience in traveling elsewhere in the US and Europe indicate AT&T’s network is the culprit. We may never know for sure.
The Problem In The Bars
Apple has admitted what I have suspected for a long time. Five bars on your iPhone’s signal strength meter doesn’t mean a 100-percent signal. In fact, it may mean as little as 20-percent signal strength, though five bars are displayed.
Why the deception?
I call it deception for two reasons. Each cell phone network wants customers to think that their network has more bars—better reception—than other networks. Cell phone makers want their customers to think that their cell phone has better reception than other cell phone makers.
Apple’s iPhone reception bars simply went along with the status quo. Five bars did not mean 100-percent signal strength. Often, it meant much less.
iPhone 4’s Superior Antenna Design
Enter Apple’s latest iPhone model and a revolutionary antenna design. Regardless of how many YouTube videos you’ve seen of the iPhone 4’s death grip which drops signal strength a few bars, nearly every user says reception is improved over previous models.
Why the discrepancy?
It’s the antenna vs. the bars vs. reception vs. dropped calls.
Let me look at a few well considered facts. First, the antenna seems to work better than iPhone models before, except during death grip videos, which clearly show signal attenuation when the iPhone 4 is held a certain way or touched a certain way.
Second, the signal strength bars are not, according to Apple and other engineers, an accurate reflection of signal strength. Five bars might mean highest possible signal strength—or not.
Third, iPhone 4 reception in the real world seems far better than previous iPhone versions, indeed, even better than most smart phones. And, finally, iPhone 4, by most accounts, experiences fewer dropped calls than iPhone predecessors.
Despite the death grip videos, strangely unscientific non-real world tests, and plenty of anecdotal evidence, Apple’s iPhone 4 antenna design is revolutionary, if not controversial.
iOS 4.0.1 for iPhone 4: Let the Test Begin
After a few hours of testing Apple’s recently released iOS 4 on my iPhone 4 I’m sure the noise surrounding Antennagate won’t go away. I downloaded iOS 4.0.1 and went through the rather rapid upgrade process. Once installed, my iPhone 4 restarted. All looked OK except there was no sound, so I restarted the iPhone. Sound returned.
First, the signal bars don’t look the same. The two lower bars don’t appear to be the correct size relative to the three larger bars. Apple said a few pixels would be added to the smaller bars to make them more visible. They’re visible but have an odd look about them.
In my office in Manhattan and at home in Brooklyn, I could regularly get four to five bars on my iPhone 4 (and, similarly on previous models). With the iOS 4.0.1 upgrade, now my iPhone gets two to three bars in the office (I suspect the same to occur at home).
If I apply the death grip to my iPhone 4 (left hand, tight grip, one hand on both sides and back), signal strength drops one, sometimes, two bars after about 10 or 20 seconds. I cannot get the call to drop, though.
What’s interesting about this iPhone 4 with iOS 4.0.1 test and results is that it mirrors exactly the tests performed on my iPhone 4 with iOS 4.0. Except, that the tests always started with four or five bars, and would drop two bars. With iOS 4.0.1, signal strength starts at two or three bars, then drops when the death grip is applied.
Also revealing about this is another test in the same office location with a work mate’s iPhone 3GS running iOS 4.0 (not the recent upgrade). Applying a similar death grip to the 3GS and twisting the iPhone into landscape mode would drop the four or five bars to two or three bars. That is what my technology friends call attenuation. Virtually all cell phones have it to some degree, depending on how the phone is held, who’s holding it, where they’re holding it, and location relative to a cell tower (and other factors, including sweaty hands).
In other words, attenuation is nothing new or special. Notably observed attenuation when a signal is supposedly strong is news, hence Apple’s iPhone Antennagate problem.
It’s time for some personal prognostication. I expect the iPhone 4’s antenna fix will come in a number of steps, the first of which is iOS 4, which presumably provides for a more accurate signal strength meter.
The second step will be free bumpers for all iPhone 4 users who want want. It may even be a specially made bumper, different from the 25-cent bumpers Apple now sells for $30. Third, Apple will liberalize the return policy. No restocking fees. Not 30 days, but 90 days, and no questions asked (how AT&T’s contract enters into this I don’t know).
Finally, Apple may already have a hardware fix in the production pipeline—some kind of coating on the antenna of new iPhones to prevent the all-too-obvious attenuation problem (which won’t go away, but will be minimized).
Two other scenarios are also possible. First, a total product recall. Apple may take time to do it, but over the next few months, all iPhone users who experience a problem can bring their phones back for a replacement. That’s unlikely, but it’s possible. Secondly, maybe Apple has developed a small strip of material (pretty duct tape) that can be added to the antenna to reduce attenuation.
Despite New York Senator Charles Schumer’s obvious grandstanding letter to Steve Jobs (I voted for Schumer, and I am so sorry—the choices are limited), and Consumer Reports equally grandstanding event (it’s the best smart phone but we don’t recommend it), iPhone 4 customers are not exactly lining up to return their phones.
Why? Most iPhone customers agree on one thing: It’s the best smart phone available.