What’s up with the iPhone 4’s antenna? Unless you’ve been traveling abroad and don’t have internet access, you’ve likely heard of Apple’s iPhone 4 and the antenna problem from the so-called death grip. Some owners of Apple’s hottest selling product ever are able to grip the iPhone a certain way, and under certain conditions. and in certain locations, and depending on signal strength, the signal strength bars can drop. I’ve watched this saga unfold over the past few weeks and compiled a Frequently Asked Questions (and answers) list to guide iPhone 4 customers and potential buyers through all the misinformation on web sites and television news.
I’m convinced we live in, not the information age, but in the age of misinformation. Headlines are twisted and distorted beyond reality in an attempt by media outlets and web sites to gain viewers and readers in an ever competitive information landscape. Sorting through the twisted landscape and hysteria to find factual information is a challenge.
iPhone 4 Frequently Asked Questions
In this simple FAQ format is my investigation of the iPhone 4’s Antennagate.
Q: What is the iPhone 4 antenna problem?
A: There is no problem. As with nearly all modern smart phones, the iPhone 4, when held a certain way, will reduce reception. That is called attenuation. To one degree or another, similar attenuation (drop in signal reception) affects all popular smart phones.
Q: If it’s not a problem, then what is the so-called “death grip?”
A: The “death grip” refers to how smart phones are held and what happens in certain conditions. In general, the signal reception bars will drop sufficiently to lose a call or connection.
Q: Why did Apple issue a fix if there’s no problem?
A: Apple recently released iOS 4.0.1 for iPhones which resolved a few bugs, and, importantly changed the way the iPhone’s signal bar strength is displayed to more accurately reflect actual signal strength. There is no “fix”. Attenuation is physics. Signal reception can be improved a number of ways.
Q: Are smart phones not showing signal strength accurately?
A: Cell phone manufacturers use different algorithms to display signal reception strength. In general, the signal strength meter is not reflective of actual signal strength. For example, full signal strength (usually four or five bars) could mean anything from 30-percent signal reception strength (measured in decibels) to 100-percent. The fewer the bars, the lower the signal reception strength.
Q: Why don’t cell phone manufacturers use the same algorithm to display signal strength?
A: It’s a very competitive industry. Cell phone manufacturers want their phone’s reception capability to look better than the competition. Cell phone carriers want their networks to appear to have better reception. More bars looks better.
Q: Why don’t cell phone makers have an option to display signal strength in decibels (dBm) instead of bars?
A: Decibel measurement isn’t easy to understand for the vast majority of the world’s billions of cell phone users. Bars are easier. Signal strength measured in decibels is still subject to many variances, including how the phone is held, location of the phone, network tower locations, buildings, and many other factors. Precise accuracy is difficult to obtain, and may vary substantially person to person.
Q: Isn’t iPhone 4’s exterior antenna design unique?
A: Yes. The band around the phone is the cell phone antenna (actually, one of a number of antennas). Touching the antenna will cause attenuation (drop in signal reception). However, the antenna design is also large and exposed, which increases reception capability. In general, signal reception on the iPhone 4 is an improvement over previous designs.
Q: Could the iPhone 4’s external antenna design be the cause of some reported reception problems?
A: Most of what has been reported is a drop in signal strength by the number of visible bars, as opposed to an actual reception problem which resulted in dropped calls or lost connections. Most iPhone 4 customers report improved reception vs. previous models. Data from AT&T indicates iPhone 4’s dropped calls are virtually identical to the iPhone 3GS.
Q: Would a case improve iPhone 4 reception?
A: Yes. A case will reduce attenuation and improve reception by moving the hand away from the cell phone’s antenna. This is true of all popular smart phones. The amount of the reception improvement will vary depending on the phone, the user, location, and many other factors.
Q: If there is not an antenna or reception problem with the iPhone 4, why is Apple giving customers a free case?
A: Customers are confused over the misinformation on television and on web sites. Apple wants customers to be satisfied with the iPhone 4, and a case will reduce attenuation and improve reception.
Q: Do most iPhone users have a case?
A: Apple says approximately 80-percent of iPhone buyers (3G and 3GS) buy a case at the time of purchase. The iPhone 4’s case design is different, which requires a new case. Apple estimates about 20-percent of iPhone 4 customers have purchased a case. That difference may also account for the similar number of actual dropped calls between iPhone 3GS users and iPhone 4 users, despite the latter’s improved antenna design.
Q: Does the antenna “death grip” apply to other smart phones?
A: Yes. Apple’s web site has videos of similar attenuation problems (reception drops) with Android smart phones, BlackBerry smart phones, and other popular smart phones running on both AT&T and Verizon’s networks. YouTube has dozens of death grip videos for many other popular smart phones. All smart phones suffer attenuation when held (in varying degrees and under varying conditions). Go to YouTube’s site and search for “blackberry death grip” (or Nokia, or Windows Mobile, or Samsung, or Android) to see videos of similar attenuation problems.
Q: Why has there been so much media coverage about iPhone 4’s antenna and reception?
A: Traditional news media and technology web sites feed on controversy and conflict, real or made up, to increase readership to their shows, newspapers, and web sites. This phenomenon occurs regularly even where a seemingly unimportant news topic generates days or weeks of controversy (Anna Nicole Smith’s death is a good example). The line between factual news reporting and opinion becomes blurred, indistinguishable.
Q: Why don’t other smart phone makers admit their phones have a “death grip” attenuation problem?
A: Some smart phone makers actually warn users (in manuals and on web site pages) where not to hold (and describe where to hold) their phones to avoid attenuation. Handheld attenuation is a common problem with all smart phone manufacturers.
Q: Do other smart phone manufacturer’s dispute Apple’s claims of common attenuation problems?
A: No. BlackBerry maker RIM stated that it was “unacceptable” that Apple disclosed BlackBerry attenuation problems. Nokia poked fun at Apple’s Antennagate and said Nokia devices could be held any way a user wants—until users pointed out Nokia recommendations on how to hold a smart phone to reduce attenuation, and dozens of YouTube videos surfaced which showed visible signal reception bars similar to the examples provided by Apple. Android smart phone maker HTC said their complaints over cell phone reception were a fraction of Apple’s (.016 percent vs. .55 percent). However, HTC manufactures smart phones for a number of cell phone carriers, who have not shared their reception complaint numbers.
Q: What are some other facts I should know about Apple’s so-called Antennagate problem with the iPhone 4?
A: Most of these facts are not in dispute.
- Apple sold over 3-million iPhone 4s in the first three weeks after launch.
- The iPhone 4 return rate is less than one-third the return rate of the iPhone 3GS, which was also less than the industry standard for smart phones.
- AT&T data indicates that the iPhone 4’s dropped call rate is virtually identical to that of the iPhone 3GS.
- iPhone 4’s unique external antenna design provides improved reception (external antennas were popular on cell phones up until a few years ago) over iPhone 3GS.
- All popular smart phones experience similar death grip attenuation when held a certain way and in certain conditions.
Q: Anything else I should know about Antennagate and iPhone 4?
A: I live in Brooklyn, NY and work in Manhattan—two metropolitan areas with notoriously poor AT&T reception. My iPhone 4’s reception is notably better than my iPhone 3GS. My iPhone 4 drops fewer calls. The signal bar reception meter in the iPhone 4 (with iOS 4.0.1) is more accurate, and fluctuates more rapidly to reflect changing signal reception strength.
Just as in the Apple Antenna Videos, depending on location and other factors, sometimes I can apply a so-called death grip and signal reception is reduced. Sometimes not. My friends and family can now perform a similar death grip on their BlackBerry’s, Androids, Nokias, and other smart phones. Such death grip attenuation is not unique to the iPhone 4, though how much the signal is reduced will depend on many factors.
As always, your experience may vary as conditions vary. Apple has stated that there is no problem other than what is inherent to all cell phones. Data seems to corroborate Apple’s stance. Increasingly, anecdotal evidence indicates most popular smart phones suffer from similar hand held attenuation.