Evaluating Apple’s iPhone 4 Open Letter

| Editorial

Apple has provided what it claims is the correct technical answer to alleged reception problems with the iPhone 4. We have to believe that Apple wouldn’t vastly underestimate the technical resources and abilities of the customer base to evaluate that proposed fix.

As I mentioned yesterday, Apple has been about the business of trying to understand, from a sound engineering standpoint, the issues related to the iPhone 4 antenna system, how it operates, and the effects of holding the phone in certain ways, with and without pressure. On Friday, Apple announced that it had discovered the problem and “will issue a free software update within a few weeks…”

We have to take Apple at face value on this because Apple’s reputation as well as the iPhone 4’s reputation are at stake. Plaintiffs in class action lawsuits related to the matter could well force Apple to prove in court that their solution is valid. That could come after another even more scrutinized period of antenna and performance testing by the community, volunteer scientists, independent labs, and technically savvy customers.

So far, the testing has revolved around the display of the number of bars in the iPhone 4 vs. the way in which the phone is held or squeezed. That could very well be an acoustic-electrical interaction with the antenna and its subsystem that has nothing to do with the actual ability of the phone to make calls and could explain why some people just don’t notice a problem. There could be other factors.

I’m not an antenna engineer, just a former physicist, and I can think of simple simple tests to evaluate Apple’s claim.

1. Lay the iPhone 4 on a table. Attach a headset. Make a call. Estimate the call quality. Then pick up the phone, squeezing it, to see how the signal bars change. But also determine if the call is dropped or if the call quality changes. I haven’t heard about any testing like that.

2. Test with a 3G Microcell. By any standard of smartphone design, the iPhone 4 should show five bars when only a meter away from a 3G Microcell. If, after the Apple software fix, the bars drop from five to three, then questions are raised.

These are just informal tests that pale compared to what, I suspect, Apple iPhone engineers have been through in the past few weeks, but it does demonstrate that imaginative and technical people will, in due course, test Apple’s claim that the company has found the problem. Apple has a lot at stake here, and we can only surmise that they’ve arrived at a correct technical understanding of the problem.

Here will be the metric. If, after the software fix, (and even before) the iPhone 4, in actual call performance, is substantially the same as any other modern smartphone, in call performance and dropped calls, independent of the bars displayed, then Apple has nothing to worry about. The weight of the evidence, from what I’ve read so far, is that that’s the case. However, if it can be scientifically demonstrated that the iPhone’s antenna design remains defective and is at a disadvantage compared to competing products, then Apple’s troubles will hardly be over.

A lesson here is that these devices are complex and designed by experts, some Ph.Ds, in physics, solid state electronics, radio and antenna technology, and so on. Misunderstandings can become pervasive, fanned by the press, when not enough technical expertise is brought to bear. Apple, unlike the press, has the resources to tackle such problems, and while its assertions will be severely tested, we can probably rest assured that the whole matter will blow over now.

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Comments

geoduck

we can probably rest assured that the whole matter will blow over

Until the Yapping Class finds something else to have a fit about.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

John, You frame it as a physics issue. It’s really a customer support issue. And so far as the physics issue goes… Proximity of the hand relative to the antenna is not the whole problem. Touching a particular exposed area is the key element of the problem. Stick a bumper on the device and that problem goes away for many who experience it. Stick a piece of Scotch tape on it, and it goes away!

Even Gruber is mocking them today, because he understands that this isn’t about physics, it’s about the attempt to wash over a problem with a press release written in 100% pure corporate speak.

John Martellaro

Bosco. As I said, if Apple foolishly underestimates the technical capabilities of the user community to prove Apple’s explanation wrong, there will be hell to pay.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Fair enough. But when there are a few dozen YouTube videos showing the gap being used as a “drop my call now” button, the physics and the software don’t matter much grin.

I understand the narrative Apple is trying to push here, and logically, it makes sense. Apple could even extend the narrative to say that the external antenna is specifically what gives them better overall reception. But a totally correct narrative does not change the fact that many people have observed that insulating the gap fixes the particular problem.

Physics aside, what Apple has truly underestimated is the market’s ability to grab this chain and yank it mercilessly. They cannot deny the chain exists while everyone is lining up to pull it. They need to take the chain away. With the product in the wild to the tune of almost 2 million units, effective, responsive, and understanding customer service is the only way to do that.

warlock

I suppose that I am one of the lucky ones because in my home I have great reception, so I tried to see the problem for myself.  What I found was a visual loss of bars but I in no way had a real loss of signal or sound quality as I made a call with no bars at all.  The person I was talking to also did not notice any drop in call quality, so I suspect that this will become only a tempest in a tea pot.  I however have already gone to Radio Shack & bought a very nice soft case for under $20, that covers the back & sides that fits perfect.
I am one who never carries a cell phone without a cover as I hate scratched cases.

Lee Dronick

so I suspect that this will become only a tempest in a tea pot.

The problem is that the talking heads on the TV news are spinning up the tempest with a lot of misinformation and/or incomplete reporting.

SALAM

Im just too bored of seeing lower-left-corner-finger antenna iP4 exsorism smile

If deffective software was the cause, Apple’s scenario isn’t impossible: API said “low signal” (but physically still good enough to make call) so phone decided: there is no signal to make a call, hanging up now…

OOP and MVC principles

Signal strength evaluation(/presentation) can very well affect your calling experience. There is nothing unbelievable, pretty possible to me…

Time and SW uptate will tell…

Good Luck APPLE, Good Luck owners

ctopher

I was convinced that it was a design flaw when I heard it on NPR

A design flaw is not criminal. It’s just a flaw.

Peter

What I found was a visual loss of bars but I in no way had a real loss of signal or sound quality as I made a call with no bars at all.

And this is the important part.

So I’m thinking of buying an iPhone 4 when I hear about this antenna problem.  I’m directed to go view a YouTube video which shows the problem.  In the video, I have an iPhone 4 showing five bars.  Somebody grabs the lower left portion of the phone and suddenly it drops to 2 bars.

“So if I hold the phone wrong, I lose 60% of my reception?!  Not good, Apple.  I think I’ll go buy that Droid X,” I say to myself.

This doesn’t mean my call won’t go through with 2 bars.  But it looks like it.

At the moment, the meter is showing five bars when you don’t really have five bars.  Maybe you only have three bars.  So you grab the lower-left corner of death and—*doink*—you no longer have enough signal.  But the phone might still say you have two bars.

Again, this doesn’t solve the problem:  If you have weak reception, holding your phone in the lower-left will not improve it.  What this will do is manage expectations better, so that you’ll have a better idea of what your reception abilities really are.

Ideally, this will get rid of the “My phone says I have five bars—why do my calls get dropped?”

kevinlane

All this talk about bars - and not one person has come forward with an example of an actual dropped call.  Not saying it couldn’t (or hasn’t) happened.  I am amazed at how I can sometimes make a call with only one or even no bars. 

When you are as successful at something as Apple is, the media will look for anything they can use to bring you down.

Garion

All this talk about bars - and not one person has come forward with an example of an actual dropped call.

There are plenty of video demonstrations of the iPhone 4 dropping calls as a result of “the death grip”.

Here’s one: http://www.insanely-great.com/news.php?id=11149

Gators Fan

I’ve had my iPhone 4 since 6/24. Out of over >200 calls, >50 text messages, and >35 e-mails, no problems whatsoever. I have yet to buy a bumper or a case. I am right-handed, ergo I hold the phone in my left hand and type with my right. If I apply the “Klingon death grip,” the bars decrease but the phone still functions just fine. Then again, the bars fluctuate when I drive around town and pass through weak signal areas. Still, even with only one bar, my calls come in and go out just fine. Put me down as -so far- a happy customer.

Tardis

Anyone remember when mobile phones had an antenna that stuck out?

Sometimes you could “extend” them to increase signal strength. That increased reception by maybe 5%. If you read the Anandtech report, bridging the antennas causes about the same amount of signal loss, and the REAL problem is that with the way signal strength is shown on the iPhone by 5 bars, that 5% loss looks like 2 or 3 bars down. You can still make phone calls.

Anyone want to go back to using a phone with an antenna that sticks out and you have to extend it to get the extra coverage? Didn’t think so, that is why Apple has sold about 2 million iPhone 4’s and 1.99 million of those buyers don’t give a sh*t about this whole overblown blog story.

Tardis

All of this discussion depends on whether your phone is getting a good signal in the first place. I have heard the AT&T has had problems, but its network always showed up on my iPhone on a recent trip to the US.

Here in Japan I almost always see 5 bars, and have not been able to reduce that by holding the phone differently or placing it anywhere I could still see the signal strength.

One thing I was surprised to discover recently was mobile phone calls persisting when you stepped into an elevator. Before, they always dropped in my building, Recently, I have found that the calls do not drop, but you lose the voice. When you step out f the elevator you can carry on talking.

Pashtun Wally

Whether this will ‘fix’ the ‘problem’ across the board is doubtful, but it seems a necessary first step toward a solution.  If the issue is in fact a buggered step in the manufacturing process (ie, coating the antenna) then recalibrating the bars will help clarify the situation.

The professionally hysterical class will of course carry on w/ TEH OMG OUTRAGEZ!!!1

Now, over to Bosco for a report on what the ridiculously ignorant think:

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