Antenna Issues Irk Some iPhone 4 Users

Some customers that purchased Apple’s new iPhone 4 on Thursday have been complaining about an issue called the iPhone Death Grip where holding the device in a certain way negatively impacts cell signal reception. In some cases, people have been able to at least partially kill their cell signal reception by holding their iPhone 4 so that part of their hand contacts both antenna pieces in the lower left corner of the device.

In response to the potential issue, Apple stated “Gripping any mobile phone will result in some attenuation of its antenna performance, with certain places being worse than others depending on the placement of the antennas. This is a fact of life for every wireless phone.”

Apple’s advice to customers that experience the problem, according to Engadget, is “If you ever experience this on your iPhone 4, avoid gripping it in the lower left corner in a way that covers both sides of the black strip in the metal band, or simply use one of many available cases.”

While the issue certainly exists for at least some iPhone 4 owners, and could potentially be a problem for users that hold their phone in their left hand, TMO hasn’t been able to reproduce the problem on our test phones.

Despite the notion that the iPhone is the only smartphone to have reception issues when held in a certain way, other phones can exhibit the same behavior, too, including Google’s Nexus One.

Black bands separate antenna sections

In the case of the iPhone 4, the metal band that runs around the outside of the case also makes up the antenna array. The black bands that break up the metal edge separate the antenna structures, so bridging two sections with something conductive like your skin could potentially create some interference that impacts cell signal reception.

“The iPhone 4 has two symmetrical slots in the stainless frame.  If you short these slots, or cover them with your hand, the antenna performance will suffer,” said AntennaSys cell phone antenna designer, Spencer Webb. “There is no way around this, it’s a design compromise that is forced by the requirements of the FCC, AT&T, Apple’s marketing department and Apple’s industrial designers, to name a few.”

Using a case that covers the antenna structure will help reduce signal degradation, although obscuring the antennas with your hand will potentially reduce signal strength, too. That, in part, is a side effect of government requirements.

“When the FCC [antenna radiation] tests are run, the head is required to be in the vicinity of the phone. But, the hand is not,” Mr. Web said. “So, naturally, the design evolved to meet requirements — and efficient transmission and reception while being held by a human hand are simply not design requirements!”

iPhone 4 signal loss demonstration

The end result is that most any cell phone that packs antennas into its body — which includes pretty much every block-shaped mobile phone — can suffer some level of signal degradation when held in your hand.

Since the iPhone 4 is a high profile device, the media picked up on the user complaints almost immediately, along with Steve Jobs’s flippant response of “Just avoid holding it that way” to a customer email for help. While his advice might be accurate, the delivery stung at least a little.

The solution for the iPhone 4, as well as any other similarly shaped mobile phone, is to avoid holding it in such a way that signal reception is hampered. For iPhone 4 users that are experiencing problems, a case that keeps your hand off of the antennas, or even a strip of electrical tape, will likely do the trick.

Some changes to the way the FCC and cell service providers conduct their tests couldn’t hurt, either.