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iPhone 4 (Non) Issues

June 25th, 2010

Two major issues seemed to come up about the iPhone 4, and then became just as quickly resolved. First, many users were noticing screen discoloration–uh oh, the iMac 27“ fiasco all over again? No, it turns out the iPhones were simply too fresh–the coloration was a bonding agent in the glass that shows while the agent is not fully dry; the coloration disappears within a few days.

Then there were reports of signal loss when holding the iPhone in a certain way. And while this was found to be true enough, it turns out that it’s simply the way many cell phones are, not just the iPhone, and can be solved either by using a bumper case or not holding the iPhone in a particular way.

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  1. June 25th, 2010 at 16:23 | #1

    The color thing, since it goes away and doesn’t affect the functionality of the phone, is no big deal.

    The dropping signal thing is a VERY big deal. One of the knocks against the iPhone is that it’s an extremely cool device in a many ways… but as a PHONE, it’s kind of mediocre.

    I’d agree with that assessment. I love my iPhone- ordered an iPhone 4 to replace my iPhone 3G- but the reality is that it drops calls (which could also be attributable to AT&T’s network) and doesn’t function as a phone as well as I’d expect.

    It doesn’t get loud enough for some situations compared with other phones; the voice pickup doesn’t screen out quite enough background noise at times; and the sound quality can be low. A lot of people hate the speakerphone, but I don’t knock it too much for that; most smaller devices like this have a hard time functioning very well as a speakerphone, simply due to power and size considerations.

    But if your phone drops calls [b]simply because you are holding it[/b]… well, that’s ridiculous. That’s terrible product design. And it almost makes me wonder if that’s why Apple is selling the “bumper” for the edges of the phone.

    I’m not happy about this potential problem. I had really hoped that the iPhone 4 would be non-slippery enough, and tough enough, that I could use it without a case. (I’m a huge fan of Incase’s grippy rubberish cases for my previous iPhone.) That would make it slimmer than the present phone, which is just a wee bit bigger than I’d care for.

    Putting a rubber case or bumper on it would obviously kill the problem (which is no doubt due to the fact that the human body is conductive and if you’re touching two sections of the antenna at the same time, you’re attenuating the signal) because it would serve as an insulator for the conductivity of your skin.

    But if that trashes the form factor of the phone, that stinks.

    And having to hold your phone a different way, or change its size because otherwise you’ll lose your phone calls… that’s just terrible product design.

    Apple’s answer feels very arrogant, too. Yes, they continue to put out some amazingly cool devices- but to tell someone “yeah, phones just drop calls” is stupid and demeaning to the customer.

  2. Luis
    June 25th, 2010 at 16:57 | #2

    Hmm. This is where my idiosyncrasies play into my assessment: I don’t use my iPhone as a cell phone much. Also, I live in Japan, and the SoftBank signal is strong enough most places that this would not be a problem for me. I hear that the 3G had similar issues, but not so notable, and that other cell phones on the market have similar issues. I guess the importance of the issue will be in how much signal is lost, how easily and often, and what the signal is like to begin with where you are. It is possible that Apple simply made some trade-offs in design and function–that the antenna maximizes signal strength, but at the cost of losing some of that signal when held wrong. Apple might have added a rubber coating along the sides to keep the signal from being interfered with, but that might have interfered with the aesthetics.

    It might just be the case that you can’t have everything: if the antenna is recessed or covered, you might lose signal strength and it might look worse, but by having it this way, you get good looks and better reception, but at the cost of having to be careful where you hold it.

    However, I think you’ve hot on something with the bumpers–not just because of the antenna problem, but because the iPhones now have glass on both sides, and it has been found that dropping it on a hard surface in just the right way will cause the glass to shatter in a way that will require replacing the whole phone.

    I have never used a case/bumpers because I have never had much trouble holding on to the phone, and because the rubbery ones make it next to impossible to fish the phone out of my pocket–I hate that. But with the iPhone 4, I might reconsider, aesthetics or no aesthetics.

  3. June 26th, 2010 at 20:11 | #3

    A superb blog from an antenna engineer about this issue.


    One thing that I think he doesn’t really cover is whether or not the bottom metal part of the phone is actually part of the antenna itself- which I think would make a big difference. But he does a good job of explaining the tradeoffs that a cell phone designer has to take into account.

    I still maintain that if you can kill the signal simply from touching the phone (and plenty of videos online show exactly that- some don’t even appear to be touching the lower-left-corner that lots of people are saying is the trouble spot) you’ve made at least one too many tradeoffs.

    But you’re right about one thing, Luis- in an urban setting, signal strength is much easier to keep strong, because you’re always so close to a cell location.

  4. Luis
    June 27th, 2010 at 09:38 | #4

    Apple Insider is reporting that the touch/reception problem can be eliminated with a software fix, which Apple is working on and may release in a week or so:

    The fix is expected to address a issue in iOS 4 related to radio frequency calibration of the baseband. Readers who saw the original forum discussions say that the issue is believed to occur when switching frequencies; because the lag is allegedly not calibrated correctly, it results in the device reporting “no service” rather than switching to the frequency with the best signal to noise ratio.

    Let’s hope that’s the case; too many people are reporting rather significant difficulties with this–though others recall that the 3G had similar issues, also solved with an OS update.

  5. July 3rd, 2010 at 16:20 | #5

    Apple is blowing sunshine up people’s butts with that explanation.

    There’s been some developments among bloggers on this. There’s the excellent guide by the AntennaSys guy that I linked to above, and here’s a quote from his latest blog entry where he discusses Apple’s “gosh, we had no idea, it’s just a software problem” statement:

    “My opinion is that it’s good that Apple is conforming to a standard. Beyond that…. it’s spin.”

    There’s a terrific writeup at a blog called AnandTech. He even gets into the whole “signal bars” thing. It’s definitely worth the read for anyone who’s interested in this stuff:


    His conclusion is basically that the bar indicators were messed up (which he published BEFORE Apple came out with a statement saying the same thing) and that the best way to deal with the issue is to use the bumper, because it’s not the “covering up the little slit” that’s the problem, it’s the fact that your skin is conductive and when you bridge from the lower antenna to the upper one, you’re screwing up the physics of the thing.

    He notes that when you are NOT touching the thing “incorrectly” that in some ways, the iPhone 4 performs better than previous versions.

    My belief is that it’s a little bit of all of this. I think that the bar indicator software problem is a true one, but simply “fixing” that doesn’t solve all of the problems.

    I also think that Apple coming out with this “bumper” as the only case for the new phone is very telling. I think that they knew that people holding the phone in certain ways and conditions might lead to lost signals, and I think they decided to hope nobody would notice (as if the fanboys and geeks wouldn’t notice- dropped calls is one of the biggest bitches people have with the iPhone/AT&T combo here in the USA).

    And ultimately I think they’re still going to sell a boatload of these things. Or, more properly, planeloads- mine is sitting on Lantau Island in Hong Kong, which is where the HK airport is now. (Great airport, by the way, even if it is a bit out of the way from downtown- the transit connections are excellent and reasonably priced.)

  6. Luis
    July 5th, 2010 at 10:34 | #6

    One thing that came out clear from Apple’s attempted explanation was that if it really was just a matter of how the bars were displayed, then why are calls getting dropped? That can only be accounted for by signal loss. Even Consumer Reports, however, have written that the problem is not as serious as it is sometimes reported to be–that many phones have this issue and that often, to get the bar drop, you have to not only grip the phone in a specific way, but you have to grip hard as well.

    I just got a new case for other reasons, so it won’t affect me for that reason as well.

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