Thursday, July 15, 2010

Apple’s iPhone 4 Antenna Problem

AppleLogoA few weeks back, I wrote a mostly positive review of Apple’s new iPhone operating system, iOS 4. This review was based on my experience with my trusty iPhone 3GS, which in the year-or-so since I’ve owned it has yet to disappoint me too seriously.

I might be singing a different tune if I had purchased a new iPhone 4. While sales were astronomically high and reviews have generally been positive, criticism of the phone reached a fever pitch this week when review publication Consumer Reports confirmed via independent testing what forum posts and enthusiast reviews had suggested – a design flaw in the iPhone 4’s antenna can interfere with the signal, causing even more loss of service and dropped calls than AT&T’s lackluster cellular coverage already causes by itself.

Read on for a more in-depth look at just what the problem is, and what Apple needs to do to make things right.

dd3v33sr_169ch3mkvf8_bThe problem is one of design, which isn’t surprising for a company that so favors form over function – the metal rim of the iPhone 4 is also the phone’s antennae, of which there are two – one for AT&T’s cellular signal, and one for Wi-Fi and bluetooth. While this saves space and, in theory, removes interference that you’d get from placing the antenna within the phone’s casing, it’s also completely uninsulated. When you hold the phone in a particular way, your skin can actually bridge the gap between the two antennae, connecting them and throwing them off.

Had the complaining remained confined to the message boards, I’d be ready to dismiss it as one of the normal problems that early adopters have – their eagerness to pick up new devices always makes them forget how terrible new devices always are at first. However, thorough testing by tech enthusiast sites (see Anandtech’s in-depth review for a truly comprehensive look) and the aforementioned Consumer Reports piece have confirmed that Apple does indeed have a problem on its hands.

Apple has responded to the problem officially, but their theory is that it is a software issue. From their statement:

“Upon investigation, we were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong. Our formula, in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength. For example, we sometimes display 4 bars when we should be displaying as few as 2 bars. Users observing a drop of several bars when they grip their iPhone in a certain way are most likely in an area with very weak signal strength, but they don’t know it because we are erroneously displaying 4 or 5 bars. Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place.

“To fix this, we are adopting AT&T’s recently recommended formula for calculating how many bars to display for a given signal strength. The real signal strength remains the same, but the iPhone’s bars will report it far more accurately, providing users a much better indication of the reception they will get in a given area.”

611signalThis statement is troubling for a couple of reasons: First, Apple has promised a software fix for what has been established as a hardware problem. You’ll still get a drop in signal strength on the new iPhone if you hold it in a way that bridges the gap between the two antennae, but Apple’s fix will change things so that, visually, the drop in bars is not as jarring. This doesn’t fix the problem so much as obscure it.

For the second thing, see the second paragraph – Apple has been using a formula to calculate signal strength that differs from what AT&T normally recommends. This implies that an iPhone could show more bars in a given area than another AT&T phone, creating the illusion that the iPhone gets stronger reception when in fact the phone displays the exact same signal strength in a different way. This issue is one that is actually addressed via the software update, but it’s still a snag that hasn’t been discussed much in light of the more serious iPhone 4 antenna issue.

Apple’s statement and the as-yet-forthcoming fix are, at best, ways to silence a few complainers without actually having to do much of anything, and at worst they’re misleading and condescending. Apple seems to be hoping that its admission of guilt will convince its customers that their needs are being addressed.

“Condescending” pretty well describes the way that Apple has treated its users throughout this process, actually – when problems first began cropping up, people were told that they were simply holding the phone wrong, and not to hold it that way. They were also told that, for $30, they could pick up a rubber bumper case for their phone which would insulate the antenna (how convenient!), though Apple’s customer service reps were specifically told not to “appease” complaining callers with free cases.

And it gets worse than condescension – threads on Apple’s support forums that mention the Consumer Reports piece are being deleted by moderators. This certainly isn’t unheard of behavior for Apple – it regularly happens with hardware or software problems that the company is trying to downplay – but that doesn’t mean it’s not worrisome. Quite the contrary, in fact.

MC597Apple has lately remained silent amid increasing criticism and grim forecasts of how much a recall could cost it. The easiest (and most likely) solution is for the company to cave and offer free bumper cases to the affected. Similar things have happened in the past – Apple was willing to repair faulty screens and give covers out to people whose first-generation iPod Nano screens scratched easily.

Much has been made of this antenna problem, and it’s hard to say what the end result will be. In my experience, Apple is usually willing to make right the flaws of its products, whether they be scratched iPod screens or yellow iMac displays. The company has always moved at its own pace, though – Apple will only fix the product when they’re ready, and only if they admit that there’s a problem. You can, of course, expect Charge Shot!!! to keep an eye on this story as it unfolds, whether in our writing or on our podcast.