The iPhone 4 Reception Issue

I queued up early in the morning of its release to get my iPhone 4 on day one – the first time I’ve done that for anything. Let that be a measure of how much I wanted this phone, the proper successor to the iPhone 3G that’s become an extension of me over the last two years. I’m an Apple fan in general, typing this on my faithful old MacBook Pro that will probably be replaced with a newer model of the same thing later this year, but I’m not big enough of a fan to drink the Kool-Aid on this one.

There is clearly an issue with the iPhone 4’s antenna design when it comes into contact with human skin, and while it has a negligible effect in places with a strong 3G signal, anywhere that doesn’t show up the full five bars – like, say, my flat, or anywhere that isn’t Cupertino – runs a serious risk of dropping the signal completely.

I was willing to wait on a firmware update that could mitigate the problem somehow, even as the possibility of that looked more remote with each controlled test that demonstrated the problem, and I would have accepted an admission that the design was flawed and a free bumper, but Apple’s head-in-the-sand attitude was taking the piss, and the recent press release on the matter was a joke too far.

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.

Obi-Wan Kenobi would be proud of Apple’s attempt to hand-wave the issue away there. It’s admitting that there’s a problem with the iPhone’s reception and promising a software fix, but ignoring the fact that holding the iPhone 4 in the ‘wrong’ way will still drop the connection if you’re in less than ideal conditions. Whether I’m going from four bars to none or a more accurate two bars to none, I still end up with none. That means no calls, no texts, no email, no Internet, and a pretty crap phone.

But hey! Spend £25 on a ring of plastic – already a significant hike on the $30 US price – and Apple will solve the issue for you. Brilliant…

I know it’s embarrassing, and I know it’s potentially expensive, but this is an unacceptable design flaw that could have been solved without any aesthetic ill-effects with something as simple as a coating of nail polish on the metal parts – and I’m sure that Apple could come up with a less kludgy solution. I like Apple’s products, but I hope that one of the inevitable lawsuits forces it into addressing the fundamental problem with its new phone. The handling of this debacle has been nothing short of appalling, and when word of mouth gets around about how bad the iPhone 4 is at sustaining a workable signal because you had the temerity to touch the outer casing, I hope it does some damage to the iPhone brand. Tough love is apparently the only way that corporations will learn.

I’m going to wait and see for now. It’s under warranty and if there’s a fundamental problem it will come out soon enough. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t take as long to be solved as the red ring of death did.

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