The iPhone 4 Grip of Death: I'm a Believer

By  |  Tuesday, July 13, 2010 at 9:34 am

It took three weeks of real-world use before I figured it out. But I’m finally convinced that the iPhone 4’s antenna problem is real, that it’s affecting my phone in certain situations, and that there’s no scenario in which Apple is done responding to this issue.

I spent yesterday at the MobileBeat 2010 conference at San Francisco’s Palace hotel. The hotel is in the South of Market neighborhood, where making phone calls on an iPhone over AT&T can be an iffy proposition in the best of circumstances. And over the course of the day, I ducked out of the conference several times to make important calls.

(Don’t ask me why I brought the iPhone to the event rather than my Verizon Droid, which is pretty reliable in the same area–it’s probably a testament either to my poor judgement or the overriding appeal of all the things that are right about the iPhone.)

I made one phone call that went fine. Then I waited for a call which didn’t come and eventually discovered that it had gone straight to voice mail, even though the iPhone reported robust signal strength. Then I made a call that dropped. Then one in which the person on the other end of the line sounded dandy, but he could barely hear me.

Then another call where the other party said I sounded horrible, until the call dropped. Then the phone decided to stop connecting at all.

Over the course of all this, I kept scurrying about–first inside the hotel, and then at nearby coffee shops–hoping to find a spot with better coverage. Nothing helped.

And then I did what I should have done in the first place: I gingerly held the iPhone 4 with my right hand, making sure that my fingers stayed far away from the danger zone of the lower left-hand corner.

Bingo. The call went through and didn’t drop, and the person on the other end–who I’d been unable to reach at all a moment before–marveled at how good I sounded.

Aside from a couple of earlier dropped calls, this was the first real trouble I’d had with my iPhone. For the most part, it’s not only worked okay but given me the impression that reception is better than with the iPhone 3GS. When calls have worked at all, the voices on the other end have come through as clearly as with any phone I’ve ever owned.

All of which leads me to believe that the conventional wisdom that seems to be forming is true: The iPhone 4’s innovative antenna-wrapped-around-the-case improves reception. Except when you use the phone in an area with marginal reception, aren’t using a case, and bridge the gap  in the lower left-hand corner with your hand. In that situation, it can be deadly.

(Why didn’t I have the iPhone 4 in a case? Because the only one I’ve seen for sale so far is Apple’s “Bumper”–and it interferes with the dock connector I use to connect the phone to my car stereo. Once a bevy of third-party cases from companies such as InCase and Speck are available, I’m sure I’ll buy one. Until then, I plan to patch my phone up with the miracle cure known as duct tape.)

I see no signs that this story is going away. The antenna problems are on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, in a story by Ryan Kim which brings up the manufacturing problems which may have helped doom Apple’s famously unsuccessful Cube G4 Mac. Cult of Mac’s Leander Kahney has a good story up with quotes from crisis-control experts predicting that Apple will have to do something big to respond to this. And Apple’s initial, incomplete explanation–that it’s all a software glitch involving how many bars of reception are displayed–doesn’t seem to have mollified many people.

I don’t see how Apple can avoid taking further action here–including acknowledging that the issue exists, figuring out a way to help customers who are encountering it, and manufacturing an iPhone 4 that doesn’t suffer from it. It doesn’t matter whether the reception issue is widespread and crippling or merely an intermittent quirk–if the world forms the impression that the iPhone 4 is a lemon, it’s a devastating problem for Apple.


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51 Comments For This Post

  1. shawn Says:

    Sorry; case-mate, not incase.

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  3. Snaggy Says:

    Harry, please don't defile that gorgeous iPhone by putting duct tape on it.

    Put the duct tape on your hand!


  4. Chris Donahue Says:

    doesn't a small piece of cellophane(scotch) tape fix it as well?

  5. Hal Says:

    Great post, Harry. Let's hope Apple also addresses the proximity sensor failings, as well.

  6. jay Says:

    I think the solution is obviously a clear coating applied to the stainless steel band. What is not so obvious, since i'm not a chemist, is just what that substances chemical make up would be. I agree with you that the current solution is untenable.

  7. shawn Says:

    Harry; incase has a couple i4 cases available now, if you’re looking. One i considered is their credit card case, which provides some minimal protection and has slots for 2 credit cards. It seemed like a good idea, and could be a reason to just leave my wallet at home most days. License credit card gets most done.

    Also, you could hit the bottom of the bumper with a little dremeling to make it fit in your car, if it’s one of the old bigger apple plugs that you’re plugging in to.

  8. Ryan Says:

    Rather than a whole case, why not just pick up a skin from Best Skins Ever? I've used their skins for my iPods and my 3GS iPhone in the past… Even just a body-only skin will give you some nice plastic to cover up the steel on the side of your phone, preventing you from bridging the antenna:

    (Disclosure: I do not work for Best Skins Ever, I'm just an enthusiastic customer)

  9. David Worthington Says:

    I'm holding off on my purchase until this issue is resolved.

  10. John Baxter Says:

    It's hard to be sure, but I seem to hold my current iPhone (3G) while on a call with my left thumb well up the left side, and three left fingers on the right side, and no contact or near contact with the base of the thumb or the palm.

    (Leo Laporte really confuses me when he says it's a problem for him because he's left handed. So he holds the phone in his dominate hand and tries to dial, then write notes, with his less useful hand? I hold the phone in my left hand because I'm right handed.)

    I have the luxury of letting this play out for a while–my AT&T contract expires in November–conveniently close to release time for the Windows Phone 7 devices, and after still more Android devices come out (not that I have much interest in the wild-wild west of Android). I'm also limited in terms of carrier–T-Mobile and Sprint are out for me. I fled screaming from Verizon for coverage reasons (useless at the house and in my boss' office at iPhone day 1 time so I was leaving for AT&T regardless of whether I bought an iPhone–I was off contract then, too). But I suspect Verizon is better now in those places (even though their coverage map looks similar to what it did then).

    (If I *knew* I was going to go iPhone 4, I'd get in line now to move my expiration earlier 2 years down the road.)

  11. mike3k Says:

    I'm using a $20 fitted case from Best Buy and the problem is gone. Even at worst, the iPhone 4 still gets better reception and fewer dropped calls than my 3GS. The 3GS was really awful. It would drop calls when I walk around my apartment. The 4 doesn't.

  12. RA Jensen Says:


    Go to They have a nice selection of cases, a good number for the iPhone 4. And the Vroom is quite a bit less expensive than normal.

    FWIW — I had some extra cases from my iPhone 1st gen that except for the LED hole, fit the 4 just fine — good work around for now.

  13. /dev/null Says:

    Just use silicon caulking. It is not conductive (it can be used as insulation in low voltage wiring installations), will not mold or mildew, will not crack or peel, is highly temperature resistant, adheres great to virtually any surface and is dirt cheap and readily available.

  14. Justin Horn Says:

    I just bring an Ove Glove with me wherever I go! I can't put such a nice looking phone in a case.

  15. @juandesant Says:

    I still haven't been able to try an iPhone 4 other than with Wi-Fi in the Apple Store, so I have not been able to compare it to my 3GS and see how the do behave side to side. I have really spotty coverage (0 bars, not even EDGE, just SMS most of the time, unless I am near a window) at my home (by the way, this is Munich, served by Telekom) with my 3GS, and I am almost sure that the iPhone 4 will perform better than the 3GS… because it has better reception, and there is a way by which you can attenuate it less.

    It seems that for me the positive (there are clear ways to minimize attenuation because of the way it is built… which provides better sensibility in the first place) is being completely lost.

  16. Bill Says:

    Sent my bumper back for similar reason – car connector didn’t fit, and car holder was tight. But Incipio Feather case is minimal size, fits connector and holder, and protects glass back. Plus now I can tell which side is front in my pocket, as with 3G iPhone. Still won’t fit most docks, though.

  17. ShawnMilo Says:

    The "bridging the gap" mentioned in the article is not the problem. A thin coating, duct tape, or caulking will not have any effect. The problem is that the human hand attenuates the signal. The only solution is to put more physical distance between the hand and the antenna. This is why the case works — it increases the distance. For the same reason, tape (including electrical tape) is also useless.

  18. Harry McCracken Says:

    I agree that if Apple's right about the bars being overly optimistic, it's part of the problem–any reception issues are doubly mystifying if the phone seems to be insisting that you're in an area with great coverage.

    But like I said, when I had these problems on Monday, I did skitter around a couple of city blocks, trying to make the phone work–indoors, outdoors, anywhere. Nothing helped. Until I made sure I wasn't touching the lower-left hand corner. That seemed to solve it instantly. (I admit that this was a wholly unscientific experience–but it sure felt like a revelation.)

    It's pretty clear that there aren't millions of iPhone users out there who find their phones unusable. (The fact that I'd been using the phone for three weeks before I ran into what seemed to be evidence of a problem says something.) As far as I can tell, the problem is real and not meaningless–but also not a catastrophe, at least for most users. It's the PR problem that's really blowing up in Apple's face at the moment, and it'll be fascinating to see how it addresses it.

  19. Guy Says:

    Deadly? A dropped call is deadly? When you use words like that in this context, you stop reporting on a problem, and start exacerbating it.

  20. janet Says:

    hmm, but Im wondering Why would Apple need to issue a recall? The iPhone 4′s problem is not health related which would be needed to initiate a recall. The iPhone 4′s problem is only effecting a relatively small amount of people, its just the bloggers and media make it seem such worse than it really is. Good article, but i felt as though I should spend my time elsewhere.

    And its hard to base facts of a poll as iPhone haters or non-iPhone Users would be inclined to check the ‘having problems’ box because the want to lure people away from the iPhone. It’s better not to use the results of a poll to prove a significant point.
    While I love their products, I do hope Apple steps up on this one.
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  21. Charlie Redmond Says:

    My solution to the iPhone Grip of Death: &lt ;>

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  23. SM Says:

    @ShawnMilo – You are correct that attenuation is an issue and distinct from the “bridging the gap” issue. But both are very real issues. Check out for some nice data indicating the attenuation typically accounts for about 1/3 of the signal loss that the bridging the gap issue does. With a thin covering 2/3 of maximal signal loss will be eliminated. Many users will find the loss due to attenuation alone acceptable and won’t need additional separation from the antenna. Others will want to eliminate both problems with a case that provides physical separation from the antenna.

  24. SM Says:

    @janet – a company can issue a recall for any reason they choose. If consumer safety is an issue, the government may step in to mandate a recall.

    Just for example, Apple recently issued a recall for some of its Time Capsules (those manufactured during a five month period about 2 years ago), because the power supplies were going bad and the devices could no longer turn on. No reports of deaths or houses burning down, and the products were no longer under warranty even. But because it was clearly a manufacturing defect and not due to normal wear and tear, Apple did choose to issue a recall. I’m having one checked out at the Apple store myself. If my Time Capsule is affected, Apple will fix it for free (replace the power supply). That’s how many recalls work.

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