Your Take on iPhone 4 "Antennagate"

Our survey shows little consensus on the iPhone 4 and Apple's press conference about it.

By  |  Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 2:39 am

The good…

Seems to be primarily a US issue. I have friends who have the iPhone 4 (imported) here in Sweden, where we have better networks and no one’s had any problems (even with the so-called death-grip). I’ll buy ours as soon as it’s released next week.

I think the antenna issue has been way overblown, especially since other phones have the exact issue. It’s the laws of physics, like SJ said. I’m excited about the free case, since I’ve always hated paying a 20 % surcharge for a protective case. Free = my gratitude (and a smile).

Best phone reception I’ve ever had. This phone works where I has no reception with my iPhone 3G. Yes I can reproduce the attenuation if I really try but it does not happen to me in normal use.

I think that while the design IS an issue for Apple, the media coverage is way overblown. As someone who uses the iPhone 4 in both good and bad coverage areas, I can attest that in (extremely) good coverage areas the problem can’t be replicated. However in areas of marginal (4 or less bar) signal, I can get the phone to drop to one or zero bars. However, this being said, even when the phone is at zero bars I can continue to use the phone for both voice and data in those marginal areas without issue.

It’s like an old proverb I heard once, “If a phone drops its bars, but you can still make a call, is there really a problem?”

Seriously though, This is only one account of one person’s personal experience with the device, and I’m sure there are people out there with more problems than I. And for those people, I’d suggest moving to a different device, like the iPhone 3gs which IS available currently, or an Android phone.

I can honestly say, that during the 3 weeks I’ve had the iPhone 4, I haven’t dropped a single call, and am left wondering what all the yelling was about. Can I make by signal drop by holding the bottom left corner? Yes. Has that affected my ability to make and receive phone calls? No, not at all.

I suspect that the vast majority of those complaining about the iPhone 4 simply do not own one, or are out for blood, in one way or another. Real world use by this happy iPhone 4 owner is completely contrary to what the media has portrayed over the past several weeks.

In short, while the attenuation may be real, this is in fact, a non-issue.

This is the best phone I have ever had by a wide margin. I have only dropped 4 calls since it came out and I frequently travel in areas of weak reception. I am not even sure it was my phone or the one I was connected to that actually dropped the call. I strongly suspect the motivations of the press with regard to the reporting of this issue.

I believe the issue is wildly overblown.

The bad…

I’m constantly hanging up or muting calls on my iPhone 4 because of the proximity sensor. I am anxiously awaiting a software fix. For me, this is a much bigger issue than the antenna.

The press conference was very insulting, and made me feel like Apple wasn’t being truthful. They mainly addressed the reception issue by saying other people have that problem too, but that hasn’t been my experience in the six years of smartphone ownership.

The proximity sensor issue may be the cause of more apparent dropped calls than most people realize. After thinking I dropped call today, and immediately calling back, I then proceeded to apparently drop the call again only to realize my cheek had actually pressed the mute button. I have the feeling the first time where, I thought the call had dropped, I might have actually hung up when the screen activated without knowing.

This has now happened multiple times in conversations with my wife this week. My wife and I both have iPhone 4s, and we were previous iPhone 3Gs owners and never had this problem. We now average two dropped calls per conversation – yes the same conversation.

No matter the root cause, this is unacceptable.

I returned my iPhone 4 due to proximity sensor issues – I’d hang up on people with my face, or dial numbers, or mute the call. Over and over and over. Only way the phone was 100% reliable was to place it on my desk in front of me via speakerphone. I’m sorry, but that is unacceptable.

In general, my reception is better than with the iPhone 3GS… UNTIL I touch its no-no place. Then it can completely lose all network or drop down to unusable signal level. I don’t care what Apple says, I don’t know of ANY other phones that have this dramatic of a change in usability depending on where you touch it. It seems like a simple design flaw. It should have some sort of clear polymer coating on the metal (outside) so that human skin does not have a conductive or capacitive effect on it. That seems obvious to me. I was expecting it as soon as I saw photos of it. Somehow this escaped Apple’s engineers’ minds. A polymer coating would add at most a couple bucks to the design (and that would be if it was some exotic, durable, ultra-insulating polymer).

Having to use a specific kind of case in order to achieve the advertised performance is not an acceptable solution.

It’s a design flaw, plain and simple. Yes all phones can suffer some attenuation from coming into contact with the human body, but the fundamental issue with the iPhone 4 isn’t one of attenuation, it’s an issue of being able to ground out the 2 antennae by bridging them with your hand. Apple just won’t attempt it messed up.

Given how impressive the android handsets are getting and how lackluster the iOS 4 feature set is in comparison Apple need to step up their game or many of us longer time iPhone users (I have owned 3 to date) may start taking a serious look at the alternatives.

I think you can judge companies more on how they deal with problems and mistakes then you can on whether there are any problems in the first place – and in this case Apple has been typically arrogant and dismissive when it comes to their own failure. The press conference amounted to “Everyone has this problem, there is no problem, we’re going to give you a free case to solve the problem”, an impressive piece of doublethink, and a far cry from their bombastic original announcements of the best antenna design ever!

…and the rest

Though I think that it is very important to bring things like this to light and to hold companies responsible, the whole thing [“antennagate”] did get out of hand. One of the biggest examples of this came — in my own experience — when Consumer  Reports wrote that, although the phone was one of the best they’d seen in many categories, they were able to reproduce the issue of the attenuation by holding onto that one place on the bottom corner, and so they “could not recommend” the phone (which is a fine stance — very typical for Consumer Reports) But the next day, people would ask me “I heard that Consumer hates the iPhone 4” or I would see a a headline saying something like “Consumer Reports: iPhone 4 Sucks”. And that’s how things get out of hand. It’s just an example of how headline-writers are sometimes sloppy and every-day people don’t have enough time or inclination to listen well enough to get the facts right. That’s how your make a mountain out of a molehill. It’s a problem in the world of politics, as well, of course.

Apple should have stated the engineering trade-off from the beginning. My first reaction when I saw the description of iP4 was that the large external antenna would making the phone more sensitive, exactly what I need for my own situation, but because it is exposed, one would expect some problems with holding it in the hand – I immediately wondered about that. I think the tradeoff is quite acceptable (see for an independent assessment) – but Apple’s not posing it as a tradeoff left them open for misunderstanding. However, a lot of people, including many tech pundits, don’t understand engineering tradeoffs, or even engineering, and a certain number of them love to criticize Apple regardless of the merits, so I’m not sure how much difference it would have made in the blogosphere. It was good to see Apple’s antenna labs – which discredits the critics some more: why would Apple build those labs just to create a bad antenna? Are CU’s labs even in the same ball park?

The members of the tech press (for the most part) demonstrated that they are as ignorant as the general public. I am disappointed. Seemed to me a bit like a shark feeding-frenzy. Nobody challenged Consumer Reports for its disgraceful part in the “antennagate” spectacle. (In my experience, CR has at least a 35 year history of befuddlement with technologically advanced products.) Few members of the press explained the consequences of short-circuiting two antenna sections. Few have explained that the “meat” in your hand will soak up radio energy, even with the bumper. I seem to have missed any discussions about the trade-offs between engineering and design. I applaud SJ and the Apple team for handling this episode with aplomb.

Although I think Apple could have handled the issue better and the press conference on Friday, 16 July seemed too defensive and a little aggressive towards the media, I am still an Apple fan. I will definitely buy the iPhone 4, as it is a beautifully made piece of technology, and I was planning on buying a case anyway. (Extra unneeded info: a Speck CandyShell).

Apple’s enviable position in the industry makes it (and Steve Jobs, personally) especially prone to media and pundit needling. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing the top dog squirm once in a while?

IT is really frustrating that the media/bloggers are focussing on the death grip.

the CLEAR, UNIQUE issue with the iPhone is the bridging of the two antennas with flesh as a conductor. That is why the iPhone is defective (and what Apple is addressing with a bumper.

The death grip/webpage is just a smokescreen/distraction and the media are eating it up like a bunch of 3rd graders.


Disappointed that none of the Q&A questions tackled the apparent distinction between attenuation caused by human tissue absorbing signal versus antenna detuning caused by the electrical conductivity of human skin bridging antennae. The second problem is not shared by competitor phones with internal antennae. Reportedly, the iPhone signal drop can be caused by simply placing a finger so as to bridge the antenna gap. As a corollary, why is there not an insulating coating, or is there one by design and a manufacturing problem has caused some iPhones to be shipped without it?

I’m an antenna design engineer and problems due to the antenna being integrated with the exposed outer band was the first thought I had when I saw the iPhone 4 described at launch. I also knew I would be buying a case to protect it, so I did not get very concerned. There is a general problem explaining technical issues to a group of non-technical people who think they are technical just because they read gadget blogs. Apple did a poor job of communicating, and they made some poor choices to feature styling over performance. If they had simply found a way to hide the gap in the metal band, no one would be raising these issues and would be saying how great the reception is because of the underlying changes Apple made to the 3G protocol as demonstrated by the various throughput tests that have been published. But by giving the public a gap to focus on, they created their own problem.



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21 Comments For This Post

  1. jimlynch Says:

    Here's my take on it:

    The Death Grip Drama Queens

  2. Jim Jim Says:

    Not a great sample from a biased source of respondents. I don't think this really tells us anything either positive or negative point of view.

  3. Jo Jo Says:

    Bingo! The only way to get real data here would be to target KNOWN iPhone 4 owners and not a random sample.

  4. Harry McCracken Says:

    Boy, I specifically didn't want to survey only iPhone 4 owners; I wanted to seek opinions from both owners and non-owners. Both groups' take on all this is interesting, for different reasons.

    Within the survey, we asked respondents whether they owned an iPhone 4, and only asked questions relating to ownership of the phone if the person identified himself or herself as an owner.

    If you want to say that the survey is worthless because it's possible that trolls who don't own iPhone 4s claimed they did and answered questions about the phone anyhow, go for it. But there's virtually no third party that conducts surveys of product owners which can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that 100% of the survey takers do indeed own the product in question.


  5. MikePulsifer Says:

    It's a statistically insignificant and irrelevant sample. That's why it's worthless. Keep in mind, techies aren't representative of normal people.

  6. Harry McCracken Says:

    I know lots of statistics experts who are comfortable polling groups much smaller than 500 people–but again, we weren't trying to determine what iPhone owners and prospective owners as a whole think.

    Nor was the goal to determine what "normal people" think–I suspect that the average Technologizer reader is techie and proud of it.


  7. Ryan Says:

    This is very true. Techies are FAR more likely to know about the grip of death issue in the first place and try it out. None of my non-techie friends had even heard about it.

  8. David Bailey Says:

    How was the data collected? How were the respondents selected and how did they respond, was it a self selected sample? If so, self-selected samples are notorious for being inaccurate. Was there any means to check if those who responded own iPhones? Just trying to understand the discrepancy between these results and the return results publicized by Apple

  9. Harry McCracken Says:

    It was a self-selecting group who took our online survey–I invited Technologizer readers (and folks who follow me on Twitter) to respond, and about 500 did. To repeat what I said in the story, I wasn't aiming to collect projectable data.

    Interestingly enough, the percentage who say that they HAVE returned their iPhones is similar to what Apple has reported. The percentage who say they WILL return them is much higher–but that's not surprising; my guess would be that a lot more people say they'll do so than actually follow through.

  10. MikePulsifer Says:

    "It was a self-selecting group who took our online survey–I invited Technologizer readers (and folks who follow me on Twitter)"

    This attracts only the more passionate and/or those with an axe to grind, no matter the subject matter. That makes the results only of entertainment value as there's no validity to the results.

  11. Harry McCracken Says:

    Hey, I want people who are passionate about technology taking these surveys. Technologizer isn't for people who are blase about this topic, and the one and only thing this survey intended to do was to collect the thoughts of some members of the Technologizer community.

    Surveys been overrun by people with an axe to grind would be a problem–but this is the fourth survey of this type we've conducted, and the first that wasn't completely dominated by happy campers. (Strangely, the "everyone knows unhappy people take surveys in disproportionate numbers" theory didn't come up when 98 percent of the people who took our iPad survey said they were satisfied.)

    In aggregate, I've spent many hundreds of thousands of dollars and several months of my career working on surveys that aimed to collect projectable data. They're worthwhile (albeit far from perfect). But they weren't what we were trying to do here.

  12. Harry McCracken Says:

    I'm fine with the respondents to this survey being biased–Technologizer readers, who happen to be a smart, opinionated bunch of folks. I'm not trying to determine what all iPhone 4 owners and prospective owners think.


  13. David Bailey Says:

    Not trying to criticize because its interesting none the less, but self selected data is basically not useful because it is so heavily biased. Many will respond only because they aim to make a point or are disgruntled – Maybe it would make sense to put this up in bold across the top incase people skip what you wrote to see the charts. The difference between 2%-30% is pretty major and creates a misperception.

  14. Harry McCracken Says:

    I know that self-selecting surveys are in no way a replacement for ones that aim for projectable data. But I'm skeptical about the conventional wisdom that unhappy campers are grossly overrepresented in self-selecting surveys. When we surveyed iPad owners, 98 percent of them said they were satisfied, and the number was also sky high for Windows 7 users. There's no pattern in these surveys of doom-and-gloom types dominating.

    (As I mentioned in the story, I also throw out results when only a handful of people answer a question: If only a couple of dozen people respond, the data is too unstable to mean anything at all.)

    My take: Technologizer is by definition a place where people who like to express opinions about new tech products like to hang out. And when you're surveying the very first people to use the iPad or iPhone 4 or Windows 7, you're surveying a group of people with an intense interest in the product in question, again almost by definition. So I don't think the pool of self-selecting survey takers is dominated by people with an axe to grind.

    I've been involved in scads of surveys and focus groups over the past fifteen years, from simple little ones like this to ones where we bent over backwards to try and capture objective data from a giant universe of people…including ones that cost tens of thousands of dollars to conduct and benefited from analysis by people with degrees in statistics. The dirty little secret is that all samples are skewed towards a particular group: people with the time and interest to participate. That's true whether the group is self-selecting and not filtered by demographic info (like in this survey) or whether you call people out of the blue and qualify them before collecting data (I've done that, too).


  15. David Bailey Says:

    That is fair. Still skeptical, but point well taken.

  16. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    I’m not sure I understand why you polled both iPhone 4 owners and non-owners.

  17. Harry McCracken Says:

    Because a large chunk of the questions we asked weren't contingent on iPhone ownership–I was curious how people who are interested in all this responded to Jobs' press conference, whether they have an iPhone or not. (Apple presumably aimed its messaging at least as much at people who don't already own iPhones at it did at those who do.)


  18. Ryan Says:

    This perfectly sums up my experience with the whole antennagate problem:

    I, too, am a fanboy of logic. 🙂

  19. Matt Says:

    I think the problem with a story/poll like this is that its only value is the sensationalist polarized opinions that will come out of it. It's a grab for hits. It isn't newsworthy or even interesting.

    This is the problem with most 'media' today, and blog media in particular. The aim is to gain eyeballs rather than increase or disseminate knowledge. It's a sad state of affairs.

  20. jibran Says:

    I think we need to bring more ideas for this purpose. Involvement of young people can be handy in this regard. I am happy to find a good post here. philadelphia slip and fall lawyers

  21. Regalos Says:

    Nor was the goal to determine what "normal people" think–I suspect that the average Technologizer reader is techie and proud of it.
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