Expert: Apple is right, iPhone 4 signal woes overblown

RF engineers put iPhone through the paces, echo Jobs' advice to keep your hand off the antenna for best results.

Apple on Friday issued a carefully worded statement admitting that, yes, there's something wrong with the iPhone 4; but, no, it's not the alleged problem you've heard about.

While Apple fessed up to using a flawed formula to calculate the number of bars of signal strength displayed on the iPhone, it also defended the iPhone 4's much-maligned antenna design, calling the handset's wireless performance "the best we have ever shipped."

Corporate denial at its worst? Not so, says Spencer Webb, president of AntennaSys, an antenna design, integration, and consulting firm. Webb on Friday ran preliminary tests on the iPhone 4's antenna and reached the same conclusion as Apple: Everything's (mostly) okay.

"My conclusion is that all the hype has been just hype," Webb says. "It's not any more sensitive to hand position that was the first-generation iPhone--and probably many other phones on the market."

Some users report that when they hold the iPhone 4 tightly and cover the black strip in the lower left corner of the metal band, signal strength can drop 4 or even 5 bars. That, they claim, is evidence of the phone's flawed antenna design.

Webb and a colleague decided to run their own tests, which he admits were brief and subjective. "This was a non-scientific test, but it was done by two engineers who deal with RF devices for a living," he says.

First, they placed a call on an iPhone 4 while holding the handset from the top. They then switched to the infamous "grip of death"--holding the bottom of the phone tightly with two hands.

"We succeeded in taking a five-bar display and reducing it to one bar by doing that," Webb says. "But the call remained solid and never dropped."

Next, they took Webb's first-generation iPhone (from 2007) and repeated the experiment: "We got the exact same results." Their findings, he says, support Apple's contention that nearly all of today's cell phones are susceptible to human interference.

"(G)ripping almost any mobile phone in certain ways will reduce its reception by one or more bars. This is true of iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, as well as many Droid, Nokia and RIM phones," Apple said in its statement.

Webb also took a piece of electrical tape and wrapped it around the iPhone's metal band where the hand was causing interference. He then repeated the experiment above. "There was absolutely no difference between having the electrical tape and not having it," he reports.

Webb says he's agreed with Apple's stance from the beginning, and has written as much in his blog. He plans to do more iPhone antenna testing next week and publish the results. He's confident his findings will concur with what he's seen thus far.

"Any handheld radio device is going to suffer the same way if you put your hand over the antenna," he says. "You're going to cause a reduction in performance, period. That's not a news flash."

Well, if that's the case, why all the controversy now?

"Over the years we've gone from cell phones that were bricks with antennas popping up the top, to flip phones with retractable antennas, to phones with bumps for antennas, to phones that are rectangular monoliths that don't have any external antenna protrusion at all," he says.

The latest design means that today's consumer "doesn't have an antenna consciousness. All of a sudden, we're discovering, 'Oh my gosh, there's this antenna, and we can cover it with our hands and it affects performance.'"

"Yes, it does," he adds. "It always has, and it always will."

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags Appleconsumer electronicsmobile phonessmartphonesiPhonePhonesiphone 4

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Jeff Bertolucci

PC World (US online)
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Crucial Ballistix Elite 32GB Kit (4 x 8GB) DDR4-3000 UDIMM

Learn more >

Gadgets & Things

Lexar® Professional 1000x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards

Learn more >

Family Friendly

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Plox Star Wars Death Star Levitating Bluetooth Speaker

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles


GGG Evaluation Team

Kathy Cassidy


First impression on unpacking the Q702 test unit was the solid feel and clean, minimalist styling.

Anthony Grifoni


For work use, Microsoft Word and Excel programs pre-installed on the device are adequate for preparing short documents.

Steph Mundell


The Fujitsu LifeBook UH574 allowed for great mobility without being obnoxiously heavy or clunky. Its twelve hours of battery life did not disappoint.

Andrew Mitsi


The screen was particularly good. It is bright and visible from most angles, however heat is an issue, particularly around the Windows button on the front, and on the back where the battery housing is located.

Simon Harriott


My first impression after unboxing the Q702 is that it is a nice looking unit. Styling is somewhat minimalist but very effective. The tablet part, once detached, has a nice weight, and no buttons or switches are located in awkward or intrusive positions.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?