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."

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Jeff Bertolucci

PC World (US online)
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