Wireless experts weigh in on iPhone 4 reception issues

Posted:
in iPhone edited January 2014
Reception issues with Apple's recently released iPhone 4 have gone under the microscope, with two new in-depth reports testing a variety of methods on how to hold the phone, and the effects those positions have on signal.



Anandtech: Antenna is improved, but bumper is needed



Authors Anand Lai Shimpi and Brian Klug did a barrage of tests on the iPhone 4, as compared to the iPhone 3GS and Google Nexus One. They found that the new model gets the best reception of any iPhone, holding on to one bar with voice and data for longer than its predecessor.



"With my bumper case on, I made it further into dead zones than ever before, and into marginal areas that would always drop calls without any problems at all. It's amazing really to experience the difference in sensitivity the iPhone 4 brings compared to the 3GS, and issues from holding the phone aside, reception is absolutely definitely improved."



But despite the improved antenna, the analysis found that reception could be significantly degraded depending on how users hold the phone. When cupping the phone tightly, the iPhone 4 had the worst signal attenuation of all devices with 24.6 dB, followed by the HTC Nexus one at 17.7 dB and last year's iPhone 3GS at 14.3 dB. When holding naturally, the story remained the same: The iPhone 4 was worst with a highest attenuation of 19.8 dB, followed by the Nexus one at 10.7 dB and the iPhone 3GS at 1.9 dB.



Though the maximum impact on reception from holding the iPhone in the lower left corner is 24 dB, the effect it has on reception and bars depends largely upon how the iPhone reports signal strength. Apple's iOS allots nearly 40 percent of reception levels to five bars, from -51 dB to -91 dB. But the distance from four bars to one bar of reception is much less, from -91 dB to -113 dB.







"In locales that have less signal, but where iOS still displays 5 bars, the drop of 24 dB is visualized much differently," they wrote. "For example, at another test location, signal without holding the phone is -89 dB, which is still displayed as 5 bars. Cup the phone, and you'll fall all the way to -113dB. All the bars dramatically disappear one after the other, people think they've dramatically lost all the signal, and you know the rest."







Apple publicly commented on the antenna issues last week, stating that any mobile phone will lose some reception when held in the hand, depending on the placement of the antennas. The company advised customers to avoid gripping the device in the lower left corner, or use one of many available cases, including its own "bumpers" which cover the metal external antenna band.



Some have argued that Apple should give away free bumpers to alleviate the issue for customers, though the company has informed its AppleCare representatives that it is not "appeasing" anyone with a free case.



"At the end of the day, Apple should add an insulative coating to the stainless steel band, or subsidize bumper cases," Anandtech wrote. "It's that simple."



Ph.D weighs in: Fantastic device, lousy phone



Richard Gaywood, who has a Ph.D in wireless network planning techniques from Cardiff University, also explained how signal bars on a cell phone work. Calling it a "magic formula" that is "basically made up by the design engineers as they see fit," he said the signal bars themselves are "almost meaningless and should not be relied upon."



"The bars only indicate how well your phone can listen to the cell tower," he said. "They don't tell you anything about how well the tower can receive your phone, but that's a pretty important part of making a call. Similarly, the phone doesn't know anything about what's going on in the cell provider's network past the tower; if you're on a really busy cell it might not have any spare outgoing circuits to direct your call to, so even if the radio is working fine, you might still not be able to get through."



Gaywood tested the iPhone 4 in three manners: flat on his hand, held in a usual manner, and then held with a piece of cloth protecting his skin from the phone. Touching the point in the bottom left of the device where the cellular antenna meets the Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS antenna can result in signal degradation or cause dropped calls, as a person's skin acts as a conductive agent bridging the two antennas.



The tests were conducted both in a "marginal" signal area, as well as a location where signal strength is strong. With marginal signal, holding the phone with one's bare hand had a significant effect on reception, dropping all the way down to EDGE speeds and at one point preventing the device from transferring data.



"This is a factor that doesn't apply to other modern cell phones, because other modern cell phones don't have electrically active components in contact with their bare skin," he wrote.







When Apple announced the iPhone 4 earlier this month, the company revealed that the metal band around the outside of the device has breaks in it to allow the multiple antennas inside the device -- for cellular service, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and more -- to establish connections. The larger metal piece on the right side of the phone serves as the GSM/UMTS cellular antenna, and the smaller portion on the left side is responsible for Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS.



Gaywood's tests also found a performance penalty for the iPhone 4 when held with a bare grip, although signal did not drop to the extent that he did not have a data connection as it did in the marginal reception area. The results suggest that customers in a strong signal area may never notice any issues with the iPhone 4. He also noted that the issues don't "feel like a software fault," suggesting Apple could not fix users' reception woes with an iOS update.



Finally, he concluded with a personal note: "I'd say that iPhone 4 is a fantastic device but a lousy phone."
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Comments

  • mazda 3smazda 3s Posts: 1,459member
    WOW. I never thought AI had it in 'em to post an article that paints the iPhone 4 in such a negative light.



    At least AI isn't acting like people are creating a mass "hysteria" anymore.
  • str1f3str1f3 Posts: 573member
    Interestingly enough, Gaywood says that nail polish alone could dramatically improve reception. If Apple added some kind of coating around the metal I'm sure the problems would disappear.
  • richardgaywoodrichardgaywood Posts: 2member
    Yesterday I'm called out by name on Daring Fireball, today I'm being discussed on AppleInsider alongsite Anand Lai Shimpi! I'm really rubbing shoulders with my blogging heros...
  • hill60hill60 Posts: 6,965member
    How do you explain Anand Shimpi's findings on the Nexus, when you are quoted as saying no other phones exhibit this behaviour?



    Quote:
    Originally Posted by RichardGaywood View Post


    Yesterday I'm called out by name on Daring Fireball, today I'm being discussed on AppleInsider alongsite Anand Lai Shimpi! I'm really rubbing shoulders with my blogging heros...



  • veblenveblen Posts: 201member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by RichardGaywood View Post


    Yesterday I'm called out by name on Daring Fireball, today I'm being discussed on AppleInsider alongsite Anand Lai Shimpi! I'm really rubbing shoulders with my blogging heros...



    Thank you for your insight.
  • applestudapplestud Posts: 367member
    Dick Gaywood?
  • mazda 3smazda 3s Posts: 1,459member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by hill60 View Post


    How do you explain Anand Shimpi's findings on the Nexus, when you are quoted as saying no other phones exhibit this behaviour?



    I don't think the other phones were affected enough to create dropped calls and/or loss of 3G connectivity.
  • plagenplagen Posts: 151member
    I must be doing something wrong. With full 5 bars my phone shows 2.2Mb down and 1.2Mb up. Then I short the gap with a METAL COIN! In 5 min the bars drop to 4. But it sill shows about 2Mb down and 1 Mb up.



    As far a "lousy" phone - the phone clarity and connectivity is much better than my previous 3G.
  • nothlitnothlit Posts: 12member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Plagen View Post


    I must be doing something wrong.



    No, you're just lucky enough to be in a strong signal strength area to begin with.
  • rob55rob55 Posts: 1,186member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Plagen View Post


    I must be doing something wrong. With full 5 bars my phone shows 2.2Mb down and 1.2Mb up. Then I short the gap with a METAL COIN! In 5 min the bars drop to 4. But it sill shows about 2Mb down and 1 Mb up.



    As far a "lousy" phone - the phone clarity and connectivity is much better than my previous 3G.



    Maybe he meant lousy in the sense that it's seemingly so easy to attenuate the signal and as a result significantly affect the iPhone 4's ability to make and receive calls.
  • MarvinMarvin Posts: 13,751member, moderator
    Damn I was going to make reference to the fact this guy is called Dick Gaywood but now he's here, I should be polite about it.



    The testing is interesting but people seem to be reaching wildly different conclusions from it being not a problem to it making a lousy phone. One guy on Engadget commented that out of all the phones between him and co-workers, the iPhone 4 was the only one that could make a call 20ft underground. Others are reporting much fewer dropped calls than previous iPhones.



    Then there are those reporting the exact opposite. I guess this is the magic that Johnny Ive keeps going on about - it exceeds your ability to understand how it works and when it doesn't, they don't know how to fix it.



    It didn't even seem to hold up too well inside the case when held wrongly.
  • trajectorytrajectory Posts: 647member
    Well, it looks like this is a hardware problem that won't be fixed with a software update. I don't think this will end well for Apple considering they plan to ignore the problem completely.
  • bigdaddypbigdaddyp Posts: 811member
    What has me concerned is that this is going to turn into Apple's Toyota moment.



    Reports started to surface that there were problems with Toyota's automobiles.

    Toyota said, dismissively, that there is absolutely nothing wrong with our cars.

    There were a few instances of unintended acceleration and again Toyota says not our fault.

    Unfortunately for Toyota the media latched onto the story and Toyota ends up with a black eye.

    Most, but not all, of the unintended accidents were driver error. A few of them were a floor mat problem or a sticky gas pedal.



    I think Toyotas mistake was that they appeared arrogant and that they didn't care about their customers safety. If they would have responded quicker and seemed a little more sympathetic they could have kept the publics trust.



    I think that Apple's fetish for being secretive and their aloof attitude is going to come back to haunt them. Even though it looks like the phone is working as designed by Apple there are enough people ignorant of the whole story that I think this issue is going to continue to get bad press. When a company as successful as Apple seemingly makes a mistake the press and pundits will pile on them big time. Its part of human nature.



    Schadenfreude.

    Derived from the German words for harm and pleasure, it means the joy we sometimes cannot help but experience when we hear about another's misfortune.



    And Apple suggestion to improve reception people use a case or better yet...buy a Apple bumper is truly a fail.
  • jschaujschau Posts: 3member
    Put a small piece of tape over the seam. Works for me.
  • ivan.rnn01ivan.rnn01 Posts: 1,822member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Plagen View Post


    I must be doing something wrong. With full 5 bars my phone shows 2.2Mb down and 1.2Mb up. Then I short the gap with a METAL COIN! In 5 min the bars drop to 4. But it sill shows about 2Mb down and 1 Mb up.



    As far a "lousy" phone - the phone clarity and connectivity is much better than my previous 3G.



    Network data rates (2.2Mb) are not linked directly with signal strength. You should start receiving too many erroneous packets, which can not be handled by error correction algorithm, to see noticeable data slow down. 5 bars indicate the signal strength, which is much better, than a threshold of guaranteed reception.
  • glockmanglockman Posts: 9member
    Hats off to AppleInsider for this forum post and thread. Both reports from these independents describe my problems exactly since I unboxed my beloved iP4 1 week ago.



    iJobz cannot keep insulting us with his denial and useless rhetoric forever!



    Fix this freaking problem!

  • john.bjohn.b Posts: 2,629member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post


    Reception issues with Apple's recently released iPhone 4 have gone under the microscope, with two new in-depth reports testing a variety of methods on how to hold the phone, and the effects those positions have on signal.



    Anandtech: Antenna is improved, but bumper is needed



    So there you go, buy a case for the iPhone 4. Done.
  • plagenplagen Posts: 151member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by ivan.rnn01 View Post


    Network data rates (2.2Mb) are not linked directly with signal strength. You should start receiving too many erroneous packets, which can not be handled by error correction algorithm, to see noticeable data slow down. 5 bars indicate the signal strength, which is much better, than a threshold of guaranteed reception.



    I guess, you missed the part where I intentionally dead short it with a metal coin and still don't have a substantial drop in the connectivity. So, all the theories of 'shorting' the gap with skin don't hold water.
  • aiaddictaiaddict Posts: 487member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by AppleStud View Post


    Dick Gaywood?



    Depending on your views of homosexuality, I would say that is a better name than Microsoft.
  • antkm1antkm1 Posts: 1,441member
    So, assuming the idea proposed that if you could "coat" the metal band in something, like thin skin of plastic or laquer, perhaps Apple could somehow implement this into thier current production so that phone on the assembly line can be called back, have the metal bars coated and placed back on the line without a hitch?



    Sound like a pretty simple solution to me, I hope Apple read these articles!
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