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Is the iPhone 4's Reception-Killing Antenna a Deal-Breaker?

iphone4-antennas

The new iPhone 4 hit the stores and streets today. With a gadget this popular (and there aren't many), every tiny flaw gets blown up to apocalyptic proportion. Most of those issues turn out to be only a minor issue, either fixed in the next round of manufacturing or forgotten about in a few weeks.

But the iPhone 4's design flaw that causes it to drop calls might not be one of those issues. The iPhone is historically a not very good phone; it's an amazing app device, a killer media player, a stellar mobile internet gadget, and kind of a lousy phone. The iPhone 4's problems with voice calling go beyond typical crappy reception, though: There's a legitimate design error here, one that Apple may or may not have known about, that causes dropped calls and a loss of signal through normal use.

Apple responded in two ways today. A personal email to Steve Jobs resulted in a typically terse, utterly Jobsian response: "Just avoid holding it that way." Apple also issued an official statement:

Gripping any mobile phone will result in some attenuation of its antenna performance, with certain places being worse than others depending on the placement of the antennas. This is a fact of life for every wireless phone. If you ever experience this on your iPhone 4, avoid gripping it in the lower left corner in a way that covers both sides of the black strip in the metal band, or simply use one of many available cases.

Let's just say first that those responses are in no way adequate. It may be easy enough to adapt to the flaw (except for lefties), but that's not the point: This is an error in design, and forcing customers to buy aftermarket accessories is an unfair solution. Yes, a similar effect has been observed in other phones, including the iPhone 3GS and Google Nexus One, but those don't come close to approaching the severity of the iPhone 4's flaw.

The big question: Is this a dealbreaker? And what should Apple do in response?

My personal opinion? It's not necessarily a dealbreaker--but that doesn't mean I think you should rush out and stand in line to get one. There are two smart options here.

Smart Option 1: AT&T has a 30-day return and refund policy. Buy the phone, try it out, and see if you're affected in normal day-to-day use. Some phones don't seem to be affected, and some people (especially righties) just don't hold the phone that way, and so wouldn't notice. This won't affect everybody, and if you're dying for a new iPhone, it's worth testing to see if you're affected.

I've talked to an AT&T rep, who says, basically, users unhappy with the iPhone 4 have 30 days to return it. They'll have to pay for pro-rated service (one month of voice/data) and a 10% restocking fee, but will be refunded the full purchase price and allowed to cancel the new contract without paying an early termination fee.

Smart Option 2: Wait a few weeks. If this is as nasty a problem as some make it sound, Apple will be forced to respond in some way, at which point you can make a more educated decision. I suspect either way that Apple's next manufacturing run will include some kind of fix. Some users report that tape or nail polish on that corner will solve the problem--that suggests Apple could find a simple, cheap, and hopefully more elegant solution in manufacturing.

Jobs calls this a "non issue"--I don't agree, but I don't think the flaw makes it a universal do-not-buy. I've used the iPhone 4; it's a beautiful piece of hardware with exceptional software and a fantastic app ecosystem. There's a lot to like about the iPhone 4; the reviews speak to that.

That's not to forgive the flaw, however. This voice calling issue is a problem, and not a small one. For some users, the iPhone 4 could be near-unusable, and with that in mind, Apple's response is sort of insulting and brusque.

This is the kind of flaw that's easy for tech bloggers like myself to get worked up about. Some will demand a recall. But I think that's an overreaction. The iPhone 4 will still sell in outrageous quantities and I think the general response from customers will be very pleased. For shrewd buyers, the smart move would either be a try-out, or to wait a few weeks until we see if Apple plans to fix this issue in future manufacturing runs.

Oh, and Apple: Give out some free cases in the meantime. It's the least you can do.

Dan Nosowitz, the author of this post, can be followed on Twitter, corresponded with via email, and stalked in San Francisco (no link for that one--you'll have to do the legwork yourself).

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1 Comments

  • John Benham

    Well, shipping a product with this type of inherent design weakness has to make you ask how much in-depth engineering experience the Apple design team actually had?
    Anyone with any experience in designing antennas should have flagged the dangers of using a conventional conductive antenna on the external surfaces of a handheld product.
    While you can gain some performance benefit from being able to upsize the radiating element, the variability you produce in the feedpoint impedance match and therefore antenna performance by allowing the user to contact the external antenna element is enormous.

    To my mind this is pretty amateurish design and points to a product that has been rushed to market. At worst the problem should have been spotted and resolved in pre-production testing.