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Consumer Reports Wades Into iPhone 4 Antenna Debate, Agrees With Our Fix

Consumer Reports just revealed its full iPhone 4 review, and denied the phone “recommended” status due to problems with the antenna. They attempted to prove the design flaw using a radio anechoic chamber, and also agreed with our DIY work-around.

iphone4 antenna

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Consumer Reports just revealed its full iPhone 4 review, and denied the phone “recommended” status due to problems with the antenna. They attempted to prove the design flaw using a radio anechoic chamber, and also agreed with our DIY work-around.

CR’s experimentation involved putting several test iPhone 4 units in an RF frequency-controlled room, with a dummy cell phone transmitter unit to try and replicate the “death grip” effect. This is the controversial issue seen where gripping the iPhone in a particular way attenuates the device’s radio transmissions. Thanks to the phone’s unique design, which means you can touch the antenna–unlike nearly every other cell phone–CR proved the effect is real, and “may” affect your call quality in “weak” signal areas. This was enough for CR to withhold giving the phone “recommended” status, despite some incomplete scientific thinking in the experiments–and despite numerous reports that the phone actually delivers better reception than its predecessors.

But Consumer Reports also gave the phone exceptionally high ratings across its entire performance as a mobile device. In fact, it’s now the best smartphone in CR’s device list–you can see it topping the charts on their website via this link–beating out the Android-powered HTC Evo and the previous list-header the iPhone 3GS. This is due to a number of excellent features, including the phone’s extremely high performing screen, Web browsing and multimedia powers.

That presents the thinking consumer with something of a dilemma as to which parts of CR’s work to believe. It’s a complicated issue, you see, and there are so many design and scientific variables involved that nearly nobody in the media has tackled it properly–a situation made worse by Apple’s tight-lipped PR statements, and differing opinions about the way the iPhone displays its signal strength. Joe Public is probably going to be most swayed by Consumer Reports though, given the brand’s hefty name, and yet what CR has done is actually complicate matters more.

There’s one more CR gem: As part of the iPhone 4 testing experiment, the CR team actually recommends a work-around that’s pretty similar to our famous $0.001 DIY iPhone 4 fix. Where we suggested plastering the questioned corner of the iPhone 4’s frame with more aesthetically pleasing scotch tape, CR recommends thicker duct tape. They also suggest that popping the iPhone 4 in a case will help avoid any antenna issues, lending weight to Gizmodo’s petition for Apple to give everyone free cases.

And this story is getting a very odd spin today with news that Apple seems to be quashing discussion about the Consumer Reports report on its self-hosted support forums. We agree that the scientific basis for CR’s findings is questionable, but if Apple really is censoring any mention of the report on its site then that’s a step too far. What about the cut and thrust of reasonable debate, hey Apple?

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To keep up with this news, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)

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