iPhone 4 Grip of Death: I Believe

The iPhone 4 Grip of Death: I’m a Believer
It took three weeks of real-world use before I figured it out. But I'm finally convinced that the iPhone 4's antenna problem is real, that it's affecting my phone in certain situations, and that there's no scenario in which Apple is done responding to this issue.

I spent yesterday at the MobileBeat 2010 conference at San Francisco's Palace hotel. The hotel is in the South of Market neighborhood, where making phone calls on an iPhone over AT&T can be an iffy proposition in the best of circumstances. And over the course of the day, I ducked out of the conference several times to make important calls.

(Don't ask me why I brought the iPhone to the event rather than my Verizon Droid, which is pretty reliable in the same area-it's probably a testament either to my poor judgement or the overriding appeal of all the things that are right about the iPhone.)

I made one phone call that went fine. Then I waited for a call which didn't come and eventually discovered that it had gone straight to voice mail, even though the iPhone reported robust signal strength. Then I made a call that dropped. Then one in which the person on the other end of the line sounded dandy, but he could barely hear me.

Then another call where the other party said I sounded horrible, until the call dropped. Then the phone decided to stop connecting at all.

Over the course of all this, I kept scurrying about-first inside the hotel, and then at nearby coffee shops-hoping to find a spot with better coverage. Nothing helped.

And then I did what I should have done in the first place: I gingerly held the iPhone 4 by my right hand, making sure that my fingers stayed far away from the danger zone of the lower left-hand corner.

Bingo. The call went through and didn't drop, and the person on the other end of the line marveled at how good I sounded.

Aside from a couple of earlier dropped calls, this was the first real trouble I'd had with my iPhone. For the most part, it's not only worked okay but given me the impression that reception is better than with the iPhone 3GS. When calls have worked at all, the voices on the other end have come through as clearly as with any phone I've ever owned.

All of which leads me to believe that the conventional wisdom that seems to be forming is true: The iPhone 4's innovative antenna-wrapped-around-the-case improves reception. Except when you use the phone in an area with marginal reception, aren't using a case, and bridge the gap in the lower left-hand corner with your hand. In that situation, it can be deadly.

(Why didn't I have the iPhone 4 in a case? Because the only one I've seen for sale so far is Apple's "Bumper"-and it interferes with the dock connector I use to connect the phone to my car stereo. Once a bevy of third-party cases from companies such as InCase and Speck are available, I'm sure I'll buy one. Until then, I plan to patch my phone up with the miracle cure known as duct tape.)

I see no signs that this story is going away. The antenna problems are on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, in a story by Ryan Kim which brings up the manufacturing problems which may have helped doom Apple's famously unsuccessful Cube G4 Mac. Cult of Mac's Leander Kahney has a good story up with quotes from crisis-control experts predicting that Apple will have to do something big to respond to this. And Apple's initial, incomplete explanation-that it's all a software glitch involving how many bars of reception are displayed-doesn't seem to have mollified many people.

I don't see how Apple can avoid taking further action here-including acknowledging that the issue exists, figuring out a way to help customers who are encountering it, and manufacturing an iPhone 4 that doesn't suffer from it. It doesn't matter whether the reception issue is widespread and crippling or merely an intermittent quirk-if the world forms the impression that the iPhone 4 is a lemon, it's a devastating problem for Apple.

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