iPhone 4S battery issue reminiscent of 'antennagate'

Even though it hasn't gotten quite the attention of last year's iPhone 4 antenna ordeal, users are asking Apple for answers about less-than-expected battery life on its newest phone. Will Apple answer? History says yes.

Low battery symbol.
CNET

commentary Apple's silence on a problem that appears to be affecting a number of iPhone 4S users is bringing back memories of last year's "antennagate," something that could give hope to those expecting a fix.

As noted last week , users have flocked to Apple's support site to complain about lower than advertised battery life on the new phone, which went on sale in mid-October.

On paper, the new phone beats out its predecessor by one hour of 3G talk time, yet falls 100 hours shorter when it comes to standby--the time a phone will continue to run when not being used for phone calls or other functions. But affected users say Apple's numbers are far too generous, with fully charged devices running out of juice during the course of a workday, even with minimal use.

Despite what's now a 170-page support forum thread (among several others like it 1, 2, 3), and a number of media stories on the matter, Apple has refrained from weighing in to users or to press.

Why is that? Look no further than what happened when users took aim at the iPhone 4's antenna design last year. Owners posted videos holding the phone tightly, showing that it would eventually lose some reception, something that was criticized as being a hardware flaw. Apple did not weigh in on the matter for three weeks, deciding instead to hold a press conference to address what had been dubbed "antennagate" with a sea of data to show that other phones had similar issues.

Is it too soon to classify Apple's lack of reaction this time around to what happened last year around the iPhone 4 antenna? Not necessarily.

First off, this is affecting some users with the iPhone 4 as well as those with Apple's newer iPhone 4S. In those cases it can be assumed that the culprit is iOS 5, a major software release Apple put out just ahead of the iPhone 4S hitting shelves that adds on a number of new features to the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 hardware.

So does that mean the software is half-baked? The run up to its release would suggest otherwise. Apple spent a considerable amount of time in near-public testing before delivering it to users (seven beta versions for developers, in fact), all inside a four-month span. That said, it's not without some bugs.

Apple's A5 processor, the first dual-core processor to come in an iPhone.
Apple's A5 processor, the first dual-core processor to come in an iPhone. Apple

Looking at the iPhone 4S specifically, it's easy to wonder if it's the hardware that's slurping the battery life away. New to the 4S is a dual-core processor, a first for an iPhone, though not a first for an Apple device, with the iPad 2 jumping to Apple's A5 processor earlier this year. A teardown by iFixit shortly after the iPhone 4S' release showed it to be the very same processor that's in the iPad 2, though running at a lower speed to save energy.

Does that really hold up as something to point a finger at though? During Apple's iPhone 4S unveiling, Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing, suggested otherwise, saying the company had not only matched the battery life of the previous model but beaten it in some cases. "You would think if you put a processor that powerful inside a super thin phone, one of the things you're going to trade off is battery life. But the hardware and software teams have worked really hard to get industry leading battery life as well," he said.

Then again, if a report in the The Guardian last week is to believed, Apple engineers have been contacting some unhappy iPhone 4S users who had weighed in on the growing support thread about the issue, all in order to collect relevant phone usage logs. In a follow-up over the weekend, the outlet then suggested that the problem had to do with turning off an automatic time zone setting that was pinging for location data non-stop. Yet users who read CNET's own coverage of that fix, and a number of users on Apple's forums said that didn't help.

What's next?
Looking back at what Apple did to handle both the iPhone 4 antenna issue in 2010, as well as the location collection log that researchers highlighted earlier this year, one thing becomes clear: if it's going to be addressed, there's going to be data crunching on Apple's end to either back it up or debunk it. As late Apple co-founder, then chief executive officer Steve Jobs said at the antenna press conference last year (emphasis mine):

"We heard about this not long after we started shipping just 22 days ago from today. It's not like Apple's had its head in the sand for 3 months on this guys, it's been 22 days. Apple is an engineering-driven company. We've got some of the finest scientists and engineers here in the world in the areas were need to create our products. And the way we work is we want to find out what the real problem is before we start to come up with solutions. So we've been working our butts off for the last 22 days to understand what the real issues are here, so that we can come up with real solutions."

That sentiment was echoed again in April this year, when all eyes turned on Apple to explain what it was doing with a collection of unencrypted location data that was being stored on iOS devices. In an interview with All Things D, Jobs said:

"We're an engineering-driven company. When people accuse us of things, the first thing we want to do is find out the truth. That took a certain amount of time to track all of these things down. And the accusations were coming day by day. By the time we had figured this all out, it took a few days. Then writing it up and trying to make it intelligible when this is a very high-tech topic took a few days. And here we are less than a week later."

In both cases Apple issued a software update to address the issue at hand shortly after acknowledging it publicly. Looking back on the release of the iPhone 4, it took Apple less than a month to release the first iOS software update for that device, which arrived as a patch of sorts to change the way the phone displayed carrier signal strength . For the location database it was two weeks for a fix that would remove the data store outright every time a user turned location services off.

So that brings us back to now. Will we get a similar software update for any battery issues? History would suggest that's the case if it affects a big enough group of users. In those two aforementioned cases it was everyone with an Apple device, which does not seem to be the case with this latest issue. Could there still be a problem though? A 170-page thread on the matter, and reports of Apple contacting users about it for more data suggests so. Just don't expect a press conference about it if there's a fix in store.

 

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