What we know about iPhone 4's antenna (FAQ)

As we prepare for Apple's press conference Friday, CNET outlines what it knows so far about the antenna and what it expects from the press conference.

Touching this gap on the iPhone's lower left side is affecting call quality for many users. Apple

Apple will hold a press conference Friday at 10 a.m. PDT at its headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. Although Apple has not said what it will discuss, it is expected that company execs will discuss the ongoing controversy with the iPhone 4's antenna. CNET will be at the press conference to bring you the full details, but in preparation we offer this FAQ on what we know so far.

Is Apple going to issue a full recall of the iPhone 4 on Friday?
No. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the company will not do an official recall . That would be expensive and unnecessary. When consumer product companies issue recalls it's generally for product safety issues--like those Sony notebook batteries that were catching on fire three years ago. The iPhone 4 problems have to do with the phone's antenna reception, and are inconsistent and only affecting some customers. However, the antenna issue is still a problem Apple will have to address directly.

How will Apple fix the antenna problem for people who already bought the phone and people who still want to buy it but have waited?
There are a couple of possibilities. Apple might offer free bumper cases, since that has been shown to alleviate the iPhone 4's antenna issue. Or Apple could decide to make it up to customers through an Apple Store credit--the way it did after the iPhone price-drop fiasco in 2007--ostensibly to allow people to buy a case of their choice for free.

There have also been rumors that a hardware modification is in the works. It could be a redesigned iPhone 4 with the antenna located in a different place than the current design (which would be a stretch in such a short period of time), or a plastic coating or molding that will cover the spot where the phone's two antennas meet. Perhaps this is something that Apple Genius Bar employees could fix, or maybe Apple will give customers who already own an iPhone 4 a new device.

Has CNET experienced problems with the antenna?
In our testing, and in a video that we posted last week, CNET has found that touching the antenna gap on the iPhone 4's lower left side causes call quality to degrade. We tested three different iPhone 4s in various locations in San Francisco and experienced problems using various hand positions, including one finger on the gap, cradling the handset gently, and holding it tighter with our left hand on either side. In all instances, we made sure not to cover the microphone with our hands.

Our exact experiences varied when touching the area. At times our voice cut out completely, whereas on other occasions the audio became garbled. We did not, however, suffer any dropped calls. We also found, though not as frequently, that data upload and download speeds dropped and the number of bars in the signal strength meter decreased from five to two.

I haven't experienced problems, so can it really be that big of a deal?
Other publications, from Engadget to Anandtech to Consumer Reports , have conducted tests and found similar results. We've also heard from many CNET readers who've reported problems. But more to the point: even if the problem isn't universal, it's happening to enough people to be disconcerting.

Do you buy the "death grip" theory?
No, we don't . There's a difference between holding the phone and squeezing it until you're about to crush it. Citing the death grip unfairly blames the user, which is why we weren't pleased with Apple's first statement about the issue. On Friday, we hope that Apple takes responsibility for what's going on and assures customers that it is taking their concerns seriously .

Does using the bumper solve the problem?
In our tests, using a bumper, or even putting a piece of tape over the gap, does eliminate the call quality issues. We feel, however, that customers shouldn't have to resort to an unsightly piece of tape or buy a $30 bumper to have a satisfying user experience.

How does the iPhone 4's antenna issue compare with other phones when you touch their antennas?
As we've said previously , Apple is not the first manufacturer to caution against resting your hand on an antenna. Handsets with internal antennas often include warnings in the user manual or on a sticker that is removed before use. Unlike other devices, however, the iPhone 4's cellular antenna runs around the edge of the phone, right where left-handed users tend to rest their palms. The iPhone 4 also differs from other handsets in that its antenna is electrically exposed. Instead of touching a rubber coating, you touch the antenna directly. And when you bridge the gap, your finger appears to interfere with the antenna's efficiency.

When we've touched the antenna area on other handsets, like the Motorola i1, the HTC Nexus One, and the Palm Pre, call quality diminished only a minimal amount, if it did so at all. But keep in mind that those devices don't have antennas that are completely exposed.

Did today's iPhone 4.0.1 update address the antenna issues?
No, and we didn't expect it to . The 4.0.1 update , which Apple promised two weeks ago , addresses only how bars are displayed on the screen. It's a completely unrelated issue. We'll report more on this change later.

What about the 4.1 developer release that was issued last night?
4.1 won't fix the problem, either. Instead, the update adds new features, including upgraded Bluetooth support, access to a redesigned GameCenter (which was announced, but not included, in iOS 4), a repositioned flash button when using the camera in landscape mode, the capability to add favorites for voice and FaceTime calls, and the option to turn off spell-check, according to developers who have access to the beta release.

What if Apple surprises everyone and announces the Verizon iPhone?
Then our heads would explode. But anything is possible, and we know that it would make a lot of people happy.

About the author

Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.

Kent German

Senior Managing Editor Kent German leads the CNET Reviews editors in San Francisco. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he still writes about the wireless industry and occasionally his passion for commercial aviation. See full bio

 

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