iPhone 4 antenna issue: User error or design flaw?

We can't help but wonder whether the reception problems are due to the way people are holding the phone or the way Apple decided to make it.

Erica Ogg Former Staff writer, CNET News
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.
Erica Ogg
4 min read

Apple says that the way you hold the iPhone 4 affects the reception.
Apple says that the way you hold the iPhone 4 affects the reception. Apple

After just a few days in customers' hands, the iPhone 4 has been demonstrated to show signal loss when gripped in a certain way. Apple is writing it off as easily fixable by altering the way it's held. But is it a problem with the way customers are holding it or a flaw in Apple's design?

The iPhone 4, which went on sale for the first time Thursday, has two antennas built very close to the metal band running around the exterior of the device. The one running on the left side of the phone is for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, the one on the right is for cellular reception. Steve Jobs said recently this design was intended to improve reception.

But by Wednesday night, who received early delivery, that when the phone is gripped in a way that touches the left bottom area of the phone, reception degrades or disappears in some cases. In CNET's own testing we were able to replicate the problem in the iPhone 4 in some cases, though it appeared to vary by person, place, and device. Apple acknowledged the issue Thursday night.

"Gripping any phone will result in some attenuation of its antenna performance with certain places being worse than others depending on the placement of the antennas," the company said in a statement. "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."

Their response points to the problem being the fault of the customer, not Apple's design. But the fact that the issue, when it happens, appears to be easily solved by shielding the bottom left corner with a silicone case, or as has been suggested with a piece of Scotch tape, points to the fault being in the way the phone was designed.

Utility or design?
In many smartphones today, the antenna is built into the bottom of the phone. That's for two reasons: to meet FCC requirements regarding the specific absorption rate, or SAR (how much radiation is allowed to enter the human body), and because the extending antenna went out of style several years ago.

Smartphone makers are placing more constraints on themselves to make increasingly smaller phones with increasingly sophisticated features and design. They're trying to fit larger batteries and more powerful processors into smaller packages, along with flashy materials, and a specific aesthetic. And those companies, like Apple with its iPhone 4, have to begin making certain choices and prioritizing, noted Spencer Webb, the president of AntennaSys, an antenna design firm.

"Given all these constraints, the person who designed (the iPhone 4) did something pretty daring. They moved the antenna to the vicinity of the band," said Webb in an interview. "Using the band as part of the antenna system is pretty bold. I don't remember that happening in a consumer device in my recent memory."

"Bold" could be interpreted as a poor choice, especially if it is causing some people to lose reception on their iPhone 4. Many phone makers have put the internal antenna near the bottom back of the phone. Apple did this with previous versions of the iPhone. As other handset designers began to do this, too, they started to include warnings in the user manual or a sticker that is removed before use. Users aren't told that poor reception will result from touching the antenna, they're just told to avoid the area.

The Motorola i1, HTC Nexus One, and Palm Pre have bottom-facing antennas as well. In CNET's own testing we did not experience a drop in reception or audio clarity even when we held the phones with our hand in the antenna area.

Quick fixes
It's been suggested that there are ways to fix the antenna issue. Putting a piece of tape over the antenna area in the lower left corner of the phone, or buying a rubber case, as Apple has suggested. But it's certainly not very customer friendly to suggest that after paying $199 or $299 for a phone that you also need to pay $30 to fix a possible design flaw.

It's possible customers will begin to demand less clever design and more utility out of their phones. It's a cycle that repeats itself, Webb said.

"I think it's a pendulum and the pendulum swings," he said. "When the pendulum swings to where it's all about visual and industrial design...as soon as (the phone) stops performing they won't do that anymore. When it gets to be good performance it goes the other way."

But Apple continues to sell phones at an impressive rate--possibly 1.5 million iPhone 4s in one day. So if customers keep voting with their dollars, it's unclear how much that could change.

CNET's Kent German contributed to this report.