Cell phones and attenuation

Though Apple is is not the first manufacturer to caution against resting your hand on an antenna, we haven't seen such a drop in reception from other phones.

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
2 min read
Every phone has an antenna, but the iPhone 4's is special. James Martin/CNET

"Attenuation" has become a buzzword ever since issues with touching the iPhone 4's antenna were first reported after its release. Indeed, on June 24, 2010, Apple defended itself by saying that attenuation is "a fact of life for every wireless phone" and it advised users to hold the handset differently or buy a bumper. As Apple put it, gripping any phone can affect antenna performance depending on the placement of the antenna.

That's a fair point, and Apple is not the first manufacturer to caution against resting your hand on an antenna. As handset designers began to use internal antennas, such phones started to include warnings in the user manual or an 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.

Yet, that doesn't mean that Apple gets off the hook. Just consider handsets that place antennas at the bottom end, a trend that largely started with the Motorola Razr V3. Users typically don't hold such a device with their palm or fingers resting against the antenna area. Rather, they hold the phone by either side. With the iPhone 4, however, the cellular antenna runs around the edge of the phone, right where left-handed users tend to rest their palm. And what about that gap between the antennas on the left spine? That area is a particularly sensitive spot, which suggests that the the phone's very design is playing a role beyond simple attenuation.

We also don't completely buy the "death grip" explanation. Honestly, death grip is not a term we heard before the iPhone 4 came along. Sure, squeezing a phone firmly may cause problems with reception, but there's a difference between doing that (if, in fact, that's what a death grip is) and just resting the phone in your hand. Blaming it on the death grip unfairly blames users for doing something natural.

We're conducting tests to explore this issue further. In our experience, touching the antenna area of other phones hasn't had as much of a negative affect as we've seen on the iPhone 4, particularly with call quality. But to be fair, we want to test other phones again to see how they compare with Apple's handset. When we get the results, we'll report them here.

While we work, however, we have questions for you. Have you experienced attenuation issues with other cell phones? If so, what has happened, and how bad were the issues? And please tell us the model of your affected handsets. We'd love for you to be part of the conversation, so please share your stories.