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iPhone, Mobile Phone, Technology, Telecommunications

Signal Strength Drop – iPhone 4 vs Droid

As I am sure everybody and their dog is now aware, Apple’s latest iPhone signal strength drops to zero when you hold it in some positions. According to Steve Jobs, you should ‘just avoid holding it in that way’. Of course, the laughable part is that ‘holding it that way’ is one of the ways Apple itself recommends to hold the phone!

Apple’s second response was to say that it was a software issues with how bars were being displayed. Unfortunately, that seems to have been a bit of a lie. In an open Q&A, Jobs goes out of his way to not answer the question in his best Bill Clinton imitation:

Q: You released a software update for the iPhone about two years ago which improved the signal. You say now you’ve got a long-standing bug that doesn’t show the right bar data. Can you square those two things?

Steve: Well let me say something about Apple. We didn’t want to get into any business where we didn’t own or control the primary tech, because if you don’t the people who do own it will beat you. Our big insight about 8 years ago, was that it was going to shift from big displays or optical pickup heads, or radios being the most important component, we thought it was going to be software. And we’re pretty good at making software, we showed that in the iPod… other people are good at it too, like Palm, but we brought great software to the smartphone space. We’ve been able to create and distribute major updates to this software since the iPhone was released, and we’ve made the product better and better for free. Everyone is copying us now, but we were the first ones to do it. To answer your question, the formula we use the calculate bars has been off since the beginning, and the new update fixes that for the iPhone 4, 3G, and 3GS… I don’t know if I understand the other part of your question?

In any event simply changing how the signal strength was reported had, of course, zero effect on the fact that signal strength dropped to zilch when held. Zero signal strength is zero signal strength regardless of how many bars you show. Unless of course it’s just that AT&T can’t handle the load of all it’s iPhone users and is simply collapsing under demand, but that’s a whole ‘nother story 😀

Apple eventually did manage to make good: the company offered either a free case or a full refund to people reporting then problem. Before finally doing so though, they put out a lot of media fluff trying to downplay the issue; one of the major points they tried to make was that ANY smartphone will display signal loss if you hold it in a certain way. Which is actually quite a reasonable observation, as any antenna will suffer performance issues when surrounded by water (ie, the meat of your hand). Here’s a youtube video of some FUD showing a Motorola Droid X also dropping signal when held in a certain way:

“Apple – Smartphone Antenna Performance – Motorola Droid X”

However, the video begs two questions and since Apple has turned off comments on the video I thought I’d address them here:

  1. Is this easily reproducible?
  2. Is the position the phone is being held in actually a common position that most people would adopt?

Point (1) was easily test with my original Motorola Droid. I have even bigger hands than the person in the video, so if anything my test should show a larger effect. I had to hold it for about 90s to see the signal drop, and it went from four bars down to two and stayed there, and I could still make calls. So not as bad as in the demo – perhaps I was in an area with greater signal strength?

Point (2) was easy to answer as well – the hand position shown in the video is VERY unnatural. I can’t imagine someone holding their phone that way, it’s pretty uncomfortable. In holding my phone, I found I had two natural grips:

  • The first was to rest the phone against the meaty part under the index finger and the other fingers wrapped underneath and curled around to hold the edge against the fingertips to hold it and using the thumb or the index finger of the opposite hand to interact with the phone.
  • The second was to rest the phone edge against the meaty part under my thumb, using the thumb to press against the side of the phone and the other fingers to press against the opposite side.

When holding my phone in a natural grip, using both left and right hands, I saw no signal drop.

Holding the phone up to the ear was always using the second position – no one would curl their fingers around the phone as in the video, it keeps the phone too far away from the ear and blocks the sound to boot.

Something that I noticed about the video’s hand position while testing the Droid was that you wouldn’t actually be able to use your phone in the video’s position! The fingers overlap the touch sensitive screen and the bottom buttons – the second you exert any force, you’re going to be pressing down on a button or an area of the screen with a finger and screw up what you’re doing.

So yes indeed, Apple has a point that other phones will show signal degradation when held in certain positions that block the antenna. However unlike the iPhone 4, the Motorola Droid antenna was engineered so that common hand positions for holding the phone didn’t greatly impact the antenna’s ability to transceive. Shame on Apple for this one – the whole ‘other smartphones do it tooooooo ‘ whine is just plain FUD.

UPDATE: I’ve just found another reason why the grip issue is such a problem, quite aside from attenuation.  It appears that the hand actually bridges a gap between the wifi and the cellular antennas and turns it into one large antenna – one that physically can’t operate using cellular network radio wavelengths.  So it’s not just normal attenuation such as all phones have, but heaped on top of that is the easy-to-screw-up physical antenna issue.

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