No quick fixes likely for iPhone 'death grip'
If you were hoping that the software update promised by Apple last Friday would include some special secret sauce that would prevent the new iPhone's reception from dipping when it's held the wrong way, prepare for disappointment.
Gizmodo, the iPhone-scooping tech blog that's become quite the thorn in Apple's side, says it has checked not once, not twice, but three times with the AppleCare support line, and each time the service reps said the same thing: holding the iPhone 4 in such a way that you're touching the outer steel band on the lower-left corner will indeed cause antenna interference, and the upcoming iPhone update won't do anything to change the situation.
The response isn't all that different from what Apple said in its open letter last Friday, in which it blamed the rash of complaints about the iPhone 4's "death grip" problem to a faulty reception display that's (supposedly) showing too many bars in weak signal areas.
The promised software update is due in a few weeks, and will include a revamped "formula" for displaying bars of AT&T reception — but no quick reception fixes, apparently.
While Apple admitted in Friday's letter that it was "stunned" that it got the formula for signal bars "totally wrong" in the first place, it also insisted that the reception on the new iPhone is "the best we've ever shipped" and defended the iPhone 4's design, which places the antenna in the stainless steel band that rings the phone.
Wireless experts believe that touching the antenna — particularly on a tiny gap in the lower-left corner separating the cellular section of the antenna from a second segment for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS — will put a serious dent in the iPhone's voice and data reception. And while plenty of other smartphones may exhibit reception problems if you hold them near the antenna (including last year's iPhone 3GS), the iPhone 4's redesigned external antenna has led to rampant second-guessing.
I've had no trouble replicating the problem in my Brooklyn home (a "weak signal" area, by the way), and there's a growing list of publications piling on with their own results, including the San Francisco Chronicle, AnandTech and Consumer Reports.
Consumer Reports blogger Mike Gikas says he detected a "significant effect on both call success and quality" when holding the phone in his hand. The Chronicle drew up a chart that shows a huge drop in 3G download speed when cupping the handset in the sensitive lower-left corner.
On the other hand, the tech gurus at AnandTech concluded that the iPhone 4's new antenna delivers the "best cellular reception yet" for an iPhone — so long as you use Apple's $30, rubber-and-plastic Bumper case (or you avoid touching the hands-off zone).
So, is the iPhone 4's "death grip" problem really that bad? Clearly (and unfortunately), it depends. Personally, I'm having a tough time making voice calls on my iPhone inside my AT&T-free Brooklyn apartment — but then I've always had trouble here with the iPhone, including last year's 3GS. On a recent trip to Atlantic City and in an area with excellent AT&T coverage, though, the iPhone 4 performed flawlessly, with speedier 3G download speeds than I'd seen on previous models. Was I using a Bumper? Yes, I was.
Apple's attitude aside (don't get me started), the main point is this: Buyer beware. If you're really worried about the iPhone 4's reception problems, consider waiting for the rumored Verizon iPhone next year, or go for one of those new Android superphones instead.
Another option: Try it and if you're not happy, return it within 30 days. And by the way, Apple has reportedly tossed its usual 10-percent restocking fee in the case of the iPhone 4.
And hey, if you're really, really upset with how Apple's been behaving, you could always go the class-action way.