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Apple's iPhone 4 denial: insulting or ignorant?

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Comment Apple released a surreal missive on Friday morning that said the only thing wrong with the iPhone 4 is the way it calculates signal-strength bars. That letter is either an honest explanation or total bullshit — and it's high time that a competent, unbiased antenna-engineering team found out.

On the face of it, Apple's letter — which The Reg reported on earlier today — appears ludicrous in the extreme. Like an alcoholic in deep denial, Apple says that it's not their fault, it's the bars'.

There has been a firestorm of complaints about the iPhone 4's reception problems — hop on over to Cupertino's own discussion forums, for example, and check out recent pitchforks-and-torches outcries such as the real reason for bad reception PART 2! and Apple says iPhone 4 calculates bars wrong. And while you're there, dip into 3G data speed on iPhone 4 is painfully slow. But hurry — on Friday morning there was an active thread called Apple's Statement and Software Fix, but it has since been blocked.

While many posters note that their iPhone 4's reception is quite acceptable, thankyouverymuch, a good percentage say that reception quality has dropped noticeably below what they experienced with previous-generation iPhones.

Perhaps they didn't read Apple's letter, which points out that the signal-strength bar miscalculation "has been present since the original iPhone."

The Reg hesitates to point out three flaws in Apple's argument, simply because they're so obvious that we fear insulting your intelligence. But bear with us:

  • iPhone 4 owners aren't complaining about the number and height of their signal-strength bars, they're complaining about poor reception.
  • If the bar-height problem exisited in identical form in previous iPhones, why is Apple only now citing it as the reason behind the current hullabaloo?
  • How does Apple explain the myriad reports — here's a particularly straightforward one — of reception problems caused by bridging the iPhone 4's two external antennas by touching the spot where they meet?

In a comprehensive and generally favorable review of the iPhone 4, Anandtech delves deeply into the iPhone 4 reception capabilities, with a particularly interesting investigation of its antennas. In sum, Anandtech's conclusion is that the iPhone 4's overall reception quality is superior to that of the iPhone 3GS, but that it is much more susceptible to signal attenuation when its 3G antenna's tuning is disturbed by being touched.

In other words, according to Anandtech's data, when the iPhone 4 is in an area of high signal strength, and when its antenna is not being detuned by coming in contact with what Anandtech refers to as "ugly bags of mostly water" — meaning humans — it will outperform earlier iPhones.

However, when signal strength is poor and the antennas are compromised, the resulting more-severe attenuation would cause the iPhone 4's reception to dip below that of the iPhone 3GS.

As Anandtech puts it in a discussion of touch-induced radio-frequency attenuation:

There's nothing Apple nor anyone else can do to get around physics, plain and simple. It's something which demonstrably affects every phone's cellular reception.

Add in an external antenna you're essentially forced to touch and bridge to another adjacent antenna while holding, and the signal attenuation is even worse. The fact of the matter is that either the most sensitive region of the antenna should have an insulative coating, or everyone should use a case. For a company that uses style heavily as a selling point, the latter isn't an option. And the former would require an unprecedented admission of fault on Apple's part.

If Anandtech's testing and arguments are correct, then Apple's "it's the bars" argument is, not to put too fine a point on it, insulting.

But there's one other possibility: that Apple actually believes that the iPhone 4's problems aren't problems at all, but merely a matter of bar-based hysteria that has somehow erupted only now, even though they claim that the unintended signal-bar deception has existed in the iPhone since its release in 2007.

Luckily, it should be relatively straightforward, as we stated earlier, for a competent, unbiased antenna-engineering team to discover the truth. After all, as AnandTech pointed out: "There's nothing Apple nor anyone else can do to get around physics."

The iPhone 4 is a physical thing, not an idea, not an opinion. Its UI can be argued over, but its physical properties are just that: physical, not stylistic. They can be tested, and their performance parameters can be plotted.

Anandtech has made an excellent start, but the definitive analysis of the iPhone 4 is yet to be completed. We await the evenhanded analysis of seasoned experts who are well-versed in the black arts of antenna design and testing.

Millions of dollars, a gathering legal storm, and the reputation of Apple, its executives, and its design and engineering teams hang in the balance.

As the tagline for the 1990s television phenomena The X-Files declared: "The truth is out there." If you, dear reader, have the expertise — and we know some of you do — go find it. Please. ®

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