Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Antenna Gate

201283-jobs-iphone4-flaw_original.jpgOk, I watched the press conference last week and I have been using an iPhone for 26 days now.  I have spent half of that time with and without the bumper case on my phone to see if I can tell a difference.  Remember I upgraded from an iPhone 3G to the iPhone 4 so the extra processor speed, upgraded display, upgraded storage, memory, cameras, and design made the new iPhone 4 a huge step up from my old phone.  So after one month of use how does the new phone stack up and is the antenna issue really an issue at all?
First I can say with our without the bumper I drop fewer calls than I did with the iPhone 3G.  I have to date only dropped 2 calls.  Which is far better than I have had in the past or with other carriers.  Now there happens to be an AT&T cell tower close to my home and our office has repeaters in the building.  Most of the time when I am out and about I notice I get between three and five bars with the new algorithm Apple included in the iOS 4.0.1 upgrade.  

As a side note if you are on a 3G or 3Gs iPhone I highly recommend upgrading to iOS 4.0.1, it makes the phone much faster than the 4.0 upgrade was except for loading text messages seems to be a little slow still but the email issues have been resolved and virtual keyboard lag was resolved.  

I live in a city with pretty good AT&T 3G coverage.  There are of course a few weak spots but for the most part it works pretty well.  That is the most important thing for a phone.  If you live in an area where you don’t get good AT&T coverage then the iPhone may not be the phone for you.  I will go in depth next week on this topic and options for iPhone users that live in weaker coverage areas. 

So Apple introduced the iPhone 4 with new features like an external antenna built into the metal band around the phone.  They introduced a more sensitive radio chip that can pick up weaker signals than the previous iPhones.  They attempted to make the iPhone a better phone and for the most part succeeded but there were a few people who complained loud about the external antenna and now that Apple has seen a string of successful products the media seems to be dying to see them fail at something.  A Microsoft exec even went so far as to call iPhone 4 Apple’s Vista.  Well, the difference between Vista and iPhone 4 is of course people are buying the iPhone 4.  

Is there signal attenuation when you cover the phone with your hand?  The so called iPhone death grip.  Yes, the signal does drop from reports about 20 db.  Now at home or in most locations where I have five bars it doesn’t impact me at all.  I have never dropped a call because of how I was holding the phone.  If I am in a weaker signal location where I am getting say three bars I might drop to one bar.  But I can still make and receive calls.  

The bars on a phone are a throw back to the days of analog phones when they told you how strong a signal you were receiving.  It would tell you if your call was going to be clear or if you might have a lot of static in your call.  Today all of our calls are digital just 1’s and 0’s.  The important predictor of completing a call successfully is the bit error rate (BER) which isn’t displayed on the phone at all.  I am not saying the bars are useless they do give you a little information.  How strong is the signal coming in gives you a rough prediction of your call quality over time.  If you have five bars you are less likely to drop the call than if you have only one or two bars.  Also if you have five bars you will use less battery power than if you only have one bar.  GSM phones will increase or decrease their output power based on the strength of the incoming signal in order to save battery power.  

The important thing is it’s not the number of bars that are the most important thing, it is do you have good coverage in the area you want to use your phone and can you complete those calls?  Testing has indicated the iPhone does a better job of pulling in a weak signal and making it usable than its predecessor that coupled with the detuning of the antenna when you hold it in your hand could account for a slight increase in dropped calls.  Fewer people using cases can as well.  

Apple has offered free bumper cases through September 30th and refunds to all users who bought a bumper for their iPhone 4 to make up for the issue.  They are reevaluating at the end of September to decide what the permanent fix should be or to keep giving away the bumpers.  Rumors seem to indicate they are looking at a process to Anodize the bands to put a layer of insulation between the users hand and the antenna to solve the problem.  

Why didn’t Apple see this in their early testing?  Well for one look how phones are tested in a testing chamber.  They are usually clamped into holder and held out in the room and tested.  When a human test subject is used to test the phone how are they holding the phone?  Do they tests different grips and left or right-handedness?  I bet they will start doing that now if they haven’t in the past.  

When the iPhones were field tested they were placed in cases to make them look like 3Gs phones so the users field testing never came in contact with the antennas when they are off campus .  On the Apple campus they have AT&T and Verizon towers right there so a strong signal you don’t see the attenuation problem.  So it is possible they didn’t really know about it until there were over a million phones in the field and they started getting data back from AT&T about dropped call rates.  It is also possible they knew but didn’t think it would be a big issue until the phone was in users hands.  Either way Apple is taking steps to deal with it now.  By offering full refunds within 30 days to those who aren’t happy so far the return rate has been about 1.7%.  They have also offered the free bumpers to customers as an option as well.  

RIM, Nokia, and Motorola weighed in on Monday criticizing Apple for dragging them into the issue by demoing the same affect on other phones and denying their phones suffered the same problem the iPhone does.  

First Nokia includes instructions on their phones how to hold it properly for the best reception.  While their PR people say they put antenna design above all other considerations when designing a phone.  Second a good friend of mine has a Droid phone and was suffering from dropped calls.  She asked me about this antenna issue and I was explaining where the antenna is located on her phone and she happened to mention she gets a lot of dropped calls and happens to hold her phone at the bottom where the antenna is located.  As an experiment she tried modifying her grip on the phone and she has not been dropping calls since.  So any company that says they do not have a problem with reception based on how you hold the phone is full of it.  This is a problem with physics and short of moving back to a mast type of antenna nothing is going to completely solve the issue yet.  The first Star-Tac cell phones had a pull up antenna and the engineers knowing some people wouldn’t extend the antenna installed a helical antenna inside the phone and a switch on the antenna.  If the mast was extended the mast antenna would be used and the helical turned off.  If the mast wasn’t extended the helical would be used instead.    

Every cell phone is a radio with an antenna and software to connect to a network of towers.  It is a complex process that few including myself fully understand and it is a miracle it works for the most part.  The iPhone is an excellent phone and if you live in a good AT&T coverage area a competent device.  If you don’t have good AT&T coverage it might not be the best phone for you.  

So long to the Microsoft Kin after only being out about a month Microsoft killed it off due to poor sales we hardly new ye.  So long also to the Google G1 Phone Google just announced this last week it is going away with no plans for a G2 replacement, that is disappointing.  So long Droid and hello Droid X  it seems like you were only around about 8 months before being replaced.  Thanks to Apple for kicking off a mobile computing revolution and thanks to Android and the others for keeping Apple pushing forward and improving the technology.  This is truly an exciting time to witness the advances in technology and I can only imagine what the next five to ten years will bring.

As far as Antenna Gate goes, if you like your iPhone get one, it is a great upgrade.  If you like your Droid or G1 and don’t want to deal with AT&T stick with what you have.  If you have a Palm Pre, well I would look for a better phone perhaps check out the HTC Evo if you are in one of the few areas with 4G coverage.  If you can live with AT&T and you want a great easy to use smart phone then come on over to the iPhone we have lot’s of great apps and all the iPhone owners are always happy to share their favorite apps and talk with a fellow iPhone owner and Apple strives to keep their customers happy despite having to use AT&T as a carrier.