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Hardware expert explains iPhone 4 antenna problem

Apple acknowledges reception issue, tells users to grip the new iPhone 4 differently

June 25, 2010 06:02 AM ET
iPhone 4
The gap in the outside edge of the iPhone 4's case -- shown here on the right, because this image is of the back of the new phone -- is at the heart of user reports of flaky cell reception. Photo courtesy of RapidRepair.

Computerworld - Reports of call and data signal strength problems in the new iPhone 4 have a basis in fact, a hardware expert said Thursday.

Later in the day, Apple acknowledged that holding the iPhone 4 may result in a diminished signal that could make it difficult to make and maintain calls or retain a data connection.

"Gripping any phone will result in some attenuation of its antenna performance with certain places being worse than others depending on the placement of the antennas. This is a fact of life for every wireless phone," Apple said in a statement issued to several media outlets, including PC Magazine, which had run tests earlier Thursday. "If you ever experience this on your Phone 4, avoid gripping it in the lower left corner in a way that covers both sides of the black strip in the metal band, or simply use one of many available cases."

Apple did not reply to a request for comment from Computerworld late Thursday.

Reports began making the rounds on the Web Thursday that the iPhone 4 could lose a signal, or that the signal indicator would show a weakened signal, when the smartphone has gripped in a certain way -- particularly if it was held in the left hand.

Scores of new iPhone owners confirmed the reception problem in a string of more than 360 messages posted to a thread on Apple's iPhone 4 support forum.

"Signal drops from 4-5 bars to 'searching for signal...' when I hold it in my palm or cover up the line on the lower left side of the phone," reported a user identified as "yoshjosh" on the thread. "I understand that cell signals may degrade when you cover up the antenna, but I have never seen anything this severe, and I'm not holding the phone differently than I think most people hold their phones. This is a real issue."

"That's certainly possible," said Aaron Vronko, CEO of Portage, Mich.-based Rapid Repair, a repair shop and do-it-yourself parts supplier for the iPhone, iPod and iPad. Vronko, who regularly takes apart Apple hardware to get an idea of how they're built and their capabilities, completed a teardown of the iPhone 4 by early Thursday, just hours before the smartphone went on sale at Apple's U.S. retail stores.

As Vronko explained it, holding the iPhone 4 in a specific way could disrupt one or more of the two antennas embedded in the steel strip running along the outside edge of the case. "Holding it, especially if your skin was a little bit sweaty, could bridge one or more of the antennas," said Vronko. "That would change the length of the antenna, so it would be tracking a different wavelength than Apple designed it for."

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