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iPhone 4 antenna issue molehill, not mountain, says expert

Apply the 'Vulcan iPhone pinch' to hold Apple's phone, suggests antenna engineer

July 1, 2010 02:40 PM ET

Computerworld - The uproar over the new iPhone's reception problems is much ado about nothing, an antenna expert said today.

"We're making a mountain out of a molehill," said Spencer Webb, an antenna engineer with 11 patents to his credit, and the president of AntennaSys, a mobile device antenna design and consulting firm.

Webb was referring to the ruckus over complaints by iPhone 4 owners that they were unable to make calls, maintain a connection, or keep a strong signal on their new smartphones when they held them in specific ways.

Webb stressed that Apple is not an AntennaSys client. In fact, he hasn't yet received the iPhone 4 he ordered.

Reports of call and data signal strength problems in the new iPhone 4 surfaced immediately after consumers purchased the phone or received their pre-ordered devices. Apple has acknowledged that holding the iPhone 4 can diminish the cellular or data signal, making it difficult to place calls or retain a data connection. Among the company's suggestions: Hold the iPhone 4 differently or buy a case to cover the antennas embedded in the steel band that encircles the phone.

"I don't think this is a design defect," said Webb, who has posted a pair of blog entries analyzing the complaints and offering his opinions. "This was a design choice by Apple."

Moving the antennas to the outside of the iPhone 4 -- contrary to the designs of most modern phones, which typically have their antennas inside the case -- let Apple keep its smartphone smaller, Webb said. "I'm willing to guess that Apple had the industrial design -- the glass on front, glass on back and the steel band -- in place before any of the guts of the phone were considered," he said.

Any design that would have improved reception would have made the iPhone bigger, Webb said. "Apple is putting ten pounds of stuff in a five-pound bag," he wrote in a blog post last Saturday. "Put air space around the antenna to make it less sensitive to the presence of the human hand? Fuggetaboutit. Air doesn't sell phones."

Webb doesn't dispute the fact that the outside antenna can cause some users, in some places, to experience a signal shortage, although he downplayed the significance of most tests he'd seen people post on the Internet.

The variation in the results -- some iPhone 4 owners said they had trouble getting a signal, while others disputed those findings -- was most likely due to cell tower placement and the user's location. "If you're covered by several cell sites, you can't know what's going on," Webb said. "You can't tell what's really happening."

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