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iPhone 4 antenna issue molehill, not mountain, says expert

July 1, 2010 02:40 PM ET

Other factors, he noted, include difficulty in determining what the iPhone's signal strength indicator -- the basis for most people's conclusions -- really represents.

He acknowledged he had not had an opportunity to read the report published Wednesday by the technology site AnandTech that quantified the signal loss, or attenuation, when the iPhone 4 is held in certain ways.

If the iPhone 4 was suspended in mid air, with nothing or no one touching it, it would likely perform admirably. "But the antenna isn't just the antenna, it's the entire field around the antenna. If there's enough air around it outside the case, you're fine," Webb said today in a telephone interview. "But there are environmental factors that impede a signal. And the human hand is an environmental factor."

Specifically, placing part of one's hand over one of the two slots in the steel frame degrades antenna performance, as the human body's conductivity bridges the separate antennas, changing the length of the cellular antenna, which is designed in a specific length to best receive and transmit the cell frequencies. "There's no way around this," said Webb, again noting that it was a design choice mandated by Apple, and to a lesser extent, AT&T and the Federal Communications Commission's testing.

A case would help, said Webb, but probably wouldn't solve everyone's problems. Suggestions to do things like place tape over the slots are pure "hokum," he said.

The most likely solution is that users will learn how to cope by holding the iPhone 4 slightly differently than they held earlier models, or even other phones. That's essentially the same advice Apple CEO Steve Jobs has reportedly given users in a series of infrequent, and impossible-to-verify, e-mails.

"The iPhone is so cool that we'll forgive Apple that we're going to have to do the Vulcan iPhone pinch to hold it," Webb said, referring to his term for holding the phone with the thumb on one side, the middle finger on the other, and the index finger on the top back.

Webb's bottom-line advice for users of the iPhone 4? "Give it a couple of weeks," he said. "Use it like you used your last phone. If it doesn't make you happy, return it to Apple. But, give it a chance, and 24 hours ain't it."

Not everyone agrees with Webb that the iPhone 4's problems are trivial. Several iPhone owners have already filed lawsuits against both Apple and AT&T over the problem, with at least three cases seeking class-action status in both California and Maryland federal courts.

Lawyers for one of the plaintiffs, Christopher Dydyk of Cambridge, Mass., accused Apple of "massive fraud" by shipping allegedly defective iPhone 4s.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at Twitter @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed Keizer RSS. His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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