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Verizon iPhone suffers 'death grip,' says Consumer Reports

Lab, real-world tests show results similar to AT&T's model; solved with case

February 25, 2011 02:25 PM ET

Computerworld - Consumer Reports today said that its lab tests show the Verizon iPhone 4 suffers from a "death grip" problem similar to last summer's revelations about AT&T's model.

Holding the Verizon model in certain ways can "cause the phone to drop calls, or be unable to place calls, in weak signal conditions," the magazine said Friday.

Similar problems with AT&T's iPhone last summer raised a ruckus that Apple first dismissed, then dealt with by offering free cases to all owners. Apple discontinued the offer last September.

As it did last year with the AT&T version of the iPhone 4, Consumer Reports today declined to put Verizon's on its "recommended" list because of the dropped call problem, even though the device is among its highest-rated smartphones.

"[Dropped calls] can occur when you hold either version of the iPhone in a specific but quite natural way in which a gap in the phone's external casing is covered," said Paul Reynolds, the magazine's electronics editor, in a blog post.

Covering the gap at the lower left of the steel band encircling the Verizon iPhone 4 resulted in dropped calls and an inability to place calls when the cellular signal was at a low strength -- at the level of one bar in the iPhone's indicator -- said Reynolds.

"Reception typically dropped notably within 15 seconds or so of the gap being bridged," Reynolds reported.

Experts, including antenna engineer Spencer Webb, president of AntennaSys, a mobile device antenna design and consulting firm, explained last year that placing part of one's hand over a gap in the band degraded performance by bridging separate antennas, changing the length of the cellular antenna and thus its ability to receive and transmit.

The Verizon iPhone has four such gaps, one more than AT&T's version.

Consumer Reports tested the Verizon iPhone in an isolation chamber at its Yonkers, N.Y. labs, using the same equipment and methodology it used last year to confirm the quickly-dubbed "death grip" issue with AT&T's iPhone. It replicated the tests, and came up with the same results -- dropped calls, inability to place calls -- using a live network connection as well.

The solution for the Verizon iPhone's death grip problem, said Reynolds, is the same as for AT&T's smartphone: Get a case.

"When we placed the Verizon iPhone 4 into the Apple iPhone 4 Bumper, a $29 frame-like cover sold by the company, the problem was essentially eliminated," Reynolds said. "Based on past tests of the AT&T iPhone with cases of other designs, we also expect other cases sold for the Verizon iPhone 4 will alleviate the problem."

After Apple stopped giving cases to every iPhone 4 owner last September, Consumer Reports blasted the company for the move, calling the decision "not acceptable" because it put the burden on customers.

At the time it ended the case giveaway, Apple said customers had to contact product support to request a free bumper. Apple did not immediately reply today to questions about whether that offer was still valid, or to a request for comment on Consumer Reports' findings.

The publication also ran five other highly-rated smartphones through the same tests, including HTC's Droid Incredible, LG's Ally, Motorola's Droid 2 Global and Droid X, and Samsung's Fascinate. All those smartphones run Google's Android mobile operating system.

None of five Android smartphones exhibited the death grip problem.

Reynolds noted that, unlike last summer, few complaints about dropped calls have surfaced from Verizon subscribers. In an interview Friday, Reynolds declined to speculate on why consumers haven't voiced concerns about the Verizon iPhone's reception. "I will note, though, that Verizon is above average in our satisfaction surveys," he said.

The bottom line for Consumer Reports? It's not recommending the Verizon iPhone, even though it gave the device a score of 75 out of a possible 100, just one point off the top ranking of 76, which the AT&T iPhone 4, T-Mobile's myTouch 4G and Samsung's Vibrant all received.

"We're not recommending [the Verizon iPhone 4] because it has the potential to drop calls or make it unable to place them if used in a normal way," said Reynolds. "You shouldn't need to a case to use a phone."

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@computerworld.com.

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