iPhone 3G reception 'normal,' say Swedish engineers

Tests may shift blame from Apple to carriers for dropped calls, poor reception

Apple Inc.'s iPhone 3G offers "normal" reception, Swedish engineers who tested the smart phone said today, adding to the controversy over reports of dropped calls and slow surfing speeds.

Tests done by Bluetest AB, a manufacturer of antenna-testing chambers, showed that the iPhone 3G's transmission and receiving results were "completely normal," said its CEO, Mats Andersson.

The tests compared the iPhone 3G with the Sony Ericsson P1 and Nokia N73 handsets at the request of the city's largest daily newspaper, the Gteborgs-Posten, by placing each in a Bluetest chamber and running a suite of signal tests.

Bluetest's chambers, which resemble the small walk-in coolers found in restaurant kitchens, are used by antenna makers to test designs of cell phone, laptop and router antennas. The chambers duplicate real-world conditions, such as in an office or home, or on the street in an urban area, where there are multiple reflective surfaces.

The bottom line: The Sony Ericsson proved slightly better at receiving signals and the N73 edged the iPhone at transmitting signals.

But Andersson considered even the largest difference, the 2 dBm between the iPhone and the Nokia in transmission power, as insignificant. "I wouldn't say it is enough to make a difference in reception," he said. "In the real world, when we move around, 2 dBm would make a very small difference." Only if the variance had reached 4 to 6 dBm, added Andersson, could the iPhone's reception and transmission capabilities be called into question.

Andersson's engineers tested the iPhone 3G with wireless, GPS and Bluetooth disabled as well as enabled to eliminate the chance that other signals might be interfering with the phone's cellular connection. Bluetest reported no difference between the disabled and enabled tests.

Owners of Apple's newest phone have complained of poor reception almost since it debuted July 11. The complaints, which center around frequent dropped calls, slow data downloads and poor signal strength, even when in areas supposedly covered by a 3G network, have prompted several thousand messages to Apple's support forum, as well as a lawsuit filed last week by an Alabama woman.

Although Apple issued an iPhone software update last week that it said included 3G communication improvements, users disagreed, maintaining on the support forum that the fix had not changed their phone's performance.

Also last week, Birmingham, Ala. resident Jessica Smith filed a lawsuit in federal court that charged Apple with breach of warranty. Smith also asked that her suit be granted class-action status so that other iPhone 3G owners could join her in demanding that Apple replace or repair the phone, which she claimed was defective.

Most users have blamed Apple for the problems, saying that other 3G phones they own have no trouble keeping connected to a particular carrier's network. Some users in Europe, where 3G has been in place much longer than in the U.S., have also reported difficulty making calls with their iPhones.

Bluetest's results may shift attention from Apple to mobile operators. AT&T Inc., for example, is still in the process of upgrading its 3G network in the U.S., where it's promised to add another 50 metropolitan areas to its coverage by the end of the year, and to double existing 3G capacity in nearly have its cell sites nationally.

But Andersson wasn't ready to clear the iPhone, simply because his company tested only one phone. "What we can say is that Apple designed the iPhone to have the same performance as the Sony Ericsson and the Nokia," he said.

"I also think it shows what should be done. Someone should make these kinds of measurements with iPhones from different countries and different production batches."

Ironically, two weeks ago, another Swedish publication, the engineering weekly Ny Teknik claimed it had data from unnamed mobile experts that said Apple's phone suffered from substandard signal sensitivity because of a problem somewhere between the phone's antenna and its signal amplifier.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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