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Apple's Antennagate: why bars are great for measuring soap, not signals


Editorial by Michael Oryl on Monday July 19, 2010.

apple iphone 4 · editorials · apple news · ios news · smartphone news · michael oryl

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On Friday, Apple CEO Steve Jobs attempted to address concerns over what has come to be known as the "death grip" problem with his company's new iPhone 4 smartphone, which Apple calls the "Antennagate" scandal. The iPhone 4 features an external metal antenna that forms the outer edge of the phone. The issue stems from the fact that when a user grabs the phone primarily around its base, the phone can report a drop of many "bars" on its signal indicator - and even drop a call.

Apple's response was multi-fold. For starters, it issued an update to the iPhone 4's iOS smartphone operating system. Version 4.0.1 changes the algorithm used to determine how many bars are shown. Apple claims that it had been improperly calculating the bars, and that those calculations made the reception drop appear worse than it really was. At this point Apple appears to be saying that "bars" are not an accurate way to measure signal strength. This is quite true, in fact. Different phones use different formulas for reporting signal strength. It seems quite obvious that bars can't be used to measure signal strength (or loss) between different devices if they can't even be used to compare signal between two iPhone 4s with different OS versions.

So after indirectly (and accurately) proving that bars are in invalid metric for measuring antenna performance, Jobs and Apple then went on to show a video that featured three competing smartphones suffering from a death grip signal loss issue. But how, exactly, did Apple measure that signal loss? By using bars, of course.

Our technically minded readers will already know that wrapping a hand tightly around the location of the antenna on any phone will cause signal loss. Your hand is shielding the phone from the signal in the same way that a lead apron shields your private parts from X-rays during medical tests. The problem with the iPhone 4 is not that a death-grip causes signal loss. The problem is that a single finger placed on the gap between the two antennas on its left edge can cause signal loss.

But this is not due to shielding the antenna, this is due to de-tuning it. Antennas are crafted in specific sizes and shapes to pick up particular frequencies. Making an antenna longer or shorter will change what it picks up. Any child with a radio will understand the basics of how a human can impact reception with his or her body. Apple's iPhone 4 antenna is located where it can be easily touched by the user, and where a lone finger can have the effect of combining multiple antennas, rendering them less effective.

There are other factors at play here that have been largely ignored by Apple and the press alike. People have been reporting that while iPhone 'X' might suffer no signal loss in tests, iPhone 'Y' does. Or that phones in such and such an area work, and those in others do not. Hogwash. All of the phones react the same way, what is changing is the strength of the signal in that location and the body chemistry of the user.

 
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About the author

Michael Oryl
Michael is the Philadelphia based owner and former editor-in-chief of MobileBurn.com. You can follow him on Twitter as @MichaelOryl

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