When reports surfaced Thursday that the iPhone 4 loses signal strength when simply held in the palm of a person's hand, Apple responded with words that have been uttered by countless engineering departments: user error.
That's not a direct or complete quote, of course. Apple tossed in a couple more familiar responses, such as "everyone does it" and "there's a solution, but it will cost you." Here's its full statement: "Gripping any phone will result in some attenuation of its antenna performance, with certain places being worse than others depending on the placement of the antennas. This is a fact of life for every wireless phone. If you ever experience this on your iPhone 4, avoid gripping it in the lower left corner in a way that covers both sides of the black strip in the metal band, or simply use one of many available cases."
So just how should you hold an iPhone 4 that does not result in "some attenuation of its antenna performance"? What better place to look than Apple's own video guides of the phone, or even Apple CEO Steve Jobs' own demonstrations.
First, let's take a step back to understand the reason for all this attention on attenuation--the antennas that are built into the sides of the iPhone rather than nestled within the case. When he unveiled the iPhone in early June at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference, Jobs boasted that, "This is part of some brilliant engineering which actually uses the stainless steel bands as part of the antenna system...It's got these integrated antennas right in the structure of the phone. It's never been done before. And it's really cool engineering."
Of course, the WWDC crowd cheered. And why not? Any creative engineering that can improve the dreadful performance of AT&T's network in San Francisco and elsewhere is certainly welcome. In hindsight, however, it seems possible that some other companies may have considered a similar solution but backed off due to the attenuation caused when a person's hand "covers both sides of the black strip in the metal band," as Apple put it.
So, getting back to the question at hand: how should an iPhone 4 owner hold the device, short of using silicon-tipped iTongs?
I checked out some of the videos Apple has posted on its Web site to explain the iPhone 4's various features (which are always useful and very well done), and it does not appear that any of the models modified their phone-gripping habits. Here are a couple screenshots from Apple's Web site:
OK, so some actors and employees didn't get the memo. How about Jobs himself? He also appears to be holding the phone at WWDC in a way that would cause attenuation.
For those who point out that Jobs' demonstrations were being done over Wi-Fi, I ask two things: is there a way to hold the phone when on Wi-Fi and another when on 3G or Edge? And why was he doing those demos on Wi-Fi in the first place and not on the AT&T network? This is a phone, after all, not some Starbucks Web-surfing toy.
It's possible he only uses the phone with Apple's $29 "bumper," but that's a kluge no customer should be forced to adopt just to enjoy the fruits of Apple's antenna engineering breakthrough (Scotch tape, anyone?).
The bottom line is I'm personally on the fence about upgrading to the iPhone 4. The two most significant drawbacks to the iPhone have been the battery life and the extremely frustrating AT&T network. From what I can tell, the battery life may now be acceptable, but I'm not sure I want to relearn how to hold a phone just to see if Apple's engineering magic has solved AT&T's network problems. After all, I've waited in vain for three years, and three weeks of playing with the HTC Evo shows the gap is very narrow between Apple and the competition.