July 3, 2010

Can you hear me now?

Maybe it is a good thing that I didn't jump in line to be an early adopter of the iPhone 4.

By now, I'm sure most of you have heard about the reception problems people are experiencing. There is a stainless steel band around the body of the phone that acts as the antenna. This was supposed to provide improved reception over the last model. However, if your hand touches the black line on the side of the phone, it appears that it crosses the antenna up, and cell reception all but disappears. If you haven't seen it already, this is one of the videos that demonstrate what happens

This is a rather major design flaw, especially when you are touting the design's improved reception. And what is Apple's response to consumer complaints? Essentially it "You're holding it wrong. If you can't stop holding it wrong, you can buy one of our protective cases (for $29)."
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 Phone 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.
Other, cheaper fixes have been suggested, including covering the line with electrical tape, or by surrounding the antenna with one of those yellow Livestrong rubber bracelets. Apparently there has been an increase of visits to the Livestrong site lately. 

Now, Apple has released a new excuse/reason for the signal drop off if you touch the black line - "you never had that many bars in the first place". Portions of Apple's letter read:
We have discovered the cause of this dramatic drop in bars, and it is both simple and surprising.
Upon investigation, we were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong. Our formula, in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength. For example, we sometimes display 4 bars when we should be displaying as few as 2 bars. Users observing a drop of several bars when they grip their iPhone in a certain way are most likely in an area with very weak signal strength, but they don’t know it because we are erroneously displaying 4 or 5 bars. Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place.
To fix this, we are adopting AT&T’s recently recommended formula for calculating how many bars to display for a given signal strength. The real signal strength remains the same, but the iPhone’s bars will report it far more accurately, providing users a much better indication of the reception they will get in a given area. We are also making bars 1, 2 and 3 a bit taller so they will be easier to see.
We will issue a free software update within a few weeks that incorporates the corrected formula. Since this mistake has been present since the original iPhone, this software update will also be available for the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 3G.
So...the reception has never been that good, even dating back to the last two iPhone models. I might buy this since AT&T's coverage has not been very strong. But you've only made this "stunning" discovery with the new model, and only after thousands post videos demonstrating the reason for the signal drop. And we're to believe the software that (incorrectly) calculates the signal strength is somehow made more accurate by touching the black line on the antenna? Yeahhh....

Of course, every phone or electronic device has problems and glitches. But their responses to the first problem (you're holding it wrong) sound like the old joke about a man who visits a doctor, complaining that his arm hurts whenever he moves it a certain way. The doctor’s response? “Stop moving it that way.” 

And their new  software glitch announcement doesn't explain why the signal drops when you "hold it wrong". If the software update lowers the bars for all iPhones past and present, is it just lowering expectations. Disneyland is the master of this. When you get in line and the sign says "1 1/2 hour wait from here" and it only takes an hour, most are happy about the savings of 30 minutes, rather than irritated at waiting an hour for a ride. Is Apple hoping that people will now say "look how great the iPhone performs with only two bars!"  

And the conspiracy theorist in me thinks, "hmm, has Apple been masking AT&T's poor coverage this whole time since they were locked in an exclusive agreement?" And now it has been announced that the iPhone will be available on Verizon's network in January, so maybe Apple is less concerned with burning the bridge with AT&T and trashing the strength of their network.

Whatever. Apple will continue to sell hundreds of thousands of iPhones in the meantime. I wouldn't turn one down, and who knows, I may end up getting one after they redesign it for Verizon. But imagine the "I'm a Mac" ads that would be on tv if Microsoft responded to glitches like Apple has recently. I can already see John Hodgman as PC saying "just put some black tape or a rubber band on it. Problem solved!" And having him sitting at a table with an adding machine surrounded by paper, saying, "Ah, I see where the software calculation went wrong. I forgot to carry the one. Can't believe I didn't catch that"

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