Consumer Reports on iPhone 4's Bad Reception: Duct Tape to the Rescue

Bad reception is a hardware problem, says Consumer Reports, which offers an easy, albeit ugly, fix: duct tape.

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Mon, July 12, 2010

CIO — Apple's iPhone 4 received another blow this week when Consumer Reports said it could not recommend the new smartphone because of reception problems.

The venerable publication that prides itself on independent product reviews bought three iPhone 4s from separate retailers in the New York area. Consumer Reports engineers then tested the devices in a radio frequency isolation chamber by connecting them to a base-station emulator, which simulates carrier cell towers, Consumer Reports says.

[ iPhone 4 complaints are mounting, reports CIO.com. Is a recall in its future? ]

The final analysis: Consumer Reports confirmed that the signal can degrade by up to 20 decibels when a finger or hand touches the gap between the two antennas on the iPhone 4's lower left side.

The findings are in stark contrast to Apple's claims that the reception problem stems from the way an algorithm calculates bars of reception, which conveniently frees AT&T's network from any culpability. Consumer Reports also tested the iPhone 3GS and Palm Pre in the same conditions, yet none of those phones experienced the same signal-loss problem.

When the iPhone 4's reception problem first surfaced, Apple said it was a problem shared by all phones in the "wireless world," and advised consumers to hold the iPhone differently. Two weeks ago, Apple reversed course by blaming software and promised to deliver a software update.

"The antenna problem and Apple's screwy software response has become kind of a running joke," analyst Rob Enderle, of the Enderle Group, told CIO.com. A software problem can be fixed relatively easy, whereas a hardware problem carries the potential of a recall.

"No one wants to face Jobs' wrath if they had to actually do one," Enderle says.

Consumer Reports, however, did offer an easy fix: "Cover the antenna gap with a piece of duct tape or another thick, non-conductive material. It may not be pretty, but it works. We also expect that using a case would remedy the problem. We'll test a few cases this week and report back."

One can just imagine what the ever-aesthetic Apple chief Steve Jobs thinks of that solution.

Consumer Reports gave the iPhone 4 solid ratings on display sharpness and improved battery life over its predecessors. It even said the iPhone 4 has the best video camera of any phone. But the antenna problem looms as a major hurdle toward a Consumer Reports recommendation.

Concludes Consumer Reports: "If you want an iPhone that works well without a masking-tape fix, we continue to recommend an older model, the 3GS."

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Networking for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Tom at tkaneshige@cio.com.

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