iPhone Antenna Woes Due to Design Flaw, Try Duct Tape: Consumer Reports

Consumer Reports, the long-running consumer product testing publication of the non-profit Consumers Union, has concluded from its own tests that the iPhone 4 antenna problems are inherent to the hardware, and Apple's planned software update won't fix the problem. Instead, it's got another fix in mind: Duct tape.

One of the major changes in the iPhone 4 design over prior generations is its antenna. Instead of being tucked away inside the case, the stainless steel band that encompasses the phone acts as an antenna. However, Consumer Reports has now become the latest to join a chorus of complaints about the design, blaming it for a flaw that can unexpectedly degrade the phone's wireless signal.

Since consumers first got a hold of the iPhone 4 in late June, the blogosphere has been abuzz with reports that users have witnessed drops in their phones' signal bars when the phone is held a certain way. After a few weeks, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) issued a statement that the problem was not the antenna but a software glitch and it promised an imminent fix.

Since then, however, the Web has been replete with claims of evidence that both proves and disproves the claim. Tech hobbyist site Anandtech did its own tests and came to the conclusion that while there is a problem, the iPhone 4 is still a vastly better phone than its predecessors.

But now Consumer Reports has weighed in with its own findings. It notes that when a user's hand covers a spot on the bottom left of the phone -- where the steel band splits -- "the signal can significantly degrade enough to cause you to lose your connection altogether if you're in an area with a weak signal."

"Due to this problem, we can't recommend the iPhone 4," the publication said in its review.

CR said it came to this conclusion after testing three iPhone 4s in its radio frequency (RF) isolation chamber. The room "is impervious to outside radio signals," according to the publication, and inside, test engineers set up their own base-station emulator to examine the iPhone 4 as well as the iPhone 3GS and Palm Pre -- neither of which demonstrated the signal-loss problems of the iPhone 4.

"Our findings call into question the recent claim by Apple that the iPhone 4's signal-strength issues were largely an optical illusion caused by faulty software that 'mistakenly displays two more bars than it should for a given signal strength,'" the publication said.

CR previously tested the iPhone 4 outdoors, using AT&T's network rather than its own RF isolation chamber setup. It published those results a week earlier.

"That was our initial, informal testing and then we took it into the lab to validate -- is it the phone or is it the signal, which isn't clear when you are out in the field," Paul Reynolds, electronics editor for Consumer Reports, told InternetNews. "So we wanted to do it scientifically in the lab to verify it was the phone, not the signal."

iPhone fix: Duct tape?

The solution, though, may be a bit unappealing to iPhone 4 aficionados who love their phone's sleek design: Consumer Reports recommends putting a strip of duct tape over the impacted area.

"It may not be pretty but it works," the report said. The company also said a protective case might help, and that it would test out some cases and see how they work.

For the time being, however, Reynolds said a case is not an acceptable fix.

"To us, consumers should not be required to use an accessory for a phone to function in the customary manner of a cell phone," Reynolds said. "It is true that a lot of people encase these phones, but we don't think a phone should be designed to be encased to work satisfactorily at all times."

Other than the antenna problem, CR did like the new iPhone, complimenting it on its display and video camera, improved battery life, video chatting and the built-in gyroscope.

"But Apple needs to come up with a permanent -- and free -- fix for the antenna problem before we can recommend the iPhone 4," it concluded.

Apple did not return requests for comment.

Still, not everyone remains convinced that the iPhone 4 does indeed suffer a design flaw.

"I've done everything on it. Squeezed it, gripped it, you name it and I can't get the problem to show up, so I don’t know what they are talking about," Iain Gillott, president of wireless market research firm iGR, told InternetNews.com. "From a user perspective, I haven't got a problem at all. I don’t know anybody who has. In all honesty, it's almost like these things come out and people say 'OK, what's wrong with it?' and start looking for problems."

In fact, Gillott said he's seen improved performance with the new iPhone, and pointed to a trip to New York City, where the urban jungle can be hell on cell phones. In that time, he said his iPhone 4 dropped one call and never had a blocked call.

"Normally, if you can get a channel to make a phone call, you were doing well," he said. "I got blocked calls all the time with the 3GS. I didn’t get a single blocked call in two weeks."

Andy Patrizio is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.


wireless, iPhone, AT&T, antenna, Consumer Reports