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iPhone 4 signal debate rages; we experience signal loss in some calls

Consumer Reports News: July 03, 2010 05:29 PM

Consumer Reports testers and editors have
several Apple iPhone 4s under test and review.
One of them exhibits issues with dropping calls.
Photo: Consumer Reports

[UPDATE July 16, 2010: Apple held a press conference today addressing the issue of the iPhone 4’s antenna and signal loss. Read our latest blog: Apple to provide free cases to iPhone 4 owners —Ed.]

[UPDATE July 14, 2010: We've also tested another remedy to the iPhone's antenna issue. See: Apple's Bumper case alleviates the iPhone 4 signal-loss problem. —Ed.]

[UPDATE JULY 13, 2010: We’ve received many comments and questions regarding this blog post. See our latest post: Why Apple—and not its customers—should fix the iPhone 4. —Ed.]

As the online debate continues over possible signal problems with the iPhone 4, I've been able, during informal tests over the weekend, to reproduce the signal loss that's at the heart of the controversy.

While we've been unable to date to create the reported conditions in our National Testing Center in Yonkers, New York, I and a colleague did repeatedly experience loss of signal when using an iPhone 4 a few miles north of there today.

While in my home, I held the iPhone in my left hand, gripping it with normal pressure. My palm covered a gap between parts of the metal band that forms the outer ring of the iPhone and serves as its antenna. As I did so, I moved my pinky finger to the corresponding gap on the other side.

Almost immediately, the signal strength began to drop in the meter from the original three or four bars—depending on my location within the house—to zero bars. The drop took about 5 seconds.

Apple has admitted to problems with the metering on its iPhones, and there's some question about whether the drop in displayed signal is merely a metering issue, and whether call quality or the ability to place calls is affected.

In my informal tests today, however, the drop had a significant effect on both call success and quality. When the phone was in the low-signal state in my hand, calls placed to it from another cell phone (a Motorola Droid, running on Verizon's network) repeatedly failed.

And when I initiated a series of calls to editor Paul Reynolds, and then placed my pinky over the gap in the iPhone 4's band as I continued speaking, the calls consistently deteriorated. Paul first heard my voice breaking up, followed by static and the dropping of the call; again, the elapsed time from the placing of the pinky to the call being dropped was about 5 seconds.

Our findings are not definitive, by any means; they are informal tests by journalists rather than lab tests by Consumer Reports testing staff. And among the scores of comments on our last post on this topic are those that report fine and consistent signal experiences with their new iPhones.

We'll continue to explore this issue and continue our efforts to determine the extent of this problem.

In the meantime, I'll be appearing this evening at 6:48 pm on the Fox News network to discuss the iPhone 4 and Droid X, which we recently place in a head-to-head smartphone face-off.

—Mike Gikas

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