My iPhone 4 Reception Saga

I mentioned in my earlier review of the iPhone 4 that I was one of the unfortunate people who were having significant problems with reception. In the past few weeks the internet has been abuzz about the topic. Reactions have been across the board. Some are calling for a full-blown recall and investigation. Others are saying this is no big deal and people should buy a case and get over it. Apple has called a last-minute press event on Friday, June 16th to discuss the iPhone 4 and this seemed like a good time to share my experiences. General Observations:

First, I seem to be having two reception related problems with my iPhone 4, it’s unclear whether they are related or not. The first problem is the well documented “death grip.” Both on my Microcell at home and out around town when using the iPhone without a case, I am noticing a significant decrease in signal to the point where my calls become garbled or dropped as soon as I pick up the phone. In this case my signal strength and call quality starts out good, but then drops off suddenly once the gap of the antenna is bridged. This issue seems to be fairly well documented around the web, so I’ll spare the details.

The second issue is that I am having is problems with low signal and dropped calls in general. Even when using the iPhone in a case or sitting on a desk my iPhone 4 has significantly poorer reception when compared to my iPhone 3G. Calls will drop or become garbled in areas where I’ve never had any problems before. This is obviously amplified when using the iPhone without a case by the “death grip” but exists as a baseline poorer signal. This issue has not resolved, even with the purchase of a bumper.

Here are couple of examples from my everyday use while using the Apple Bumper. (This is pre the iPhone 4.0.1 update.)  In my office, I have always had 4-5 bars of signal strength on my iPhone 3G and have been able to successfully hold conversations for an hour or more. With the iPhone 4, I consistently show only one bar of signal strength, and calls may drop out or become garbled even with the bumper. Without the bumper, they drop within minutes. Around my house while connected to my Microcell has the same problem. My upstairs bedroom is directly above the Microcell. Again, I was previously able to hold a conversation for hours with 5 full bars of signal strength on my 3G. Even with the iPhone bumper, my signal is showing somewhere between 3-4 bars, and it is not uncommon for the audio quality to stutter. Without the bumper, calls drop audio regularly, and will eventually drop. These are both cases where I have had excellent results with my iPhone 3G. I’ve also noticed a general increase in the number of calls dropped when driving around town talking on my Bluetooth speakerphone.

Enter AppleCare

The problems with the iPhone 4 reception were immediately apparent and I began my own troubleshooting techniques which included:

  • Powering on and off the iPhone
  • Hard reset of the Phone
  • Restore to clean iOS 4 from a backup
  • Restore to a clean iOS 4 without a backup (re-sync and reconfigure)

The problems persisted and I placed my first call into AppleCare on June 25th, within 2 days of receiving the phone. The first level support walked me through all of the steps above and then added the additional suggestion of pulling out and re-inserting my SIM card. When none of that worked, the AppleCare tech advised me the iOS 4.0.1 software would be coming out that day and I should try that and call back in a few days if it did nothing. Of course, iOS 4.0.1 was not released until three weeks later. But we’ll get to that shortly.

Enter AT&T

When I couldn’t get any relief from my first call to AppleCare, I thought it best to also log an incident with AT&T. My first question to AT&T was whether they were experiencing any network outages that might explain my dramatic reduction in signal at my office. AT&T reported no problems with their network in my area and blamed the problem on Apple and referred me back to AppleCare.

Escalated AppleCare

I called AppleCare back on Tuesday the 29th and after confirming I had already tried the prior troubleshooting tips, I was escalated to the most senior level of iPhone support under the engineers. At this point, I have my own AppleCare rep assigned to my case, let’s call him Carlos. (Not his real name.) I had a very nice conversation Carlos and he gave me his direct contact information and hours and advised that he would be taking care of my issue personally until it was resolved. I gave him my story and passed along screen shots of my speed test results while holding the phone and while not. He advised me to go to AT&T and get a new SIM card and if that didn’t work he would dispatch a replacement phone.

On the 29th I went by AT&T store and got a new SIM. This turned out to be an interesting experience as that was also the day AT&T was able to sell the iPhone to people who had not pre-ordered. It was a zoo, but because I already had my iPhone I was able to get through to a rep who swapped out my SIM.  The AT&T agent who helped me claimed to know nothing about any reception problems. His only response was “sounds like it’s a bad phone.” Unfortunately, after using the new SIM for a couple of days I couldn’t tell any difference. I’ve read reports online indicating that some issues are being resolved by repositioning the SIM or trimming the edges of the card slightly. Because of the size of the microSIM, the contacts of the SIM card sometimes touch the tray of the SIM holder and cause issues. I played with mine a bit and even trimmed the edges, but couldn’t see any noticeable difference in the reception.

I also read reports that resetting the network settings on the phone could help the problem, unfortunately it did not help me.

A New Phone

I called Carlos back with the results on July 1st and after a little discussion over the logistics of the swap, a new phone was ordered.  We had a brief disagreement over how the swap would take place. Initially they wanted me to mail my phone back and wait for a replacement (which would take about 7 days due to the 4th of July Holiday) or drive 90 miles to the nearest Apple Store to do the swap. Finally, they decided to ship me a replacement phone, put a hold on my credit card and I would mail back my old phone. My new phone shipped same day and arrived the next day on Friday, July 2nd.

I used the new iPhone over the long weekend and early the following week and saw no difference between the old phone and the new phone. I also went out through the same series of troubleshooting steps as outlined above with the new phone. Power cycled, reset, restores, reset network settings, manipulate SIM card, etc. Nothing seemed to make any difference.

The Ugliest Case

I have never used a case with any of my previous iPhones and prefer to use my iPhone without a case and only use an Invisible Shield for protection. I don’t like adding extra bulk to my iPhone and I also like to use several iPhone docks and accessories with built in docs that won’t work while the iPhone is in a case. Given the continued problems, I figured I had no choice but to go out and get a case for the iPhone and see if that offered any help.

I ran around town to both Best Buy and AT&T only to find that there was a serious run on iPhone 4 cases. I finally ended up with one of the only iPhone cases available, Best Buy’s house brand case which has to be one of the ugliest silicone molded cases you could possibly find for the iPhone. Nevertheless, I swallowed my pride and bough the ugly case hoping that it would only be a temporary need. Thankfully it was fairly cheap, only $15.

I immediately noticed that the case helped the “death grip” problem. However, the problem with generally low reception continued. Although I wasn’t dropping nearly as many calls, I was still having problems with some garbled calls and poor voice quality in places like my office and upstairs bedroom. Although the case was clearly helping, I wasn’t dropping calls. Remove the iPhone from the case in one of these locations and the call dropped within minutes.

My Free Bumper

Given that the case helped the dropped calls, I resigned myself to the fact that if I was going to keep the iPhone I would have to use it with a case and keeping the ugly Best Buy thing was not an option. When I ordered my iPhone I also ordered a couple of docks and dock adapters. Those items shipped separately so they arrived after my iPhone. I haven’t even opened the box because I wanted to see how the reception issue resolved.  At this point, a couple of the accessories were still with FedEx. My hope was that I could just refuse delivery of the docks that I wouldn’t have to pay the return shipping back to Apple.

I called up the Apple Store to inquire about the return and the rep asked me to explain why I wanted to return the items so I recounted the short version of my problems. Without my prompting, he offered me an iPhone bumper free of charge and asked me to keep the dock and dock adapters for now and see how things went with the bumper. He said the bumper was very easy to remove and I could still probably use the docks. He said he’d note my file and if after the bumper arrived I decided I wanted to return the docks that would be no problem. This was an unexpected surprise, especially because there are rumors of an internal Apple memo that specifically says not to offer free bumpers to people. Maybe my guy didn’t get the memo, but I’m thankful for his assistance.

The bumper took about two weeks to arrive but it’s here. Although it doesn’t offer a ton of protection, I really like how it custom-fits the iPhone and doesn’t add much additional bulk to the phone. Once installed, the bumper looks like it was part of the iPhone and has a very nice feel.

Unfortunately, the bumper didn’t seem to do quite as good a job as my ugly Best Buy case for my reception issues. The bumper is still significantly better than using the iPhone unprotected, but I am noticing a small drop in bars when holding the phone as confirmed with  as well continued problems with poor call quality in areas I’ve never had problems before. Using the iPhone with a bumper keeps most of my calls from dropping, but even with the bumper the reception of the iPhone 4 is noticeably worse than my iPhone 3G.

The other problem with the bumper is that it will not work with many accessories, including Apple’s own iPhone 4 dock and Universal Dock Adapters. It also doesn’t work with older iPhone/iPod cables and many third party accessories including my car stereo dock connecter. Although I like the bumper and got it for free, it’s still going to cost me more than $100 to buy adapters and compatible accessories to use my iPhone as intended.

If I had my choice, I wouldn't use any case at all. But to keep the iPhone 4 (which I love in every respect except for the reception) it's a compromise I'm willing to make.

Fun Times with Carlos

After the 4th of July weekend I touch base with my friendly AppleCare rep Carlos again and report all of the above. Carlos seems at a loss, but we continue to press on towards a resolution. At one point Carlos and I conference with his counterpart over at AT&T, and as suspected AT&T places the blame squarely on Apple. That was a particularly interesting conversation. Talk about awkward!

Over the course of the past two weeks Carlos and I have stayed in touch every couple of days and spent several hours working on this issue together. Carlos walked me through enabling Baseband logging on my phone so that I can send him a record of my phone’s reception. We also perform several experiments with the iPhone connected to my computer using the iPhone configuration utility to live-capture what’s going on with my iPhone and make several test calls with and without cases from various areas of my house.

Carlos shows me how to download my baseband logs from my phone and every couple of days I zip up that file (which can be several gigs) and upload it to my iDisk overnight for Carlos to retrieve the next morning. Carlos analyzed the data for himself and reported to me that my phone was defiantly showing some “unexpected inconsistencies” but advised that he would have to forward the logs on to the engineers for further analysis. However he was able to see several instances of calls dropped and fluctuations in signal. As of the writing of this blog post, we’re still waiting on the engineer’s report.

Over the course of several hours of troubleshooting, Carlos and I start to get a little more comfortable with each other. He realizes that I’m a fairly advanced Mac user and have done my homework regarding this issue. I realize he's a really good guy and is committed to helping me. He still carries the “company line” that there is no design flaw with the iPhone. He admitted to me that holding the phone can cause the signal to drop, but held firm that it doesn’t cause the call to drop.

I do have to commend Carlos for his responsiveness to this issue. He has always called me back as promised, he has worked diligently towards a resolution to the issue and he has never given up. He assures me no matter what the outcome that he “will take care of me.” One of my concerns all along has been that I only have 30 days to return the iPhone before I’m stuck in a new AT&T contract for the next 2 years. That clock is still ticking, but given Carlos’ assurance and the fact that Apple has some kind of press announcement scheduled for Friday, I have hopes that one way or another a resolution is coming.

4.0.1 [Updated]

Just today, on Thursday, July 15th, Carlos called me within minutes of the iOS 4.0.1 being released to tell me that it was available and to update my phone. I told him I would update tonight when I got home from work and he promised to check back in with on Monday after I had a weekend to play and see if it helped. I asked Carlos if this fix just changed the representation of the signal bars. We previously discussed that changing the signal calculation and bar representation alone would not be a solution to my problem. He simply told me that “it does more than that, but I can’t disclose any details.”

Besides showing fewer bars in more places, I really can’t tell any difference with iPhone 4.0.1 in terms of my iPhone’s reception. I’m not noticing any difference with regards to call quality or the number of dropped calls.

If we are to assume that 4.0.1 is now showing the “true” reception of my iPhone, I am quite disappointed in the ability of the phone to hang on to a signal and AT&T’s network. In my own home, I’m seeing my bars drop when I move more than a few feet away from my microcell. Instead of having whole house coverage, I now have to be in the same room as my microcell with a direct line of sight to have 5 bars. Move to the kitchen or the office on the same level as the Microcell and I drop to 4 bars. Move upstairs directly above the microcell and I drop to 3, 2, or 1 bars, even though I may only be 10 – 15 feet away from the device. I was really disappointed to find that even after buying a microcell the coverage in my home was still not great.

Around town I’m seeing many more instances of only 1 or two bars of service compared to seeing 3, 4, or 5 before. This is probably a testament to just how sub-par the AT&T network is in my area. Having a more accurate representation of this is a good thing. However, I find it hard to believe that Apple didn’t know it was being more than a little liberal with it’s bar calculation for so long before. Of course it would be to Apple’s advantage to erroneously display a stronger signal than was actually available.

The Response [Updated]

I wasn’t thrilled with Apple’s press conference, but it was a start. Of course Apple tried to sugar coat the issue to the extent possible, but I personally felt that the marching out of the other cell phones and demonstrating that they too had problems made them appear a little desperate. While I will take Apple at their word and believe everything they said to be factually true, they are going to put a spin on things.

A couple of thoughts in no particular order:

  • While it may be true that the iPhone 3G was also susceptible to antenna attenuation in 2 years of using the iPhone 3G, I never noticed it. I noticed it within 2 hours of using the iPhone 4.
  • While only 0.55% of people may have contacted AppleCare about antenna reception issues, I think that number does not accurately represent the number of people actually havening problems. How many people simply didn’t call in or saw the press coverage of the issue and simply decided not to bother calling since it seemed clear there was nothing Apple could do for them.
  • Apple acknowledged that he iPhone 4 drops < 1 call per 100 more than the iPhone 3GS. I thought the wording on this quote was awkward. So let’s put it another way. The iPhone 4 drops about 1% more calls than the iPhone 4. That’s a statistically low number, but in reality, it’s a lot of calls. All this from a phone that Apple still claims has significantly better reception than any prior iPhone. The data would seem to suggest differently and that there is in fact a problem.

Free bumpers are nice, and while the bumper has helped my problem, it has not solved my problem. Even with the bumper, my iPhone 4 has worse reception than my iPhone 3G. It really irks me when I hear people say that a case is a solution. It is a help, but not a solution. The real solution will come through possibly (but doubtful) a software update and/or a tweak in the hardware design.

I would have liked to hear Apple assure users that they were continuing to work on the problem and that they would do whatever was necessary to make things right.  Whether it be a software update or a hardware swap-out program down the line for those down the line who continue to have documented problems with their phones.

Final Thoughts

If you don’t have any problems with your iPhone, I’m thrilled for you. But please don’t tell me that there is no problem or that people who claim there are having problems are making much ado about nothing.

As an Apple fan, I have found Apple’s response to this issue thus far to be disappointing. The alleged emails from Steve Jobs telling people to hold the phone differently and the non-response response about being “shocked to find the signal strength calculation was wrong” is embarrassing.

Responses like “buy a case” or “don’t hold it that way” are unacceptable from anyone, whether it be an Apple fanboy or Steve Jobs. Anyone who seriously thinks this needs to take a step back, they’re far too close to the reality distortion field for their own good.  It is not the consumer’s responsibility to buy a case in order to correct a defect in a product. It is poor design to have such a critical antenna junction in a place where phones are commonly held. I should not have to alter my usage or buy a case to make my phone function properly.

I know a lot of people are fed up with reading about “antennagate,” especially those people who aren’t having problems. Therefore, I’m going to do one more post on this issue before I drop the subject. I have until June 23rd to decide whether or not I keep the iPhone 4. I’m going to give this some serious thought between now and then. I’ll do one final blog post to let you know how it turns out.