Monday, 19 July 2010 13:30

iPhone 4 rivals hit back at Jobs' claims


Steve Jobs' claim that there are shielding issues with all smartphones has stirred up a hornet's nest, with BlackBerry maker RIM, Nokia and HTC defending their products.

On Friday (US time) Apple CEO Steve Jobs defended the iPhone 4's antenna performance, essentially saying that all smartphones have a 'death grip' weakness, but that the design of the iPhone 4 shows the exact location of the weak point.

Jobs presentation included video clips showing how a normal looking grip on three smartphones from other manufacturers - BlackBerry Bold 9700, HTC Droid Eris, and Samsung Omnia II - can reduce the displayed signal strength from four or five bars to one or none.

Understandably, other handset companies aren't too happy with the comparison.

RIM, the company behind BlackBerry, issued a statement saying that "Apple's attempt to draw RIM into Apple's self-made debacle is unacceptable", that "RIM has avoided designs like the one Apple used in the iPhone 4 and instead has used innovative designs which reduce the risk for dropped calls, especially in areas of lower coverage", and that Apple "should take responsibility for these decisions rather than trying to draw RIM and others into a situation that relates specifically to Apple."

And HTC's Eric Lin told Pocket-lint that "Approximately .016% of customers" have complained about signal or antenna problems on the HTC Droid Eris. That's a lot lower than Jobs' 0.55% for the iPhone 4.

What about Nokia? See page 2.

Nokia was slightly conciliatory, with officials noting that "In general, antenna performance of a mobile device/phone may be affected with a tight grip, depending on how the device is held" but "Nokia has invested thousands of man hours in studying how people hold their phones and allows for this in designs, for example by having antennas both at the top and bottom of the phone and by careful selection of materials and their use in the mechanical design."

I previously described a small-scale experiment with Sony-Ericsson and Samsung phones which all showed significant drop in signal strength when held in what for me is a ordinary manner given the shape of each phone. I've now now repeated it with a BlackBerry Bold 9000, which dropped from five bars to one.

But when you're using a phone, you don't really care about the signal strength. What matters is that you do get a signal. you can hear the person at the other end, they can hear you, and the call doesn't drop out.

And there's the rub. Even with the attenuated signals, audio quality seemed unchanged in my (admittedly unscientific) experiments, and I couldn't get calls to drop out. Admittedly, I'm a light user when it comes to mobile phones, but I can't remember the last time I had a call drop on my own Sony-Ericsson phone (I'm a Vodafone customer, in case you're wondering). So I'd be surprised if my personal drop out rate is more than one in 100 calls.

Jobs announced that AT&T's figures showed an increased drop out rate for the iPhone 4 (vs the 3GS) of less than one in 100 calls. I'm inclined to interpret that as 'almost one in 100" otherwise he would more likely have referred to 'one in 200' or something similar.

Now that's not an increase of 1%, as more than report has stated. For that to be the case, almost all iPhone 3GS calls would have to drop out - and that's clearly untrue.

Find out why on page 3.

Jobs said that AT&T keeps the absolute drop out rate secret, so it simply isn't possible to calculate the percentage increase. But if my experience (admittedly with a different phone on a different network) is at all typical, then he could easily be talking about a doubling of the incidence of dropped calls.

So what does all this mean?

One possibility is that as Jobs' parting remark ("Thanks for coming. I wish we could have done this in the first 48 hours, but then you wouldn't have had anything to write about", according to Cult of Mac) to Friday's press conference seemed to imply, the whole issue has been a beat up. Certainly, the bulk of the comments and much of the commentary on the matter seem to have come from people that don't use an iPhone 4 (and I admit to being in that category).

But the increased drop out rate for the iPhone 4 suggests that isn't the case. As shown above, almost one more drop out per 100 calls made is almost certainly a bigger deal than Jobs let on.

Yet it does seem that the overwhelming majority of iPhone 4 owners are happy with their purchases, as the return rates are relatively low.

It sounds as if we still haven't got to the bottom of the story. In particular, suggestions that bridging the iPhone 4's two antennas has an effect other than shielding still haven't been put to rest.


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Stephen Withers

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Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.



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