iPhone 4 Signal Issues Explained, and a DIY Fix

In case you hadn’t heard, there has been some consternation in iPhone 4 customer circles these last 24 hours. Apparently some iPhone 4s have been dropping signals when held in a certain way. And they’ve been doing it in a very predictable and reproducible way. Hence the internet exploding with videos of iPhone 4s in peoples hands showing shrinking signal strength indicators, seemingly occurring on demand.

It seems that in some cases when enough pressure, and skin contact area is applied to the bottom left of the iPhone 4’s Stainless Steel frame, then the signal between two of the aerials built into the device’s frame (normally separated by one of the grooves in the frame) can interfere with each other, resulting in signal loss – or at least a very low signal.


So do you want to know if your iPhone 4 is affected?

To observe this on affected iPhone 4s you can hold it in your left hand with the bottom left corner of the iPhone 4 cradled firmly in the meaty base of your thumb. The iPhone’s screen should be facing you. Just as in the video above. If your iPhone 4 is affected then you will notice the signal bars for your 3G signal drop slowly away, sometimes down to no signal at all. When you put the iPhone 4 down, or hold it without any skin bridging the little groove at the bottom left of the Stainless Steel frame, then signal strength will come back.

There are a lot of theories as to why this happens on certain iPhones, and to certain people. The most persuasive seems to be related to how conductive your skin is, and perhaps how moist it is – as well as your particular iPhone 4 being susceptible to this problem. Perhaps the latter component is a function of manufacturing tolerances being slightly below par.

Firstly this is not a widespread issue. But it is a real one nonetheless.

Secondly, it’s irritating, but it’s not the end of the world.

Time will tell if Apple does something about it, either in future iPhone 4 revisions, or in some compensatory way to make up for the problem for existing, affected owners.

But it really is not worth returning your iPhone 4 for, in my opinion.

It should also be noted that it’s not a problem that is limited to iPhone 4s. The iPhone 3GS and 3G can do it. And so can other makes of mobile phones. It all depends on how firmly, and where you hold them. And all phones are different, because all phones have slightly different arrangements of aerials, and underlying technologies to integrate them into the phone’s case.

Modern mobile phones are not perfect transceivers by the very nature of their size, and the number of complex signals that people expect them to receive and transmit these days. There are also FCC health and regulatory guidelines about where the signals should best originate from in cellular devices. Which means that most mobile phone manufacturers put the antennas right at the bottom, away from your ear, and where your hand is going to cup the phone when you hold it. This in itself insulates and weakens radio signals.

I am not making excuses for Apple here. Steve Jobs’ reply to concerned customers on this issue is unacceptable for a start. We reported on that recently. Telling people not to hold a consumer electronics device in a particular way in order for it to work just comes across as insulting.

In my opinion Apple could do a lot better at managing the PR fall out related to this problem. And if I were at the helm of Apple right now I’d throw out a few free iPhone Bumpers to first adopters. Or at least those customers that show their iPhone 4s are affected. It is also a terrible coincidence (at best) that a device with this minor problem is launched at the same time as a new, charged for accessory, which just happens to be a perfect fix for the problem!

Unfortunately because of Apple’s particular design choice for the iPhone 4, it has a very dynamic radio signal, particularly when in low signal areas. And it is very easy to replicate this problem in a predictable way with visual results – especially when a signal is already marginal. So the internet has got a little bit out of hand with videos and wailing and screaming about the issue.

Let’s also not forget that Apple drew attention to their fantastic radio design for this device themselves. So everyone is focussing on that right now – and in some cases conveniently forgetting that most mobile devices have problems with fluctuating signals in busy, or weak cellular service areas.

OK. So How do we fix iPhone 4 Antenna Issues?

Well, because it’s a problem related to skin contact on the metal frame of the iPhone 4 then all we need to do is insulate it from the conductive nature of our bodies.

The simplest, and possibly most aesthetically pleasing way to do this is with one of Apple’s excellent iPhone Bumpers. But I don’t blame you if you feel a bit cheated having to buy one of these to make your iPhone 4 work! If you want one anyway, then buy one. Use it, and forget the problem. Job done.

Another way is to buy any other third party cover for the iPhone 4, which will also insulate that bottom corner of the iPhone 4.

Finally, courtesy of Fast Company there is a super cheap DIY fix!

Get about an inch of scotch tape off the reel (that’s Sellotape if you’re in the U.K.).

Cut it carefully so that you make a rectangle something over a half-inch long and just tall enough to exceed the iPhone 4’s height (about 0.4 inches should do it).

Align the piece of tape so that it’s covering a section of the lower left metal side of the iPhone 4, some below the thin black plastic line and some above.

Stick it around the phone’s metal edge, making sure that all of the back of the edge’s metal strip is covered–you may even be able to leave the front uncovered, as it’s the back where your hand will rest. The main thing is to ensure that it’s unlikely that your palm will touch the metal on both sides of the black plastic line.

I hope that helps clarify this issue, and gives you some solutions.

My iPhone 4 is on it’s way, from the UK, to me in sunny Thailand. I should have it tomorrow. At that time I’ll be reporting on the screen, it’s reception and my first impressions.

Do let us know in the comments if you have or have not had this problem. And also your feelings on the issue generally.

2 Comments on “iPhone 4 Signal Issues Explained, and a DIY Fix”

  1. R2D2

    R2D2 here,

    I laughed till a resistor blew out my nose! Apple says you must hold your iP4 a certain way for reception. Too funny! Here's a thought: Take your head out of Job's axe and the reception will improve. No such problems with my Droids. The force is with us!

  2. eversonj90

    or we could quit “fixing”.

    It's a phone, it's not supposed to requiring “fixing”, and if it does it certainly shouldn't be down to the customer.

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