Apple shows off $100 million antenna design and test labs

Apple shows off $100 million antenna design and test labs

Following their iPhone 4 press conference last Friday, Apple showed for the first time their massive $100 dollar antenna design and test labs both on the web at apple.com, and to select members of the media. The images look like something out of science fiction, of Charles Xavier's Cerebro and the StarGate recreated in blue foam. There are 4 facilities with 17 antenna characterization (anechoic) chambers put together to test everything from 2G and 3G cell networks to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS.

Apple's site says:

Apple engineers tested iPhone 4 in a variety of scenarios, environments, and conditions in order to gauge performance. They spent thousands of hours in cities in the U.S. and throughout the world testing iPhone 4 call quality, dropped-call performance, call origination and termination, and in-service time. They tested iPhone 4 while stationary, at high and low speeds, and in urban, dense urban, and highway environments. In low-coverage areas and good-coverage areas, during peak and off-peak hours — iPhone 4 was field-tested in nearly every possible coverage scenario across different vendor and carrier equipment all over the world.

Josh Topolsky of Engadget says:

And we get it -- there have been people out there suggesting that Apple simply didn't test their phone before letting it out into the market. Or that they were so bone-headed that they only tested it in those special cases made for bringing the phone to bars, so of course they didn't see the antenna issue. But let's be honest -- this is a multi-billion dollar company that's been making wireless devices for a long, long time. This isn't their first phone, it's their fourth, and though there have been reception issues with the previous models, nothing suggests that Apple isn't doing its due diligence on these phones. The truth is, we didn't need the tour to understand that, but it's possible some people do.

John Paczkowski of Digital Daily says:

[Ruben Caballero, a Senior Director of Engineering responsible for antenna design] said the iPhone 4 spent 2 years in those labs before it was released to the public. 2 years. The company tested the hell out of the device and any suggestion that it didn’t is ludicrous. Apple was clearly well aware that the iPhone 4 can suffer some signal degradation when held a certain way, but in its eyes that’s the original sin with which ALL cell phones are born. Let he who is without sin cast the first phone, right?

MG Siegler of TechCrunch says:

No matter what your take is on the iPhone 4 antenna — my take is here: it’s real, but not a big deal — there is no question that Apple spends a huge amount of time and money testing these devices. And the fact that the thing people will care most about in this whole 1,200-word post is the passing mention that the iPhone 5 and iPhone 6 may have been in one of these rooms, says just about all you need to say about the state of the iPhone.

So our take away is this: Apple has put hundreds of millions of dollars and years of effort into building, staffing, and using a state of the art antenna reception facility. They want to create the best phones in the world, not just the best digital devices. Of course they knew there was a single death-touch point of attenuation on iPhone 4 but decided the benefits of overall better reception, longer battery life, and innovating in the antenna space (which is always a step-forward, step-back game) was worth the trade-off. But they utterly failed to properly prepare users and especially the media for the implications of that trade-off, and then reacted poorly when that lack of prep-time came back to bite them. (Including trying to switch the discussion from specific death-touch to industry-wide death-grip).

The confluence of that technological trade-off, failure to set expectations, and the media frenzy that's followed has created a huge rift in popular perception probably best exemplified by Consumer Reports -- the crux upon which a lot of "antennagate" hinges -- not recommending iPhone 4 despite rating it the best smartphone on the planet.

It would almost be comedic if it wasn't so absurd.

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, ZEN and TECH, MacBreak Weekly. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter, App.net, Google+.

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There are 47 comments. Add yours.

Steven says:

"massive $100 dollar antenna "
No wonder there are problems... ;-)

barry says:

"But let’s be honest — this is a multi-billion dollar company that’s been making wireless devices for a long, long time. This isn’t their first phone, it’s their fourth"
lol, sorry that's just funny.

Bildy says:

100 WHOLE dollars? Wow!

johncblandii says:

Umm...fix your first paragraph.
(where's the editor tipb?)

iArnie says:

A tenth of a billion dollars and they still got the antenna wrong.
Apple is arrogant, plain and simple.

jimbo says:

" Of course they knew there was a single death-touch point of attenuation on iPhone 4 but decided the benefits of overall better reception, longer battery life, and innovating in the antenna space (which is always a step-forward, step-back game) was worth the trade-off."
And if Jobs did not stonewall and lie through his teeth, there would not have been an issue. But he did, and, when caught, the best he could offer was "everybody else does it, but hey, at least we're not Korean."
Nice job there, Steve.

JMT says:

And that, my friends, proves why genuine beta testing in the field is MUCH more important than keeping the device a BIG secret until SJ can wow us on stage.
I don't live in an anechoic chamber, do you? Why test it there?

Patrick says:

Can you hear me now. Can you hear me now. Att always had bad signal in buildings the other providers didint it all sucks thanks apple for make in it worst Steve jobs your not as smart as you think you are but your iPhone is fine working great and plus all your excuse you said at your confrence cause AT&T stuck a cell tower up your ass. Yea you can hear me now

Jap says:

“everybody else does it, but hey, at least we’re not Korean.”
Nice one

Visi says:

@Rene Of course they knew there was a single death-touch point of attenuation on iPhone 4 but decided the benefits of overall better reception, longer battery life, and innovating in the antenna space (which is always a step-forward, step-back game) was worth the trade-off
Blind mind.

pivale says:

"They spent thousands of hours in cities in the U.S. and throughout the world testing iPhone 4 call quality, dropped-call performance, call origination and termination, and in-service time. They tested iPhone 4 while stationary, at high and low speeds, and in urban, dense urban, and highway environments. In low-coverage areas and good-coverage areas, during peak and off-peak hours — iPhone 4 was field-tested in nearly every possible coverage scenario across different vendor and carrier equipment all over the world."
With a bumper... So noone could tell it was a new iPhone...
Slick!

Roger says:

http://blogdoiphone.com/2010/07/inedito-teste-de-recepcao-do-iphone-4-co... Here are the results of an antenna test in Brazil, where we can choose different providers. The conclusion is much of the problem is due to AT&T. Although there is a problem, it really goes practically unnoticed in many of our providers.

deadp1xel says:

All that money and they cant recall the iphone 4 for its painfully obvious call problems? Don't get me wrong, my iPhone 4 handles every thing perfectly except calls and I will be returning it. My guess is I'll be back to a 3gs

Shrike says:

@Rene
So, Apple's failure was not understanding that its customers and the media that serves them are dumber than dirt and are susceptible to mob mentality and mass hysteria? I only half say this in jest, as yes, that is would they should have assumed and they know they should have educated better.
It's not even comedic and it's not absurd. We always go through rounds of media cycle spirals with shark attacks or the latest family drama (kidnapping, killing, etc). This is simply not all of Apple's problem. It's a problem with media, the bloggers, and the people who consume their content as well. It's mind-numbingly disappointing. My disappointment goes towards the media and the bloggers the most. Their purported mission is to serve the public. All these media blowups really just prove are that their mission is to make money and will prey on the public without a second thought.
Risking hypocrisy, this post and the previous post on "deflection" are too self-congratulatory. When Scott Adams does it, it's interesting as I trust what he knows what he's talking about and he communicates it well. Enjoyable blog post on Jobs performance. When I see it done here and by others, it is insipid and masturbatory.

west3man says:

"But they utterly failed to properly prepare users and especially the media for the implications of that trade-off, and then reacted poorly when that lack of prep-time came back to bite them. (Including trying to switch the discussion from specific death-touch to industry-wide death-grip)."
Does that mean that you think the attempt to switch the discussion came back to bite them? If so, I am confused/surprised since this appears to be a complete reversal of your recent position.

Dexter says:

"But let’s be honest — this is a multi-billion dollar company that’s been making wireless devices for a long, long time." - Engadget
3 years is a "long, long time"? :|

Rene Ritchie says:

@Westman: it was a strategic piece of PR that's caused a huge dust-up but could have been avoided entirely.
It's still managing the fallout, whether or not it ultimately works.

francois swanepoel says:

steve jobs did the balancing act.......... rightfully so!...properly rehearsed and very carefully executed.... if you could position yourself in his spot?
customers- apple- investors
that's life living on the edge............. of technology?
the clinical $100m testing facility looks super cool....... great pix!
BUT
i still believe that a few $ spent in bars on beers and other public places with employees (better selected) earlier in testing phase, without the iphone4 being shrouded in a vessel preventing actual contact with a conductive HUMAN HAND would have prevented this situation......... so much for AAPL paranoia?
any case, in 5 years from now.......................
my 20 cents
francois

icebike says:

Quote:

Of course they knew there was a single death-touch point of attenuation on iPhone 4 but decided the benefits of overall better reception, longer battery life, and innovating in the antenna space (which is always a step-forward, step-back game) was worth the trade-off.

That wasn't the point of failure.
The point of failure was allowing Jon Ive to dictate form over function.
An ever so thin veneer of clear plastic over the metal solves this problem. The sad part is with a thin clear coat over the metal, it still would have been the coolest looking phone around. They could have had their cake, and ate it too, but instead they ate crow.

francois swanepoel says:

ola icebike,
methinks there is another "don't touch" area at the top, where people in real life normally won't touch the phone............ any demonstrators?, where the other 2 points of antennas/bands join?
in my layman's point of view, it's not easy to "permanently" coat stainless steel................ yes, but you have a valid point!
as for the design/engineering team @ ........... go people go!
further push the envelope!

Chobbs11 says:

All these comments are bologna what
A waste of my lunch. You guys act like you know what your talking about when in fact most of you don't (like me). And for those of you that do and think you could do better...get crackin, quit "talking" and just do something already.

excaliburca says:

All those testing facilities and they missed the "death touch" issue with the iPhone 4?
scratches head

paul says:

Does it matter if they spent 1trillion, if they still got it wrong?

Rene Ritchie says:

@Joost @paul:
That's just it -- they didn't miss it and they didn't get it wrong: they made a choice.
Just like some devices have AMOLED screens you can't see in sunlight. Sure the manufacturers knew, they just made a choice.
For most users iPhone 4 antenna design is better. For a few users in low signal area it's a problem.
Where Apple went wrong was how they handled it.

Steve says:

Nice facility. To bad appledoes.not kknow how to utilize it properly.

Visi says:

Rene, here in my town when someone discuss about Iphone it's not the same thing as other years. They all say "Yeah cool phone but i have heard that has problems. 3 of my friends that are apple resellers have problems with sales with iphone 4 this year. So this antenna problem has passed from tech public to "normal" public. This is not some sort of psychological thing. The iphone 4 has a real problem. You try to hide this thing with your articles. Accept it and don't you say stupid things like "Where Apple went wrong was how they handled it"

OrionAntares#CB says:

They made two mistakes, the first in their design. The second, the one likely to haunt them, is how they handled the PR when that design mistake was brought to light.

AlexLovesStaudts says:

What I don't get is that there is a thin black plastic line on purpose, that was already subject to much discussion when Gizmodo showed off the prototype. This plastic gap is there just to isolate one metal antenna area from the other. Nobody of the high-paid Ph.D.s in the $10^8 lab thought about what happens if a finger short-cuts this isolation line? Isn't that elementary school logic? Or were they all silenced by Jon Ives who wanted this design really really bad? Emperor has no clothes at Apple?

Shrike says:

@Erik and @AlexLovesStaudts
As has been stated multiple times already. It isn't a mistake. It's a design tradeoff. By using said design, they could make the phone smaller, include a larger battery and be able to operate at -113 to -121 dbm signal levels. The trade off is more significant signal attenuation when the two antennas are bridged by a couple millimeters of skin. That's a pretty good tradeoff, as on average, the iPhone 4 seems to have better performance than the iPhone 3GS. For some people, it doesn't, but that's typical. You can't expect rock solid perfection when so many variables are in play. The trick is to make on average the same or better. And it appears they did that.
Their biggest mistake was not educating customers about the possible attenuation problems before hand. It's a good and reasonable tradeoff. That really speaks to excellent design as engineering and design is nothing but an exercise in tradeoffs and priorities.

bvonscott says:

@shrike
You make a good point. The media, bloggers, and mindless consumers are at fault for spiraling this out of control. It's the iPhone 4's 15 min of fame before those same sheep move on to something else. Thankfully I have superb logic, critical thinking, and independence not to follow the herd, and knew this was blown out of proportion.
In a few short weeks something bigger will come up and no one will remember the iPhone antenna absurdity.

Raul L says:

I am very glad to see reader above who can still see things for what they are, the design of the antenna on the iPhone 4 is flawed. It doesn't matter if their testing facilities are covered in gold and they have leprechauns as employes, they took a poor decision to WOW everyone doing things differently. Any professional designer know that different is not necessarily better. As Arnie states, Apple is arrogant and arrogant people (companies) never learn from their mistakes. What its worst is that I see any possibility of any objective coverage by the blogging community long gone. How did Apple manages to get so mane BJ's from so many bloggers I truly respect and admire is beyond me. "Small antenna issue" REALLY? I work for a design research firm (architectural and industrial) and if we were the ones that came out with this "genius design" we would be fired, sued and our reputation destroyed, thats the real world. Apple is not an 85 year widow, they have a crap load of money and a huge PR team, Bloggers do not need to do Apple's dirty job. The antenna problem is a very serious mistake on Apples behalf and Bloggers should have the guts to call that out (that goes for TiPB too sadly)

Raul L says:

@Shrike
No offence but thats the stupidest possible trade off on a cell phone. How about a car with no wheels, but you get a larger fuel tank and a super sleek design. Great trade off right? Just my $0.02 like I said no offence.

Shrike says:

@Raul L
No offense taken. But I obviously disagree. The antenna clearly works, and works better than the iPhone 3GS. Many people simply disregard anecdotes of better cellular performance and just key on the anecdotes that have the signal levels decrease by bridging the gap with your skin. You can't just ignore the anecdotes that say there is better performance. This comes from Brian Lam, Joshua Topolsky, Jimmy Fallen, and countless other folks. All of the testing also shows that data rates are better in all hand positions than the 3GS sitting on a table.
What's the cost? For people who have more conductive skin, don't bridge the gap. And remember the situation where this is a problem: areas of poor signal quality, people with more conductive skin, people who naturally bridge the gap, and for people who don't use a case.

icebike says:

@Shrike:

As has been stated multiple times already. It isn’t a mistake. It’s a design tradeoff. By using said design, they could make the phone smaller, include a larger battery and be able to operate at -113 to -121 dbm signal levels.

So you are going to tell us that a PAINTED antenna, or one covered in a thin clear-coat would have the same problem?
This isn't an engineering trade off.
This is what happens when an interior decorator starts dictating materials to engineers. Only ive and jobs's dictatorial nature over ruling their own engineers caused this problem.
It would have looked just as cool if the stainless were wrapped in thin clear vinal.

chippy19977 says:

This is getting quite boring. How about a discussion on what the iPhone 4 does better than any other device? That would be everything. Antennagate=YAWN

excaliburca says:

@Rene...
Then they made a bad choice, perception wise. And I stress perception wise. Yea, I'm sure this antenna does get better reception (we'll both see when it's released into Canada the Friday after next) but their choice to place the bridge on the phone in a place where it's going to be touched more is continuing to fuel press even after Apple attempted to mis-direct the issue with that "every other phone has issues" magic trick. And yes, I agree with you that Apple failed both in it's selling of the antenna and then in it's efforts to defend it. Although you may not think it's fair, perception is a powerful force in the market.
Still think they could have tried to either move that bridge to the top or bottom of the phone and this part wouldn't have even happen, either that or put something around that bridge that insulates it... but I'm not an engineer.

Incredulous says:

Everybody needs to read Shrike's comments and take them in. Have some soothing tea and take them in again.
Most salient point: iPhone 4 performs better in any hand position than the 3Gs does sitting on a table.
All this hand wringing and finger pointing is ultimately (as another poster put it) masturbatory. Can we leave this horsecrap now and talk about other things?

Shrike says:

@icebike "So you are going to tell us that a PAINTED antenna, or one covered in a thin clear-coat would have the same problem?"
Well, which set of problems would you like? Nonconducting paint, a clear coat, or vinyl would have wear problems and the sides would look like crap after a while, including discoloration or staining, peeling, dullness and lots of scratching. And who knows what type of safety and environmental issues they would have compared to recyclable steel. Not only that, it would feel different and less premium than steel. It would feel crappy.
So, on the one hand, you'd have a product that won't look and feel as nice and will wear not so well; on the other hand, you'd have one product that has a spot on it that may cause problems in marginal signal areas if it is bridged.
I believe the wear and tear and look and feel issues from an insulating covering would be more problematic in the end than use pure stainless with users being mindful of how they hold it. The former will be an endemic problem for everyone as time goes on. The later is entirely avoidable by affected users in a few ways.
If I were to criticize, I would say they put the gaps in the wrong location. I'd submit that putting the gap between the up volume and mute buttons and the bottom middle would be the best spot. Makes for an uglier look, but those would be the least likely spots for users to bridge the gaps. The drawback would be that GSM/UMTS radiation exposure may increase. If so, I would not make that trade at all. But if no problems with radiations, I'd trade the uglier look.

AlexLovesStaudts says:

@Shrike
Why did Apple use black for the isolation gaps in the first place? They could have taken light gray and made them almost invisible next to the steel

PUBLICFARLEY says:

Thanks Shrike for your astute analysis of this issue. Quite honestly, he is the among the few commenters on this or most other blogs that has an informed understanding of the issue. Yes the design had engineering trade offs. Like all engineering endeavors do. There is quite a bit of evidence to support the fact that in real world use, those trade offs make for a better user experience. With regard to form factor and reception.
The problem Apple has now is one of perception. Arm chair engineers here and in the general public somehow think they know better than individuals that have studied the discipline, have degrees in said discipline, and are designers of some of the most advanced consumer devices on the planet. Yes it is ridiculous to imagine that random Joe Public knows better how to design (or test) an antenna system. But unfortunately that perception is the reality. The iPhone 4 is perceived to have a fatal flaw relating to ins antenna design. And that will be its story until next summer in 2011 when iPhone 5 is released... Unless Apple does something to now to modify the hardware in such a way that the perceived problem has been addressed.
Yes the bumper (and other cases) addresses the problem. But, people don't want to feel that their phone needs a crutch. They want to feel that their phone can be used as-is without a case. Some may argue that for the majority of people the iPhone 4 can be used that way right now. And they would be right. Problem is that the perception is that the iPhone 4 cannot be used reliably without a case. And for many, that perception is reality. If Apple can make a hardware modification that addresses the problem idependent of a case, then the perception issue will go away. And the discussion will move away from the one "flaw" to all the things the iPhone 4 has that are spectacular (awesome display, great camera, HD video recording and editing, FaceTime, etc.).
I have to imagine that September 30th is a target date for Apple to get the revised phones to market. I'll be waiting on a purchase until I see the hardware revised. Until then I'll keep rockin' by 3GS.

AlexLovesStaudts says:

@Public Farley
I was with you until the last paragraph. You can't argue at the same time that this is not an issue and a conscious and correct design decision, and then say that you won't buy the product just because of it...

iVenom says:

Right alex. He says " it's good the way it is.... But I'm gonna wait for the newer one" why you gonna wait if there in no problem? Is something wrong with your perception?

Mr. Copyright says:

Number 4 in china means death.

Shrike says:

@AlexLovesStaudts "Why did Apple use black for the isolation gaps in the first place? They could have taken light gray and made them almost invisible next to the steel"
I don't think it would have mattered, even if they made it look perfectly blended into the steel. I think the best solution was to make it look less balanced by putting the gaps in different locations: near the volume & mute buttons and at the center bottom. (Unless that made radiation levels higher than they wanted.

Crunch says:

Another extremely well written article, Rene. But you knew that.
As for the comments section, I cannot partake in the Monday-morning quarterbacking, as I have failed to recreate the alleged antenna issue thus far. And how about the "thicker" bars courtesy of iOS 4.0.1? They're ugly!
Grrrr...Down with Consumer reports! Down with them.

PUBLICFARLEY says:

@AlexLovesStaudts & IVenom.
Yes my statement that I am waiting until September 30th sounds contradictory. Let me elaborate.
I maintain that Apple has a public perception issue. That this design decision they made is a flaw. When in actuality it is an engeneering tradeoff. So why am I waiting? Well eventually (say 1 to 2 years from now), I want to be able to sell my iPhone 4 on the open market when iPhone 5 or 6 arrives on the scene. When the perspective buyer who has been swayed by the perception says which version of the iPhone 4 are you selling? Pre-hardware revision or post-hardware revision? I want to be able to say post-hardware revision.

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