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Is signal strength a factor in iPhone 4 antenna reception issue?

We've gotten a few emails this morning from TiPb readers who think signal strength might be a factor in the dreaded iPhone 4 "hold different" reception problems. Last night when testing at home, they could kill the signal by holding the iPhone 4 over the lower left side. When taking it out of their homes and onto the streets, it didn't seem to happen any more.

Could signal strength be a factor? If you're having the "hold different" antenna band reception problem, have you tried it outside in a high signal area yet? If so, any difference?

UPDATE: Jeremy says we should mention reports like Engadget's, where they get better reception with the new antenna. Jeremy is almost always right, so we're mentioning it. Bottom line seems to be: strong AT&T signal, and the new antenna does wonders. Poor AT&T signal and covering the antenna, there's no hope for you.

[Thanks everyone who sent this in]

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • Yes this is true. At home where I don't have very good service, it was a problem. Took it to work today where I get pretty good service and it is a non issue. The signal bars do not drop at all any way I hold it.
  • I'm not having the issue. I live in Northern Virginia.
  • From my initial observations, it seems as though signal strength might indeed be affecting the iPhone 4. I have the same situation at home (so-so reception - which has always been tolerable and workable). I am also able to consistently replicate the issue by firmly placing my hand over the lower part and and side of the phone. I am also able to do this on my iOS4 3Gs.
    Traveling to work and at my job (which is in a large building in Manhattan) the signal has been spot-on, 5 bar all the way. Even putting my hand around the phone tightly does not cause a reduction of bars.
    That being said, it sounds perfectly feasible that the strength of the signal might be a factor in this scenario.
  • This exact thing happen to me. In my house (with the exception of one spot sitting on the floor) I have the issue. Went out for a late night snack last night and at the restaurant it never dropped below 5 bars.
  • I just tried this. Inside my home, bars dropped.
    Outside, bar's did not move.
    Lets update Steve's email reply:
    "Just avoid holding it in that way when inside your home. If you must hold it in that way, go outside."
  • i have tried holding every different way and my signal does not drop...i live in northern Delaware
  • With my iPhone 4 sitting on a desk, I can watch signal strength go from 5 bars to 1 bar without touching it. My 3GS, in the same exact location, would always be either 4 or 5 bars. I believe this is indeed some type of software issue, not a reception problem. I have had no calls dropped with the iPhone 4 (so far) and I always hold it in my left hand with that corner of the phone cupped in the palm of my hand. But I use a silicone case, so this might be a factor.
  • @ iPhoneMilk
    Same here, no problem in Northern VA. Next time I leave town I'll have to try it though. I do have a bumper on my phone, but I've tried with and without and can't get it do drop signal (thankfully!)
  • Could it be possible that the strength bars actually show the real signal strength now rather than before when it just varied to whatever it wanted to and this is why people are getting different readings on previous phones and the iPhone 4?
  • My 3GS has always done this when I'm in bad service. It's not an issue of losing service when you have it, it's the phone showing good service when it's just not there. My 3GS almost always shows 5 bars until I pick it up and try to use it.
  • it does happen on my phone yet my call quality / data speeds seem unaffected. No call drops either.
  • No problem of all here either. I've tried in multiple locations and haven't been able to replicate the video.
    Overall, reception is noticeably better with the iPhone 4.
  • I dont know why people arent talking about this happening with the iPhone 3G[S] Ive had all of the iPhones, like this is anything new.
  • same thing here... I was able to degrade signal strength by holding the bottom left.. but today at work.. not so much shrug
  • Same experience here, like my other phones- cover the antenna and signal degrades. BUT! OMG, I just discovered if I cover the speaker, the sound quality degrades too!!! Try it, play a tune, and put your palm over the bottom of the phone, sound almost disappears!!!! Many, Apple is worse than the Soviets. I hate everything!!! Waaaaahhhhh!
  • Yeah I noticed that too, at home I could get the signal to go down by holding it certain ways but here at work it's 100% signal anyway I hold it.
  • There are lots of variables with this issue (like skin conductivity - softer and/or sweatier skin is more conductive) but obviously signal strength is also a factor, duh.
    Cell towers pump out more signal than any phone needs for maximum voice quality outdoors (within the intended range of the tower) so that the signal can also penetrate buildings and get reasonable or good quality indoors too.
    So indoors (unless your building is right next to the cell tower) you are probably at or just below the threshold of receiving enough signal for maximum call quality. Hence degrading the signal received in any way indoors will have a noticable effect of the signal meter and possibly the call quality. Although it also sounds like iOS 4 shows signal changes that were probably happening under iOS 3, but it just wasn't updating the signal meter the same.
    Outdoors there is effectively more than enough signal for maximum quality calls, so you're still degrading the signal received by cupping the phone and shorting the antenna, but the phone doesn't notice.
  • I have no trouble at all no matter where I am so far. I can make the signal move SOMETIMES, but nit consistently and I've never dropped a call. Guess I got lucky or I'm not that electric. Lol.
  • I have an 3G and when i'm inside and holds the phone as in the videos my signal goes from full 3G to low edge, but when i'm outside it does'nt happen so much. Noticed this when i updated to iOS4.
  • this is just an issue period ... Day 1 of rf class... Don't touch the antenna
  • At&t sucks.
  • Exactly my issue. This only happens when I'm inside my house. On the road it stays full signal no matter how I hold it.
  • Hi, this is absolutely true. I have 3 bars only in my office and when I hold my iPhone 4 in my left hand, I can kill all the bars. It goes even so far that the call drops or, when I'm connected to the app store, I lose my connection - considering I'm not on WiFi. At home, I have full bars and can hold the phone the same way - nothing happens. They full bars stay. So, I'm confirming your theory. I highly doubt that any of this can be fixed with a software update though and I guess will soon bite the bullet and get me one of them "bumpers", lol.
  • Got mine yesterday - can't get the signal to drop in my house - which has never been good on my 3G... So, I can safely say my call quality had actually gone up with the 4... Go figure.
    Going to put it in a case mind - it's a slippery little beast - vibrated it's self off my desk once already.
  • inside my house i average 4 bars of signal strength (which was perfectly fine on my 3GS)... outside it's a full 5 bars. either inside or outside my house, i can cover the lower-left of my iPhone4 and it'll hit zero bars in about 45-90 seconds. i'm sure signal strength is a concern with this issue but i don't feel like my house's location is a valid root cause when my 3GS worked fine.
  • I had a complete loss of 3g when i upgraded to ios 4 on my 3gs, i had to do a clean install to get it back. i have played with all my buddies iphone 4's and signal hasn't been a issue.
    I am curious if the people with the issue could set up as new install and get back to us see if that does the trick, maybe make another post for it.
  • I live in Indianapolis and have already had 5 dropped calls. I never had problems like this with my 3GS. Hopefully its just system overload for now!!!
  • @exechobo....that is so true.... I Also discovered if you put your hand in front of the screen you can't see the screen clearly...what are we to do? I can't live like this
  • It shouldn't matter where you are at. The point is your signal should not drop so significantly just by holding it normally. I'm a southpaw and guess what I hold my phone exactly how they say not to. How is that ok? Apple dropped the ball big time on this. I'll wait for them to fix it. And since when did people put antennas on the bottom of objects anyways? Common sense says put em at the top! All they've gotta do is move em to the top of the phone and it'll work like it should.
  • Another variable in this is the fact that Apple has changed the way the GSM radio component works. Instead of just latching on to the strongest cell tower signal it will also consider the next strongest signal on a different frequency if that frequency is less congested or has better signal to noise ratio.
    So where people are seeing signal vary almost at random it may also be due to the phone picking a different cell tower/frequency, which wasn't done in the same way before iOS 4. Cupping the phone may also be tricking it into picking a different tower. There are probably things Apple can adjust here in the firmware such as the weighting that decides whether which signal to pick and also how often to switch frequencies/cell towers.
    At the end of the day, if your calls are not being dropped, stop worrying about the signal meter...
  • At work I'm good no matter how I hug it. At home I can't even touch it. (I'm talking about the Iphone)
  • pics or it didnt happen. Its a non-issue. Why are so many blogs obsessing?
  • @ddot.
    Why are lefties complaining? True left handed people would hold it in their right hand and point and click with their dominant left. I love how people catch on to a problem and try and ride some bandwagon even when it is non sensical. You would never have held a phone this tightly to cause a problem had some mega nerd not post a video.
  • @exechobo
    If i put my hand in your mouth can you eat?
  • San Diego, had about 20 dropped calls yesterday, and about 30 dropped FaceTime calls.
    Don't really know if this is an ongoing issue or new, two years of owning iPhones and that was one of the first "real" calls I tried making on it
  • I have sketchy 5 bar service in my house and it depends on where in the house you are. I haven't seen a change is service by how I hold my phone but then I don't hold it by the antenna end either.
  • I found that when I was in my house where it get really good reception it didnt matter how I held it.
    but when you are in spotty areas It is when if you hold it weird is when the signal will be scewed. but i have only found that in the spotty areas. Where it goes in and out anyways. But as for having a good signal of about 3 bars then its fine.
  • @AT&T Sucks - I too live in Indianapolis (work downtown and live on the south side) and haven't experienced a dropped call yet. I do experience the signal issue at home however.
  • Yes, signal strength is an issue. I can replicate the reduction in bars just about anywhere. But it only affects my call quality or bandwidth when I'm in certain places. Actually, the only place I've had it actually affect my service is when I'm in my office which is up 30 floors high, where I generally get poor quality service anyway.
  • Can apple & att jus get a divorce. This side blames the other for their problems. Back & forth, its so pathetic! Kids 1st, meaning the customers!
  • Actually Ralph when I use my iPhone I hold it in my left hand and use my thumb to navigate. Crazy I know. Only time I ever use 2 hands is when I type a lot of text. Why would I use 2 hands to navigate on such a tiny screen? And I have actually seen it with my own eyes. I picked up the AT&T demo unit in store, held it like I normally do, and I had 3 bars drop immediately. Didn't lose full service but I could see it happening in bad coverage areas. Jump off the fanboy bandwagon for a moment and realize the truth. They screwed up. Simple as that. I love the iPhone and I'm still rocking the 3G but I won't get this one till they address their problems. That's to be had with any new product release. Look at the first xbox and xbox 360. Problems, and they were fixed. It'd be nice to see Steve just admit he is wrong and it is a problem and resolve it. Instead he'll choose to ignore it I'm sure. Might have to wait for iPhone 4.5 so they can move those antennas lol.
  • yes. signal strength is a factor. indoors, drops. outdoors, not so much.
  • same here.. was able to kill it at home but when I went to the apple store i couldnt..
  • This is insightful? Be in an area with a stronger signal and you will not have it drop as much? Umm...yes. It does not excuse the poorly thought out engineering where a mobile device's performance can be compromised by the most common act possible -- HOLDING the moblie device.
    As for "your're holding it wrong", somebody tell that to Apple's marketing department.
  • This has nothing to do with touching the gap on the left side. If I place my index finger over the gap I go from 3G five bars to edge one bar. If I let it recover for a few minutes and repeat but this time place my finger on the front glass but not touching the metal it does the exact same thing.
  • I have been able to solve the problem by wearing a steel hat connected to an AT&T Microcell.
  • Spoke to high level person. Software update coming soon. Stay tuned.
  • Signal strength is not the answer. At home I have 5 bars with 3G and when gripping the phone in left hand normally the service drops to Edge and then no connection.
    The thing is that when I drive about 15 miles to the Apple store in the next city there is no problem at all. No loss of signal when holding with left hand. This occurs with varying signals when driving down the road.
    At the Apple store I happened to talk to an ATT rep who said there's no difference in frequency between the two cities and couldn't explain.
    Also tried a rubber case around the phone and still have the signal drop problem.
  • I can't believe apple & att have not perfected this signaling & network issues. These are the last thing a consumer should worry about. Telling people how to hold a fone is like telling people how to watch tv. U do whats most comfortable for your eyes & body. In this case hands. Excuses, excuses!
  • it turns out the iPhone 4 doesn't drop left-handed calls. and the placement of the antenna helps reduce the chance of brain tumors.
  • One minute I'll have 5 bars, next I'll have 2. I bought a case (not the Bumper though) and still the same thing. Hasn't dropped a call yet, but then again I haven't made that many calls in the past two days. Hopefully they somehow find a solution for this soon
  • When was the last time time a cller told you that you were breaking up? Answer- pre digital...back when we were all using analog. NBC New is about to run a story about iPhone problems! When I called Apple via ATT we could not force the phone to drop.. Their lame solution was to have me remove nd reinstall the SIM card. Sort of like rebooting windows; the stock tech support instruction!
  • Ive had several dropped calls (Ive only made maybe 10) and I just did a little experiment and both me and my g/f saw the depreciation of signal strength when holding the phone from the bottom left (when looking at the screen) corner. Its clearly a design flaw. The just is no other explanation for it. Really starting to get the feeling that this phone is fashion over function. Mr. Designer Guy (Ive) over at Apple appears to take priority over the actual engineers.
  • No problem unless one wants to mke phone calls and use the iPhone like, well hmmm, a phone?
  • I think this reception issue is a myth. I certainly haven't noticed nor has my wife or mother and we all have the iP4. Not only that but the folks at USAToday, WSJ, NYT, Consumer Reports and Engadget have not been able to replicate this problem. The only people are some random people on the Internet.
  • I live in Cincinnati. I never had a dropped call on my 3G, and have yet to have one drop on the 4. In fact I've never had a dropped call on AT&T since my first Cingular Moto Razr. I've never held any phone in the "death grip".
  • It makes perfect sense. If the signal is already weakened by an intervening structure (building), adding another intervening structure (hand) is enough to throw it over the edge.
    Removing the building from the equation, leaving a stronger signal to penetrate the hand, one would expect less muting effect from the hand alone.
    Call it what you want, this is a physical, hardware problem. Whether you think it is the phone hardware, your house hardware or your hand hardware, it is hardware.
    It is not specific to the iPhone, but the phone's design may magnify it.
  • The reception really sucks..I have hardly been able to make or receive calls yesterday at my office where the signal strength is medium. I never had such issues with the 3GS.. Jeeze apple has really dropped the ball on this one big time ....
  • My bars will go from 5 down to none and everywhere in between the entire time I use my iphone 4 but regardless of how many bars are showing.... full bars or none at all, my reception is usually always the same...very good. Maybe the bars aren't an accurate reflection of your actual signal strength?