Consumer Reports "can't recommend iPhone 4" after antenna tests


Just a week after issuing a report titled "iPhone 4's supposed signal woes aren't unique, and may not be serious," Consumer Reports today announces that the iPhone 4 won't go on the "Recommended" list because lab tests showed that without a non-conductive case, or a little bit of strategically placed tape, reception can take a hit when the device is gripped a certain way:

When your finger or hand touches a spot on the phone's lower left side--an easy thing, especially for lefties--the signal can significantly degrade enough to cause you to lose your connection altogether if you're in an area with a weak signal.
The iPhone 4 scored high in all other respects, but "until Apple offers a fix" at "no extra cost," the device won't receive CU's coveted blessing.

The post goes on to say that AT&T's network might not be the sole or primary cause for reception issues reported early on, including in my own review of the device. While "normal grip" use sans case or tape in good signal areas resulted in relatively stable reception for me, I was able to repeat the "death grip" results in extended testing with the iPhone 4: cover all three of those gaps between the band that wraps around the edge, and reception strength drops by varying degrees. I compared and cross-tested extensively with an iPhone 3GS, and a first-gen device. I used SpeedTest to measure signal strength in various grips, at various locations with varying signal strengths (as indicated by the device itself, in the number of bars displayed).

Bottom line from my own extensive testing: with normal use, and normal grip, this just wasn't a big problem for me.

I live and work in areas where AT&T coverage is relatively strong. But with one of those $30 "bumper" cases offered by Apple with the iPhone 4, or a little bit of gaffer tape over the sensitive bits, call stability (reception and sound quality, number of dropped calls) compared to earlier editions has been great. Consumer Reports may not be able to recommend it, but I can (and have) with good conscience and that one caveat: use a case for best results.

Overall reception and stability (for voice calls and cellular data) are far better—measurably so— than earlier models. And as noted in my earlier review, a wide array of other upgrades—the display clarify, improved camera, zippy speeds with the A4 processor—make the device a big improvement from those earlier models, and from competing smartphones.

It's too bad the debut of an otherwise terrific device was marred by an issue that seems to be solveable with such a simple fix.

Update: Several commenters have pointed out the Anandtech review of iPhone 4, which includes lots of meaty, detailed technical testing on the "antenna issue." It's a good read, and their results are in line with my experience. "The antenna is improved," they report, but:

The drop in signal from holding the phone with your left hand arguably remains a problem. Changing the bars visualization may indeed help mask it, and to be fair the phone works fine all the way down to -113 dBm, but it will persist - software updates can change physics as much as they can change hardware design. At the end of the day, Apple should add an insulative coating to the stainless steel band, or subsidize bumper cases. It's that simple.

Related reports: New York Times, Washington Post, Engadget, Gizmodo, and Joel Johnson's thoughtful piece ("Poetically, the very same thing that gives the new phone its otherwise excellent reception can occasionally be shorted out").


  1. I must have good reception, because it happens rarely enough to fill me with morbid curiosity rather than irritation. It means I have successfully found another nearly-dead zone, in a dingy restaurant booth or basement corner, where I have just enough signal so that I can make bars appear and disappear with the power of my thumb.

  2. This whole debacle reminds me of a (possibly apocryphal) story about Frank Lloyd Wright. He designed a home for the industrialist Hibbard Johnson. One night, not long after the house was completed, the roof began to leak. Johnson, furious, called up Wright and told him he had friends over and that the roof was leaking right over his head.

    Wright’s reply: “Why don’t you move your chair?”

  3. Solution: buy a case. This not only fixes the antenna problem, but it’s less likely to break when you drop it.

    1. Pay for something for a design flaw. That sends the right message to Apple and other companies alright!

      1. I’m okay, on general principle, with buying a device that functions excellently except for a minor and easily-fixed bug. Do you own a computer?

        In this case, I wouldn’t be buying one regardless, but this is not a deal-breaker.

        Anyway, pretty confident Apple is just waiting for the early adopter backlog/wait-list to clear up by the end of the month or so, then they’ll start offering free cases, completely paid for by the case purchases of the first round.

        I was waiting to buy a replacement cheapo flip-phone in an AT&T store in downtown Chicago, and around one person every 10 minutes was coming in about an iPhone 4. Many were directed there from the Apple store a couple blocks away, but both places were out.

  4. Such a solvable and simple fix that Apple is avoiding because they want to make absurd profit margins on the bumpers.

    Plan and simple, Apple needs to make the bumpers free.

    First of all, consumers are already frustrated enough with Apple for charging $30 for a connection to an external display, memory cards, USB, etc… but Mini Display and the dock connector not design flaws so to speak (although some may argue otherwise), but to charge $30 for something that most people can clearly guess production costs no more than a couple of dollars at most is simply insulting. To charge that much for a fix to a design flaw of one product by the same company who is trying to sell you the $30 widget is even worse.

    1. It’s my understanding that the bumpers interfere with docking the phone.

      Even if they were free, they wouldn’t be a fix. They’d just be another (expensive!) workaround that just introduces new problems.

    1. The Anandtech article, if you read it, actually confirms that bridging the antenna gap when holding the phone does result in a serious loss in signal. Strangely, however, it concludes that this is not a serious problem, because the problem goes away when you add a case. Suppose I don’t use a case? Why shouldn’t I expect my phone to work perfectly out of the box, without having to buy an extra part? Shame on Apple for its arrogant song and dance on this issue. I will not buy the phone, nor advise any of my friends or family to do so, until Apple makes this right with a free bumper or some other hardware fix.

    2. With all the complaints about dropped calls on iPhones, maybe saying that 4 is better than previous models isn’t really that much to cheer about.

      From the article:
      “Inside a case, the iPhone 4 performs slightly better than the Nexus One. However, attenuation gets measurably worse depending how you hold the phone.”

      That’s what people are complaining about. Non-conductive coating on the stainless steel = big fix. Case = Big fix, but may or may not be ugly.

        1. I wasn’t the one suggesting that lifting and separating your headlights was a bad idea, but I think I’m in agreement with you.

          Sometimes what’s left to the imagination can make a vehicle that much more attractive.

  5. Meh. I don’t want a case. I sometimes use one on my 3gs, but usually I just put it into a pocket. It’s nice and slim, why would I want make it cumbersome by using a case? And I don’t care about little scratches on the back – it’s a tool and meant to be used, not enshrined.

    It’s a design defect. Apple has to fix it. Case closed.

  6. To me putting a case on your iPhone is like putting a bra on your car. What’s the point of beautiful design if you can never see it?

    Oh well. Remember the g4 cube?

      1. The “bumpers” from Apple look pretty good on the phone. I don’t think it’s a less attractive device with the protective cases (which don’t cover the back, and don’t add much to the width or height or thickness. The addition of a bumper doesn’t make the phone ugly.

        1. Err, yes, they do. It’s like Michelangelo’s David (okay, a little hyperbole here) in in socks.

          1. Arguing over phone aesthetics on the internet is likely as fruitful as arguing over whether something is funny on the internet.

      2. Actually, to point, Xenu, I own a Droid. It is vitally important to me to own a phone that works…. After years with ATT and both the Classic and 3G iPhone, I jumped ship after too many network problems.

        Nevertheless the iPhone 4 is a beautiful piece of design. I personally think the bumpers make the phone uglier. I also like the look of chrome on cars…so whatever. As with most things subjective, it’s simply my personal taste.

        Though I am deeply suspicious of anyone with a bra on their car.

  7. I’m having a problem with everyone saying “Normal grip works fine”.

    I mean, lefties have been told that they’re freakish and weird for millenia so I don’t know WHY I keep expecting that to change, but “holding it in your left hand” should be one of those things you damn well test during the development phase.

  8. I believe this to be a trivial issue. But I can understand why users that laid out this kind of money would be dissapointed. With that in mind, I can see why CR would not recommend the phone.

  9. I’ve just seen the iPhone 4 Video Phone ad on the TV.

    They’re all holding the phone in their left hand, the way Steve says not to. They all have great reception.

    iTruth in Advertising.

    1. @Blue Not to put too fine a point on it, but FaceTime is WiFi only (another “it’s not a flaw it’s a feature” situation) and from what I understand, the signal attenuation that happens during a left-handed Vulcan death grip only affects 3G data and/or voice, not Wi-Fi. So, technically, the actors in the ad can “hold it that way” and not be in danger of losing their Wi-Fi signal.

  10. Nothing screams “work of a renowned designer” like gaffer tape to make it work.

  11. Like Rob, I could only get this to happen in certain areas, mainly indoors, where it said 5 bars but I doubt the 5 bars.

    Still, I shelled out $$$ for a bumper, because I’ve got a car holder that wouldn’t adjust down to the slimmer size of the phone, so I needed a case. I also like the protection, and I don’t use a dock, and so far I’m not thrilled with the cases I’ve seen so far.

    That being said, $30 for a damned $3 piece of plastic, one where the hole for the 40-pin connector is sized such that only the new Apple-sold connector will fit, and third party connectors won’t, is usurious. I chose to hack up my Kensington car charger/aux connector (pried off the connector shell and wrapped with electrical tape) so I could use it in the car holder.

    (I could have used a Dremel, but the electrical tape lends a certain DIY charm to it.)

  12. If I ever bought a phone that required me to put tape on it for it to work correctly I think I would return it. Most people would. I think that is the essential truth of the situation.

    Justify your purchase to yourself if need be, but I think I’ll stick with following consumer reports’ advice to not get one.

  13. I have an iPhone 3GS that would periodically drop calls. With all the brouhaha about the iPhone 4 antenna, I became aware of how I was holding the phone, and changed my grip from cradling it in my palm to holding it with my fingertips, with the bottom of the phone more up and away from my head. Haven’t had a dropped call since.

  14. it’s worth pointing out 3 details

    1. they tested 3 phones. and all from the same area of purchase. Hardly a sound sampling when there’s hundreds of thousands, if not millions of iphones in the US

    2. They include the phrase “area of weak reception” which implies that there’s trouble on the other side and hey maybe the phone isn’t really the issue

    3. they still say the iphone 4 is the best smart phone on the market.

    also where are all the problems for the non US. I haven’t seen tons of reports coming from other countries. and if this is a huge tragic design flaw shouldn’t we see more than perhaps 1% of units and from all countries

    Consumer Reports has hardly proven the whole design is crap even if some areas and some units have an issue of some kind or another

  15. I’m not a big fan of a product being sold without being tested in a sensible and complete manner – and it obviously couldn’t have been, let’s face it – and is being advertised with pictures that show nothing is wrong with the way you might naturally hold it, then being told that you the consumer is part of the problem they wholly created, and then in addition, being told you have to buy an overpriced band-aid-fixit-that-doesn’t-really-fixit or learn to hold your phone in different manner from every other phone on the planet. The bars issue is a red herring – but it’s also a sign of endemic deficient design. Recall the damned things and fix the problem – it fails at its intended purpose, whether or not anecdotal testimony says “It doesn’t on my phone.” The bumper is a false sense of security, anyway – you better hope your phone falls on the edge – both front and back are glass.

    If your car didn’t fire on every cylinder at random because you held the steering wheel correctly, or if your refrigerator went on the warm cycle every odd minute because you didn’t put the milk carton in the correct spot, or if your pacemaker dropped a stitch or two because you leaned to left, or hell, if your pencil lead had gaps at random – no moving parts – it has failed as a product design and in execution, which are both equally important. It doesn’t work as advertised or as intended for a significant amount of consumers, and has failed independent testing. No more excuses.

  16. Everyone is going on about what a ripoff Apple’s bumper case is at $30.

    Who says you have to buy Apple’s bumper? I’ve seen third party cases advertised for less than $10 with shipping included.

    I’m sure that they will do just as good a job of keeping your fingers off the antenna.

    I just don’t see what the big deal is.

    1. I think turtlejet nailed it, and yes there are other solutions even easy DIY. I think Apple could have quenched some of the flames by giving out the bumpers, but I will agree that it is not a fix. It seems now they may be past the point of gestures and may be forced to an actual recall. We’ll see, somehow I don’t see Apple stepping up to that one.

  17. There are a lot of people that are hesitant to use cases because it distracts from the beautiful (and other pretty words) design. Seriously? This is a phone we are talking about. You don’t have to make out with it. It is a tool. Put a protective case on it.

  18. First, it’s pretty obvious how this issue made it through testing. The test phones had cases on them to keep them disguised as iPhone 3’s.

    Second, it’s crazy for Apple to say it’s the “thinnest iPhone ever” and then advise that the phone only works properly with a case. If that’s their position they should update the dimensions of the phone to include a case.

    I don’t believe in cases. Phones are meant to be used and not preserved. Give me a screen cover and a slip case FTW.

  19. Only Apple can release a product with such a design flaw and respond to complaints with either “you’re holding it wrong” or “buy another product to make it work correctly”. Any other company would have their product returned in droves, Mac fanatics just say “ok”

    1. Actually I think with most phones it would be a bit of a non-issue.

      “Oh this new Ericokia QX4 drops bars all the time”

      “Yeah, Ericokia used to be good, but why didn’t you buy an iPhone?”

      The only reason this is getting so much attention at all is because it’s an iPhone. Certainly my boss complains regularly that his Blackberry’s reception isn’t as good as his old phone. My current Nokia’s reception isn’t as good as my old one. My sisters old phones reception was far worse than her new one. Most of the time reception quality is something that is hardly even mentioned/thought about when you purchase a phone (it should be of course, but most of the time it isn’t). It is only when the phone has as much hype as the new iPhone does that it gets portrayed like this.

  20. Xeni, you have cute little hands (dunno about Rob). If I’m holding an iPhone, it’s almost completely surrounded by meat.

      1. I clicked on that link without looking at where it went, and then my blood ran cold as I realized what I’d just done… thanks for NOT goatseing me!

        But yeah, big gnarly hands. I don’t have any problem touching the 1 and the 10 at the same time on my SAE ruler here.

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