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").