The Real Story on iPhone 4's Antenna

"How are you holding it?" - Brian Klug

"Three fingers. Like a [redacted] ninja turtle." - Anand Shimpi

There's been a ton of discussion lately surrounding iPhone 4 cellular reception. Even before it was officially announced, the reason for the stainless steel band running along the outside of the phone seemed enigmatic; many called it un-apple and decidedly atypical of seamless apple design which eschews hard edges. The black strips were written off as aesthetic curiosities, possibly even markings which denoted a fake.

Then at the WWDC announcement, we learned the truth. The iPhone 4's antenna is the stainless steel band that runs around the edge of the phone. The antenna for WiFi, Bluetooth, and GPS is the smaller strip beginning in the bottom left and running to the top, and the cellular radio for voice and data is the much larger strip running around almost three quarters of the phone.

It's a design nod back to some of the earliest cellular phone designs which packed external whips that one could manually extend for improving reception. Since then, designs evolved, and until recently virtually all smartphones have packed internal antennas at the bottom of the phone. The iPhone 4's external antenna promises improved reception over the internal antenna in the iPhone 3GS.

Of course, the caveat is that as with all external antennas, the potential for both unintended attenuation and detuning is much, much greater. When I first saw the iPhone 4's design spelled out watching the keynote online, I immediately assumed that Apple was going to apply an insulative coating atop the stainless steel. Perhaps even use diamond vapor deposition (like they did with the glass screen atop the iPhone 3GS) to insulate the stainless steel from users. We now know rather definitively that this isn't the case. Of course, the result is that anything conductive which bridges the gap in the bottom left couples the antennas together, detuning the precisely engineered antennas. It's a problem of impedance matching with the body as an antenna, and the additional antenna that becomes part of the equation when you touch the bottom left.

The fact of the matter is that cupping the bottom left corner and making skin contact between the two antennas does result in a measurable difference in cellular reception. But as we'll show, RF is a strange beast.

Measuring Reception Without Bars

When I set out to characterize and understand the iPhone 4's antenna issue, I noticed that reports online varied wildly. Some claimed that they were always able to recreate a reception issue created by cupping the phone, yet others reported no change at all squeezing the phone tightly. After acquiring my iPhone 4, the first thing I did was try to fire up Field Test via the widely documented *3001#12345#* dialer code. Unfortunately, like iOS 4 running on the 3GS and 3G, Field Test is absent from the iPhone 4. It isn't a matter of the dialer code, it's that Field Test has been completely removed from the applications directory in the filesystem.

For those that don't know, Field Test variants exist on virtually every phone for purposes of debugging the air interface and baseband. Quality metrics like RSSI (raw signal strength) usually in dBm are reported alongside a wealth of other metrics like SNR and even what adjacent towers are visible to the phone for handing off. It's a tool usually buried deep in every phone because the amount of data would overwhelm normal mobile users, but is useful for engineers and curious but savvy users alike to find out what's going on with the cellular network. For whatever reason, Apple really doesn't want anyone running that tool anymore.

Just about everyone knows that although reporting signal strength in bars gets the job done, it's an absolutely worthless metric for comparison across devices and platforms due to lack of standardization. Further, iOS smoothes the quality metric with a moving average over as much as 10 seconds, masking how fast signal changes. There's also the matter of dynamic range, but more on that in a second. Without any numbers at all it would've been impossible to understand what's going on with iPhone 4. On my 3GS, I exclusively report signal numerically, and as a result have a very good feel for coverage in Tucson, AZ where I live.

But I found a way. Undeterred by the lack of field test on iOS 4, I was determined to enable numeric signal strength reporting in the top left where bars are normally displayed. If you've ever run a jailbroken iPhone and used SBSettings, or changed your carrier string, you've probably encountered the fact that iTunes will back up and restore the status bar configuration across OS restores. See where I'm going?

I took my iPhone 3GS, downgraded to 3.1.3, jailbroke, enabled numeric WiFi and GSM and backed up. I then took my iPhone 4 and restored with iOS 4, but pointed it to the backup of the jailbroken, numeric-GSM-reporting iPhone 3GS. You'll note that booting and activating the new phone required fitting the new iPhone 4 microSIM into a SIM carrier. I ordered one almost a month ago, but it still hasn't shown up.


My MicroSIM -> SIM adapter. The real one is still inexplicably in the mail 15 business days later.

Success ensued, and I had a numeric readout of signal strength on a non jailbroken iPhone 4. The results are interesting.

Before we dive in, let's talk about dynamic range for a second. For a while, I've talked about how iOS reports the quality metric with a compressed, optimistic dynamic range. On iOS, 4 bars begins at around -99 to -101 dBm. Three bars sits around -103 dBm, 2 bars extends down to -107 dBm, and 1 bar is -113 dBm. To give you perspective, for a UMTS "3G" plant, -51 dBm is the best reported signal you can get - it's quite literally standing next to, or under a block away from a tower. At the other extreme, -113 dBm is the worst possible signal you can have before disconnecting entirely. With a few exceptions, signal power as low as -107 dBm is actually perfectly fine for calls and data, and below that is where trouble usually starts. However, you can see just how little dynamic range iOS 4 has for reporting signal; over half of the range of possible signal levels in dBm (from -99 dBm to -51 dBm) is reported as 5 bars.

So, an entire day and more than a quarter tank of gas later, here are the results. Holding the iPhone 4 without a case, in your left hand, crossing the black strip can result in a worst case drop of 24 dB in signal. As we'll show in a second, how you hold the phone makes a huge difference across every smartphone - and we've tested thoroughly in 5 different positions.

Now, there are two vastly different possibilities for what happens to the bar visualization after you drop 24 dB. I happen to live less than one block from an AT&T UMTS tower (it's across the street, literally), and have exceptionally strong signal in all of my house - it's part of why I chose to live here, actually. Signal is above -65 dBm in every single room, in most cases it's at -51 dBm. When I incur that worst case drop of 24 dB from squeezing the phone, I fall down to -83 dBm, which is still visualized as 5 bars.

However, in locales that have less signal, but where iOS still displays 5 bars, the drop of 24 dB is visualized much differently. For example, at another test location, signal without holding the phone is -89 dBm, which is still displayed as 5 bars. Cup the phone, and you'll fall all the way to -113 dBm. All the bars dramatically disappear one after the other, people think they've dramatically lost all the signal, and you know the rest.

If you're at 4 bars already, (which puts you on the low end of possible signal strengths), cupping the phone even more delicately is enough to push you the remaining 10 or so dB to cutoff. It doesn't take much when you're at 4 bars, which is why the visualization is flawed. Complicating matters is that signal is completely fine until down around 2 bars at -107 dBm.

If you add a bumper case to the iPhone 4, the signal strength drop from holding the device is on par if not better than other phones. In the exact same location, in the exact same orientation, I carefully measured my iPhone 3GS and Nexus One with the same AT&T microSIM in my newly made SIM adapter. After lots of testing, I decided on 5 different positions for holding the phone, and tested signal repeatedly. 

1) Cupping tightly - This is the absolute worst case and involves squeezing the phone very tightly, like people are doing online in videos demonstrating all the bars going away. I squeeze the phone hard and make sure my palms are sweaty as well. You'd never hold the phone this way because it's physically painful.

2) Holding naturally, comfortably - This is just how one would hold the phone typically in a relaxed way. Not squeezing it to purposefully reduce signal, but making contact with the fingers and not an open palm.

3) Resting atop an open, flat palm.

4) Holding naturally, but inside a case - In this situation the Bumper for iPhone 4, an Otter Box for the 3GS, and a comparable generic case for the Nexus One.

5) Pinching the top and bottom - Our baseline, virtually no attenuation. Held only to keep the exact position constant. It's not reported since this is considered ideal.

Signal Attenuation Comparison in dB - Lower is Better
  Cupping Tightly Holding Naturally On an Open Palm Holding Naturally Inside Case
iPhone 4 24.6 19.8 9.2 7.2
iPhone 3GS 14.3 1.9 0.2 3.2
HTC Nexus One 17.7 10.7 6.7 7.7

It's difficult to be exact about the data, since signal is very sensitive to direction, ambient conditions, and cell breathing. To generate these numbers, I measured at least 6 times and took the average. The results are pretty self explanatory. Inside a case, the iPhone 4 performs slightly better than the Nexus One. However, attenuation gets measurably worse depending how you hold the phone. Squeezing it really tightly, you can drop as much as 24 dB. Holding it naturally, I measured an average drop of 20 dB. 

The drop in signal from cupping the device with a case on is purely a function of us being "ugly bags of mostly water." A material which happens to be pretty good at attenuating RF - thus increasing path loss between the handset and cellular base station. There's nothing Apple nor anyone else can do to get around physics, plain and simple. It's something which demonstrably affects every phone's cellular reception.

Add in an external antenna you're essentially forced to touch and bridge to another adjacent antenna while holding, and the signal attenuation is even worse. The fact of the matter is that either the most sensitive region of the antenna should have an insulative coating, or everyone should use a case. For a company that uses style heavily as a selling point, the latter isn't an option. And the former would require an unprecedented admission of fault on Apple's part.

That's not all there is to the story, however.

The Antenna is Improved

From my day of testing, I've determined that the iPhone 4 performs much better than the 3GS in situations where signal is very low, at -113 dBm (1 bar). Previously, dropping this low all but guaranteed that calls would drop, fail to be placed, and data would no longer be transacted at all. I can honestly say that I've never held onto so many calls and data simultaneously on 1 bar at -113 dBm as I have with the iPhone 4, so it's readily apparent that the new baseband hardware is much more sensitive compared to what was in the 3GS. The difference is that reception is massively better on the iPhone 4 in actual use.

With my bumper case on, I made it further into dead zones than ever before, and into marginal areas that would always drop calls without any problems at all. It's amazing really to experience the difference in sensitivity the iPhone 4 brings compared to the 3GS, and issues from holding the phone aside, reception is absolutely definitely improved. I felt like I was going places no iPhone had ever gone before. There's no doubt in my mind this iPhone gets the best cellular reception yet, even though measured signal is lower than the 3GS.


Conference call with three calls going at the same time, and transacting data, all at minimum signal. Impressive.

That brings me to the way that signal quality should really be reported - Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR). SNR is essentially a measure of how much of the signal is compromised by noise or interference. It's readily apparent that because the iPhone 4 works almost perfectly fine at -113 dBm, it has much better sensitivity. The deciding factor for reporting the signal quality metric is then SNR, something Apple and other handset manufacturers will have to move to eventually instead of just power. In reality, reporting based on SNR makes a lot more sense, since I couldn't make calls drop driving around an entire day cupping the phone, despite being at -113 dBm (1 bar) most of the time.

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.

WiFi/Bluetooth Reception

But what about WiFi? Surely since the UMTS/GSM antenna interferes with it, the WiFi signal has changed as well. It has, though not how one would expect. Holding the phone with no case actually improves WiFi signal strength by a measurable 5 to 10 dB. In the following plot, the dips are me releasing the phone from a tight grip and going to the two finger pinch. I verified the same ballpark level of performance increase on the phone as well. RF is truly an odd beast indeed. It just depends whether you're adding or subtracting length from the antenna, and thus moving away from or closer to an optimal solution.


The blue line is the iPhone 4. Look at the rate as well - more on that in a second.

The last lingering question is how GPS fix accuracy and acquire time changes depending on how you hold the iPhone 4. I spent a few hours testing and came to the conclusion that there's an insignificant difference gripped or not gripped, or compared to the 3GS. It's also difficult to repeat the same measurement since location services seems to keep the GPS going even after you stop using it, so subsequent API calls to it within a few minutes are very speedy. 

Getting an accurate location is still nearly instantaneous using WiFi through skyhook, and then AGPS takes it the rest of the way. It's impressive that we're talking on the order of seconds for a location within tens of meters of accuracy - considering that a cold fix on a standalone GPS used to take minutes. If you don't have line of sight to the sky, GPS fixes will take longer no matter what smartphone you're using. I have to wonder whether improved WiFi reception has an effect or not on skyhook (WiFi MAC address and signal strengh based) trilateration accuracy. Again, I couldn't be certain.

Introduction Network Improvements
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  • samspqr - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    "The fact that Apple didn't have the foresight to coat the stainless steel antenna band with even a fraction of an ounce worth of non-conductive material either tells us that Apple doesn't care or that it simply doesn't test thoroughly enough."

    I find it really funny that they would never catch this specific problem because of them just being apple: if their engineers are not as good as anand is (as in thinking "that's gonna be a problem" right after hearing the description of the antenna), and if THE FIELD TESTERS HAD THEIR PHONES DRESSED AS A 3GS BECAUSE OF PARANOID ISSUES, this kind of problem can only slip through
    Reply
  • The0ne - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    I think Anand was a little light on this topic. As an multi-discipline engineer myself this type of problem with the Antenna SHOULD NEVER had happened. It can only happened due to decisions that did not properly address it. This is not rocket science to engineers. If anything, testing WOULD HAVE discover the problem and yet it's in the finish product. Quite sad if you ask me.

    For example, why put a ferrite clamp on the end of the cable instead of designing it into the PCB . The only reason I can see why we did this was due to lack of time and we severely paid for it by having products become defective because the ferrite would pull the cables loose from the connectors.
    Reply
  • deppbv78 - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    I'm really disappointed at the lengths taken by AT to justify that iP4 losing signal as not a big deal...If it was any other product from any other manufacturer, I'm sure you'd not have gone to such lengths to justify the signal drop and just concluded that the phone has serious antenna problems. I'm not understanding why is it so difficult for anyone just provide an unbiased view of the product.

    I have HTC Hero & Touch Pro both of which lost a bar or two (with fluctuations) when cupped tightly. However, it was always just 1-2 bars and never went down like iPhone 4 does from 5 bars to 0. This continuous loss of signal is the problem. Justifying it telling that all phones lose signal is not right, as every other phone (including 3GS) loses signal temporarily and then stabilizes unlike iPhone 4.

    No wonder the iPhone 4 is engineering marvel, but that set aside it is also true that the design has created issues as well and the reviews need to acknowledge it and not justify it
    Reply
  • geniekid - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    HTC Incredible owner here. I think AT successfully showed that the antenna issue is NOT a big deal and their methods for doing so are sound. I share your suspicion that maybe they wouldn't have made such a significant investigation if it had been another phone, but let's not accuse them of mistakes they haven't made yet. Reply
  • bplewis24 - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    I have a sincere question though. Does this test really successfully show the antenna issue is NOT a big deal, or does it simply show that it's not a big deal in the utmost ideal conditions?

    Sometimes the article is difficult to decipher in terms of understanding who is saying what, but upon my initial reading I take it Brian did the testing of the antenna in Arizona. By his own admission (from my understanding), he lives there because the reception is absolutely stellar and about as good as it can possibly be.

    Again, from what I can tell, it is under those conditions that he conducted the attenuation signal loss comparisons. If it still drops down to 1 bar and comes reasonably close to dropping calls under the best possible conditions, how does it react under "average" conditions? Other people are reporting dropped calls for a reason. Is Brian's test the norm or an outlier?

    Please correct me if I've read this article wrong.

    Brandon
    Reply
  • anactoraaron - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    My understanding is you are partially correct in assuming (which is what I interpreted from your post) that under "normal" or "average" conditions you will go to one bar - which with the improved reception even at 1 bar you are still fine - OR will drop signal completely.

    This is also the reason why they say "At the bare minimum Apple should give away its bumper case with every iPhone 4 sold."

    Again, fantastic in-depth review.
    Reply
  • strikeback03 - Thursday, July 01, 2010 - link

    Well, he said the location he lives in has stellar reception. But he also said he drove around for a day testing, which implies to me that he found somewhere with a stable, "average" signal and did some testing there, then probably went somewhere with a "poor" signal and did some more, etc. Reply
  • bplewis24 - Friday, July 02, 2010 - link

    @strikeback03

    Correct. And in driving around to the less-than-stellar areas showed the phone dropping down below -107dB for reception when showing less than 2 bars. And this is on the low end of the reception spectrum as described earlier in the article. So it's pretty clear that the antenna does INDEED show poor signal strength in average or less than average areas when the "death grip" is applied.

    That is the determining factor. That determines that the design is defective and flawed. If it was not designed that way, when in average or below signal areas, the reception would still be average or below, and not well below because of the way you hold the phone.

    However, the article skirts this and attempts to present it in a way that shines the best possible light on Apple and their defective design. Big disappointment in terms of an objective review.

    Brandon
    Reply
  • geniekid - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    The article made it clear that bars are a misleading way of measuring call quality/reception. In practice, it was noted that call quality/reception is improved/equal to the 3GS on the 4, regardless of bars (raw signal power).

    Who cares if you have 1 bar all the time if you're still making calls better than someone with 4 bars?

    HTC Incredible owner here.
    Reply
  • MacTheSpoon - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    If you do have 1 bar all the time, then you're right: who cares? However, you may eventually find yourself in an area with less than 5 bars of reception and if you happen to hold the phone wrong then the antenna problem will drop your reception down to 0 bars. Then all the sensitivity of this phone at 1 bar will be irrelevant.

    Unless you spring for a case that Apple will not give you for free as they should.
    Reply

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