Steve Jobs received a lot of flack for his off the cuff email message where he told an iPhone 4 user experiencing reception problems not to cup the device in his left hand – “don’t hold it in that way”, Jobs remarked.
At last weeks iPhone 4 press conference, Jobs tried to demonstrate how signal attenuation based on how one holds a smartphone is not unique to the iPhone 4. Driving the point home, Jobs showed video footage of 3 smartphones (a BlackBerry Bold, an HTC Droid Eris, and a Samsung Omnia II) who all exhibited the same behavior as the iPhone when a hand is placed over the antenna.
Conspicuously absent from Jobs’ video demo was Nokia, who nonetheless sought to use the iPhone 4 press conference as a means to thrust themselves into the spotlight. In a press release issued last Friday, Nokia boldly proclaimed how, unlike Apple, it prioritizes antenna performance over design.
Antenna design is a complex subject and has been a core competence at Nokia for decades, across hundreds of phone models. Nokia was the pioneer in internal antennas; the Nokia 8810, launched in 1998, was the first commercial phone with this feature.
Nokia has invested thousands of man hours in studying human behavior, including how people hold their phones for calls, music playing, web browsing and so on. As you would expect from a company focused on connecting people, we prioritize antenna performance over physical design if they are ever in conflict.
In general, antenna performance of a mobile device/phone may be affected with a tight grip, depending on how the device is held. That’s why Nokia designs our phones to ensure acceptable performance in all real life cases, for example when the phone is held in either hand. Nokia has invested thousands of man hours in studying how people hold their phones and allows for this in designs, for example by having antennas both at the top and bottom of the phone and by careful selection of materials and their use in the mechanical design.
A few things. One, they spent thousands of hours studying how people hold their phones for calls and such? Seriously? Meanwhile, John Gruber comically chimes in, “Judging by how their phones look, must be a lot of conflicts.”
Also, this isn’t the first time Nokia has had a little bit of fun at Apple’s expense. Just a few weeks ago they posted a sarcastic blog post detailing the myriad of ways users can hold Nokia devices without experiencing signal degradation.
In any event, if Nokia wants to voluntarily piggyback off of all the attention directed at Apple to highlight its superior antenna performance, then so be it. At the same time, we can easily cherry pick numerous instances where users had similar complaints about Nokia devices as they do about the iPhone. And so, that’s what we decided to do.
Here’s a page from the Nokia 6230i user guide. And whatdya know, Nokia has the audacity to tell users how to grip their own phones. How dare they!
Here’s forum thread about the Nokia N90 from way back in December 2005. One message reads:
My N90 has a reception problem where in low reception areas when I hold the phone it doesnt get good reception. Where another person on Tmobile would have 2 bars, I have None or no TMobile signal at all.
During my travels around the ATL area yesterday I noticed this, If I hold the phone upside down I get great signal. Turn it back over and I get 1 or two bars…
And there’s more:
How Many Bars: While Holding the Phone in My hand – NOTHING…not even a drop
How Many Bars: While laying on the table 1 – 2 bars
How Many Bars: Two bars being held in hand in same location.
How Many Bars: Laying on table 2-3 bars
Wow, that sure sounds familiar. Throughout the entire thread, Nokia is criticized for placing the antenna at the bottom of the device. Meanwhile, a number of forum users suggest that affected users should hold the Nokia N90 at the center of the device or use a headset if they want decent reception.
Apparently “antennagate” stretches back more than 5 years.
And then, of course, you have the Nokia E71, hardly a stranger to quirky reception issues.
Boy Genius Report discussed the problem in August 2008.
There’s word on the big bad Internets that the E71-2 is having a bit of reception problems
Well, as dumb as this may seem…, the only place to integrate the cellular radio antenna was on the bottom back. It’s pretty much the only roomy place on the device where there is no metal. If you’re suffering from reception issues with the E71, try this… first, completely cover the bottom back plastic piece with your hand, and check out the number of bars you have. Then, grab the phone just at the very top by the ear piece, and hold it for a couple seconds. Did your reception just skyrocket? Yeah, ours too. There’s only one issue with this… most people, you know, hold the phone in their hand because they want to… uh… use it.
Here’s a forum post from Nokia’s own message boards back in September 2008:
i’ve been told from a friend of mine who works at Nokia about this E71’s signal problem.. he said, it is because the antenna receiver on this phone is on the bottom right (or left.. i forgot..) of the device. so when your hand covers the bottom area.. the signal weakens..
i dont know for sure if it’s for real or not.. but i tried to hold my E71 device a bit higher (around the middle area..) the signal then rise back up again..
And another user confirms:
just tested it…youre right ! When i hold my phone at the bottom signal weakens, when I hold it in the middle signal rises…unbelievable
And here’s video footage of Nokia E71 reception problems. And note, the guy who made this video has a microcell in his house.
And lest you think we’re unfairly picking on Nokia, users experienced similar problems on the original iPhone as well.
Below is a MacRumors forum post from July 2007.
Let me start by saying that I love everything about the iphone, except for the phone part. I am having the same problem as you. In my house when I hold the iphone in a way that feels natural(which covers the bottom antenna), it gets 1-2 bars. When I hold it at the top (very awkward) I get 4 bars. Which genuis decided to put the antenna on the bottom?
And another user chimes in:
I found if you hold the phone higher up, on the silver, without really touching the black part, leaving it exposed, the reception boosts.
I think covering it with your hand REALLY impacts reception?
So there you have it. For all the glee Nokia seems to be deriving from Apple’s misfortune, they’re not exactly immune from antenna issues themselves. And we can argue back and forth for hours about whether or not iPhone 4 issues are overblown, but the ultimate verdict on the issue rests in the actions of actual iPhone 4 owners.
It’s one thing to have sites like Gizmodo grandstand and start online petitions for free Bumpers and solicit videos which showcase iPhone 4 signal drops. But that’s just a dog and pony show, really. What really matters is whether or not users are returning the iPhone 4 en masse, and according to Steve Jobs, that simply isn’t the case. Jobs explained that the return rate for the iPhone 4 is thus far only 1/3 of the return rate for the iPhone 3GS. So unless that number increases dramatically, the only logical conclusion is that the vast majority of iPhone 4 owners are sufficiently satisfied and happy with their device that returning it isn’t even an option, antenna issues and all.