Nokia’s claim of superior antenna performance falls flat

Mon, Jul 19, 2010

News

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:

Nokia N90
Carrier: Tmobile
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

Nokia 3620
Carrier: Tmobile
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

Unbelievable indeed.

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.

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25 Comments For This Post

  1. Charbax Says:

    Here’s a test that real journalists would do:

    100 calls with all the phones holding it in the left hand.

    iPhone 4 will drop more calls than all other phones combined!

    Now go back to your fanboyism.

  2. Charbax Says:

    Left hand, that’s all you need to test.

    Ask random people make at least 2 minute long phone calls holding the phones with left hand, iPhone 4 will drop more calls than all Android, HTC, Nokia and Blackberry phones combined. Combined!

    iPhone 4 will drop 10-20% of calls when the phone is held with the left hand. All other phones will drop less than 0.1% of calls when held with left hand.

  3. Charbax Says:

    This is a case of Apple not wanting to recall all the phones, not wanting to delay the release of iPhone 4 in dozens of European countries (provides about 50% of iPhone sales). This is a case of Apple not wanting to admit that there is a problem. Not only is it a problem of money, money wouldn’t really be a problem for Apple, they got plenty of money. They could easily afford to replace/fix the casings and antenna systems in a couple million phones. The main problem here is one of time, it’s too late for Apple to change anything in the design of the hardware, they would be loosing too much time if they were to do the right thing, it would cost Apple not just weeks but probably a couple of months to delay things. Fact is, today, Android phones combined are selling double as many phones per day as all iPhones combined. The trend is putting Android sales at 4 to 1 by the end of the year, Apple sees that huge threat coming (which is why they try to make revenues and profits on iPad instead), if they were to delay iPhone 4 worldwide release by a couple months till they’d mod the casing and antennas (stick in a second antenna on the other end of the hardware like in the Droid X) that could allow Android reach 4 to 1 sales per day ratio a few months earlier than it is projected to be.

  4. quiet Says:

    Um, there’s sort of a slight difference here. Nokia is making phones from the low end to the top and sometimes a crappy design might slip through. Oops. Oh well, on to the next model.

    Apple has been working their ass off on one phone for an entire year. And the come out with a phone that shatters the glass if dropped and has serious antenna issues.

    Sort of a putting all your eggs in one basket kind of thing. Nokia has so many damn eggs a few may be runts and stillborn, but if you’re investing all the energy into one egg, that better be one huge and fantastic egg.

  5. N8nnc Says:

    This is a case of inconsistent responses to a consistent problematic behavior. Body interference is either an issue for all or a non-issue for all. It shouldn’t be treated as a problem only for apple. Now that apple has set a precedent by offering a response (even if it is incompletely successful), I wonder what the other vendors will do (or be forced to do by their customers). If competitors try to make hay from apple’s antenna, they are only causing more trouble for themselves.

  6. JM Says:

    Why so much energy just to obscure the obvious?
    The Iphone does have a problem, and it is that, as with everything
    about it, you don’t have the ‘option’ to hold it in the natural manner that we are accustomed to.

  7. Larry Fritzlan Says:

    I have yet to drop any calls at all on my new iPone. My 3GS will drop 2-4 calls a week but my iPhone 4 has yet to drop a call. It appears better than the 3GS.

  8. Viswakarma Says:

    iPhone 4 and Apple success envy!!!

  9. Viswakarma Says:

    iPhone 4 and Apple success envy!!!

  10. honkj Says:

    ———-iPhone 4 will drop more calls than all other phones combined!———-

    this is false, and patently false. REAL test after test shows this is false. and 3 million users climbing to 50 million have figured out this is false.

  11. ray Says:

    “Nokia boldly proclaimed how, unlike Apple, it prioritizes antenna performance over design”. Is this an admission by Nokia that say we are proud of our fugly phones. We produce fugly phones by design.

  12. edd Says:

    @Charbax

    I am left hander and I have no issue using an iPhone 4. No drop calls etc.. Sorry to burst your hate bubble…

  13. IPlayAnExpertOnTheInetrnets Says:

    I have the iPhone 4. I don’t experience dropped calls unless I’m in a location I was never able to make a call to begin with when I would use the 3GS phone. So yeah, I might drop a call in a location that sucks to begin with, but before, I couldn’t make that call to begin with. I’m not a journalist but I have the phone and use it all-the-time and I have yet to get as pissed as the blog-ohmygod-o-sphere has been.

  14. Sebastian Says:

    Well, it’s easy, isn’t it. Obviously, there is more than one manufacturer that has some problems with the antenna. See above. The funny thing is: Nokia argued the same way Steve Jobs did. “Hold it different.” So why make a big deal out of it.

    Hard data said: ± 165.000 out of 3.000.000 users called Apple Care regarding antenna issues. Wow! Big deal!

    What makes us suspicious about the hole thing is just the way the media is blowing it up. No one was talking about Nokia 5 years ago, telling their customers how to use their phone the right way.

  15. Nick Says:

    @Sebastian,

    16,500 out of 3,000,000. No problems at all with mine.

  16. Chanson de Roland Says:

    Dear Charbax: What will be the number of dropped calls for the iPhone 4 versus all other smartphones combined, when one holds those phones in a way that covers their sensitive spot? That is fair and relevant questions, and Apple provided the proof: All other smartphones combined drop calls in areas of the same signal strength to approximately the same extent. See http://www.apple.com/antenna/.

    So rather than misleading test that you propose, real journalist should hold the iPhone 4 covering the gap and compare the resulting number of dropped calls with all other smartphones’ dropped calls, when they also cover the sensitive are of those phones’ antennas with their hands in areas of similar signal strength on AT&T’s network.

    This test will show that the iPhone 4 doesn’t drop any more calls than any other smartphone in an area of similar signal strength on AT&T’s network.

  17. Chanson de Roland Says:

    Dear Charbax: The insurmountable problem that Apple has with trying to do a hardware fix is that there isn’t any hardware defect to fix, just an ordinary manifestation of a common, industry-wide problem with attenuation when smartphone’s antenna is in close proximity to human skin. The only difference is where the sensitive spot is located on each smartphone. Thus, Apple can’t fix the hardware defect, because it does not exist.

  18. Chanson de Roland Says:

    And John Gruber at Daring Fireball adds to the growing list of phones, all of which Consumer Reports recommended, that have the same problem of attenuated reception as the iPhone 4, when a human had covers the area of the phone its antenna is located.

    See http://daringfireball.net/linked/2010/07/19/consumer-reports-recommended-list.

  19. Jesse Says:

    Charbax Says:
    July 19th, 2010 at 3:26 am
    Left hand, that’s all you need to test.

    i’m a lefty, had the phone since a day before launch, never used a case, just screen protectors.

    Not one dropped call.

    You know what’s funny?

    how bad the “fandroid” people want the iphone 4 to suck. You forget how different the market was before the iphone, and that without it, the android would either be totally different, or non existant.

    It’s not a battle, it’s an evolution of smartphones. Them competing benefits us all There’s no need to hate anyone, but about 99% of you are idiots.

  20. Truthsayer Says:

    Well looks like the liars are out in force. Fact is, out of 11 new iPhone 4′s we rounded up, we found NONE that dropped calls, and out of the 11, 9 got a signal where a new HTC found got none. Real world, dummies, beats lies every time.

  21. theman Says:

    The title of the article is misleading. Nowhere in it’s statement does Nokia claim to be superior:

    “Nokia designs our phones to ensure acceptable performance in all real life cases”

    So they promise acceptable performance. Seems reasonable to me, you know what you are gonna get.

    The only company who claimed it’s ‘revolutionary antenna design’ was superior was Apple. At least reception was supposed to be better on the 4 than on the 3GS. Well guess what, it drops calls even more often. Let’s not deny the fact there is a real problem with the design of this antenna.

    Seems to me that the only people complaining about the issue are the people who cared to buy one in the first place. No surprise then that apple essentially admitted the fault and asked for this recall and started handing out free rubbers.

  22. briand06 Says:


    # Charbax Says:
    July 19th, 2010 at 3:22 am

    Here’s a test that real journalists would do:

    100 calls with all the phones holding it in the left hand.
    iPhone 4 will drop more calls than all other phones combined!

    Did you test this yourself? How and when? In which conditions? Which phones did you use? How repeatable was this test?

    Facts please. We are talking about technology (and science). Yours is fluff.

  23. Frank Says:

    Another consideration is the margin of error with respect to the call drop rate. If one phone drops 3% of calls with a margin of error of +/-0.75% and another phone drops 2% of calls with a margin of error of +/-0.5%, the real drop rate could be as low as 2.25% for the first phone and as high as 2.5% for the second, making the first phone ‘better’.

  24. Edible Apple in Deed to the Experts Says:

    RF and Wireless System Engineers of the world rejoice.

    It is very exciting to see the CEO of Apple Computers to suffer the indignities of having to tell its customers that “you should hold this phone like this, yes like this, but not like that, and oh not like that” as he twists and turns his body, wrist, and the phone in multiple configurations like a talented contortionist.

    It is simply bad RF product design, admit it, and fix it! Instead, Apple is recommending to its customers a newly redesigned phone, just that it is a really cheapened version of the phone, i.e., a phone with a new shell, or a new phone with additional unheard-of hand positioning requirements.

    I have long wondered how Apple could have gotten away with no wireless expertise or with really bad expertise and still succeed in the wireless world by a pretty face. Now we have the answer. It was just lucky.

    The problem would have been found within 3 months of live air user tests, or the KPIs (Key Performance Indicator) would have been trending high that no one could have explained. Apple either had no live air facilities or that no one was skilled enough to know what was going to hit them. The fanciful, futuristic looking test chambers that Apple is supposedly showing the world, unless something lies beyond the surface, is just that, a fancy designed to again fool the world that its beautiful face equates knowledge and expertise. What Apple needs is a generic live-air user network that its own employees can “eat the dog food”, literally, now of the iPhone 4. A team of engineers shall be there to constantly monitor its KPIs before any new product can be market launched.

    This episode should teach Apple, that this is now millions of devices, today, already in the field, a real handset issue that cannot even be side-stepped on the network side. From the scant evidence we have, it appears that there is some incorrect RSSI measurement in the device, that should be fixable through a SW upgrade. If not fixed, it will likely consume or emit more power than it is necessary in a 3G UMTS system, which either leads to dropped calls of this phone or other phones because of the additional interference, or degraded performance in data throughput.

    However the more worrying is the problem arising from the “Human Flesh Capacitor” feature that the open antenna design seems to enable. So this eventually still has to be a recall, as the devices in the field cannot be repaired. Nevertheless, once root-cause analyzed (RCA), the problem should still be relatively easy to fix in manufacturing because it seems a shield of some sort of the antenna is working quite effectively, whereas modern materials technology has much spare capacity to allow some kind of, even translucent, cover being applied on the antenna, while retaining much of the antenna gain that the new design is supposed to provide. In fact, today’s phone have a 0dB gain, and the Apple phone should still have much better gain compared to the competition.

    (I would not be surprised some other vendor is already experimenting with the Apple antenna and covering it in some thin material to avoid that same fate.)

    In the meanwhile, a day Apple is in denial, I can only imagine that Nokia, Huawei, Motorola, partying like there is no tomorrow.

    The curious thing is what AT&T was doing. It felt like they had been intoxicated by Apple’s device successes and were just asleep at the wheel; this is definitely not the AT&T Wireless I know of or any other tier-1 carrier. I can just imagine AT&T is now going back to 2 years worth of data, as the phone being designed and tested, and trying to find all the dropped call cases that were not RCA’ed (Root-Cause Analyzed).

    The Apple CEO even suffered additional indignity of shouting to the world that the KPI will only deteriorate by 1%. Good heavens! Some boys in AT&T have their pay linked to the Dropped Call KPI, at the 0.1% granularity, and they will be getting a pay-cut. Not Steve Jobs, of course. In the meanwhile, AT&T will have to drop the ads claiming to be the most reliable network in America, that now belongs to Verizon.

  25. Steve Says:

    Chanson de Roland Says:
    July 19th, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    All other smartphones combined drop calls in areas of the same signal strength to approximately the same extent. See http://www.apple.com/antenna/.

    So rather than misleading test that you propose, real journalist should hold the iPhone 4 covering the gap and compare the resulting number of dropped calls with all other smartphones’ dropped calls, when they also cover the sensitive are of those phones’ antennas with their hands in areas of similar signal strength on AT&T’s network.

    —————————————

    covering up the antenna of every phone to test sounds fair…except you forget the fact that people don’t make calls covering up the antenna, the real test should be randomly selected individuals making a number of calls from the same location with different phones to a secure landline (to minimize dropped calls on the other end) holding the phone in a manner that seems natural to them when using a phone.

    Moreover, the apple website supporting it’s claims about other smart phones is at best an indication of what most people know as truth already, that phones can lose reception, and at worst a finger pointing game apple has started to deflect the real issue. I own the blackberry bold 9700 and i have tried to lose signal like their website and videos show to no avail. I took off the backplate (which leaves the front of the phone looking exactly the same) and i was able to drop down to 3 of 5 bars for 2 seconds before it jumped back up to full.

    Now let us use the assumption that apple’s site is a true reflection of the smartphone industry and not a ploy to cast negative light on its competitors thereby putting everyone on an “equal playing field”. Notice that on the site, out of all the phones tested, the iphones are the only ones that do not start off with full bars of reception before they even begin the grip test?

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