Experts defend Apple's death-grip allegations

22 Jul 2010

Apple’s iPhone 4 isn’t the only smartphone prone to antenna interference issues, but that doesn’t absolve the company of its own design flaws, said an RF expert Wednesday.

Apple chief Steve Jobs has been lambasted by critics for a press conference last Friday addressing “Antennagate,” in which the iPhone 4’s RF signal drops out when held a certain way.

Jobs claimed that smartphones with similar form factors and internal antennas, such as BlackBerry, HTC Droid Eris, Samsung Omnia and Windows mobile phones, “behave exactly the same way”.

Executives from RIM and Nokia blasted Jobs’ comments, but Charles Riggle, VP of marketing and business development for device antenna maker SkyCross, says Jobs is technically right.

“It’s true that antennas in smartphones and other handheld wireless devices are affected by the way in which the user holds the device,” Riggle said in a statement.

However, Riggle also said that the iPhone 4’s antenna problem was the result of insufficient user testing and lack of RF expertise, and that the iPhone 4’s designers could have done more to mitigate the problem.

“Apple is a premier design innovator, but more extensive device tests are often necessary to observe these behaviors and identify a remedy before launching a product,” Riggle said. “Frequently, it works better if the OEM can focus on the coolness of the design and the rich feature content and leave wireless performance to those whose sole focus is RF.”

Apple’s integrated antenna design utilizes the metal housing of the outer enclosure as a physical antenna, which allows for a compact design with a larger screen and battery.

However, the chief causes of reception problems – i.e. gaps between the multiple antenna elements that allow for multi-frequency operation, and the antenna being exposed to the user’s touch – could have been fixed with a non-conductive coating applied to the metal ring to protect the antennas from signal loss when the user touches the gap, Riggle said.

As for the “death grip” problem, other smartphone makers have been warning their users of similar issues for some time – at least in the user manuals, according to Macworld associate editor Dave Chartier.

In a blog launched Monday called Don’t Hold It Wrong, Chartier has been posting screenshots from smartphone manuals advising users on the location of the antenna, and that holding the smartphone a certain way can impact the RF signal.

Handset models named in the blog include Nokia (N97, E52 and E63), HTC (Droid Eris, Touch, Hero), Sony Ericsson (W600i, W350i) and Pantech (Matrix, Impact).

Chartier said he has not yet found similar warnings in manuals from RIM, Google or Apple, apart from the latter’s new antenna page, which features videos purportedly demonstrating the death-grip effect on other smartphones.

Skycross’ Riggle chalks the controversy up the fact that antenna design for complex multi-band smartphones is “both an art and a science”, with smartphone makers of all stripes having to fit antenna elements operating in up to ten frequency bands into a pocket-sized device along with cameras, speakers, a battery and a touchscreen.

“In antenna design, there is an age-old conflict in the compromise between form and function,” Riggle said. “Antenna engineers are constantly challenged to do more with less and develop new ways of incorporating radiating structures into phones in the smallest space possible while still meeting mobile operator radiated-performance tests and adhering to mandatory RF regulatory requirements.”

Riggle said the “Antennagate” problem was likely to become even more exacerbated as 4G wireless networks start launching in the next couple of years.

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