The “iPhone Death Grip” is somewhat real, but it’s more subtle than a lot of people have been putting on. It’s not a deal breaker and it’s not a reason – by itself – not to buy the iPhone 4. But the nearly hysterical online reaction to the death-grip news reveals what people are really thinking.
First, Apple has issued an official statement, with which I completely agree.
“Gripping any phone will result in some attenuation of its antenna performance with certain places being worse than others depending on the placement of the antennas.
This is a fact of life for every wireless phone,” Apple said. “If you ever experience this on your Phone 4, avoid gripping it in the lower left corner in a way that covers both sides of the black strip in the metal band, or simply use one of many available cases.”
If I hold the phone in a slightly sweaty left hand, with my fingers covering the three black lines on the phone’s edge and the bottom left corner in my palm, signal strength is somewhat reduced. If I had to pick a number out of the air, I’d say it’s by 3 to 5 decibels per milliwatt (dBm). Feel free to correct me if you have the appropriate lab equipment. The hand involved has to be a little sweaty to encourage conductivity, or the trick might not work.
This doesn’t have any effect on connecting voice calls in areas with a strong signal, but it can make the difference between connecting and not if you’re already in a fringe signal area.
The death grip makes more of a difference for data. I started a speed test using the Speedtest.net app with the phone sitting on a table. When I picked it up with the Death Grip, download speeds were often reduced by 50 percent or more. Putting the phone down again restored the download speeds.
I couldn’t duplicate the same effect with the same grip on an iPhone 3GS or an HTC phone, although editor Dan Costa had a cool (and different) death grip, which can knock two signal bars off his Palm Pre. Using one of Apple’s $29 bumper cases negated the iPhone 4 death grip, which means to me that it clearly has something to do with conductivity.
This isn’t a deal breaker. In a reasonable world with reasonably good signal, you have dBm to spare. But iPhone users have been frustrated with voice calling since the first iPhone came out. I personally don’t think circuit-switched voice calls are Apple’s top design priority, and AT&T’s network has been overloaded by iPhone users practically since day one.
So when Steve Jobs announced that the new iPhone has an awesome new antenna, iFans went berserk. But the antenna wasn’t designed primarily to get better reception; it was designed because the iPhone’s internal components so cram the case that there wasn’t any room inside for an antenna.
Steve Jobs likes to say he’s trying to make perfect products, and deep down in their emotional cores, Apple fans don’t understand why that doesn’t also include perfect RF reception and perfect network quality. Apple’s repeated “betrayals” of the enthusiast community by re-signing exclusivity deals with AT&T drive people to distraction.
But nothing’s perfect. The people at Apple aren’t superhuman. There aren’t an infinite number of them. They have priorities, and they have to make choices.
The iPhone 4 isn’t the perfect RF device. It has lots of strengths. Nothing, and no one, is actually perfect. And the death grip, really, is just a little reminder of the imperfections that keep our world interesting, challenging, and a world where there are many great mobile phones, not just one.
This post originally appeared on Gearlog.