Yes, the iPhone 4 is broken / No, the iPhone 4 is not broken

The controversy over the iPhone 4's antenna issues continues to grow, particularly after Consumer Reports confirmed yesterday that every iPhone 4 suffers from signal attenuation when the phone is held with the lower left corner covered -- a report that we confirmed with results from our own custom signal metering app. At this point, there's no longer any question in our minds that the iPhone 4's antenna can be made to lose signal by holding it "wrong" -- and we definitely think it's more than a little silly that simply holding the phone in your left hand has been nicknamed the "death grip."

That said, however, it's not at all clear what the real-world effects of the antenna issue actually are for most people -- as we've repeatedly said, several iPhone 4s owned by the Engadget staff (including our review unit) have never experienced so much as a single dropped call, while others suffer from signal issues that results in lost calls and unresponsive data in a dramatic way. What's more, at this point Apple's sold well over two million iPhone 4s, and we simply haven't heard the sort of outcry from users that we'd normally hear if a product this high-profile and this popular had a showstopping defect. Honestly, it's puzzling -- we know that the phone has an antenna-related problem, but we're simply not able to say what that issue actually means for everyday users.

So we're doing what we can do: we've collected reports from every member of the Engadget staff who's using the phone, as well as reached out to a variety of tech industry colleagues for their experiences. As you'll see, most of our peers seem to be doing perfectly fine with their iPhone 4s, but the people who are having problems are having maddening issues in an inconsistent way. We'd say it all comes down to the network -- particularly in New York City, where AT&T just completed a major upgrade -- but even that isn't a consistent factor in predicting experience. Ultimately, we just won't know what's really going on until Apple comes clean and addresses this issue (and the growing PR nightmare it's become), but for now we can say with some certainty that not everyone is affected, and those that are seem to be in the minority. Read on for the full report.


Joshua Topolsky (Brooklyn): "Having reviewed the phone before the general launch, I've been on high alert about the issues being reported from the start. While there are clearly problems with other people's devices, I can't seem to replicate the experience with the phone I have. I've been using the phone for about a month now without any notable reception or data rate issues -- no matter where I hold the device. In testing for our review (which you can read here) I found the reception to be as good if not better than the previous version, and I had far fewer dropped calls. That hasn't changed in the weeks since the review was posted, and though I can get the signal to show attenuation in Erica Sadun's app if I really squeeze the phone in the left corner, I cannot get it to drop a call or show a notable impact on data up- or downstream. At this point, I cannot even remember the last time I had a dropped call."

Nilay Patel (Chicago): "As seen on the video we posted yesterday, my iPhone 4 exhibits the issue quite readily when I hold it 'wrong' -- I've definitely dropped a number of calls and experienced slow data rates when holding the phone with the antennas bridged. And I'm left-handed with pretty big hands, so unless I'm careful it's a regular problem for me. However, it's not always perfectly consistent, and sometimes I have no problems at all regardless of how I hold the phone."

Chris Ziegler (Chicago): "I use an AT&T 3G MicroCell in my home, and when I'm connected to that, I'm unable to drop a call or observe any drop in bars no matter how hard I grip the antenna gap. When I'm elsewhere in the city, it's a different story -- gripping the phone the 'wrong' way regularly drops me anywhere from three to five (all) bars, occasionally drops a call (or prevents me from making one to begin with) and tends to drop me from 3G to EDGE or GPRS. Then again, I've seen that same behavior happen barely touching the phone at all. Bottom line, it's hard to tell how much of the problem is my grip, and how much is the network just being lame."

Laura June (Brooklyn): "I cannot get the phone to consistently visually drop bars -- in fact, for about the first week, I couldn't even get the technique at all. I have, however, figured out a way to get it to occasionally drop a bar here or there if I hold it just right, and only then in certain places inside my apartment. That said, I've still yet to drop a call on the thing. Not one. To be fair though, I'm kind of a loser, and nobody calls me."

Richard Lai (London): "Well, what can I say. My heart died a little when the team asked me to verify this 'feature' on my then-spanking new iPhone 4, not to mention that I was still recovering from our all-nighter on Regent Street. Three weeks onwards, I can still replicate the signal drop in certain areas in London. Of course, there's always the £25 cure for us Brits, but I really can't stand having the bumper rubbing against my pocket every time I withdraw or pocket my iPhone -- it would easily slip in without the case."

Vlad Savov (London): "I've dropped bars and data rate while operating the phone indoors with the appropriate flesh connection established between my iPhone 4's antennae. Irritatingly, I've noticed that you don't even need to bridge the full width of the iPhone: making contact with the literal edge of the handset is sometimes enough, making this form of self-harm almost inevitable. However, stepping outside my bunker-like apartment, I was unable to replicate the problem thanks to the stronger 3G signal available outdoors. I've only ever dropped one call, and it was indoors after intentionally squeezing the glass and steel sandwich to try and produce that outcome. Ultimately, were I to go bumperless, I imagine I'd suffer for it with my 3G web browsing the most, followed by lost calls a distant second. For reference, I've not been able to miss a call while death-gripping the phone and reducing its bar signage to just the last one -- they all come through."

Ross Miller (San Francisco): "When I first got the device, there was no way I could recreate this issue. I tried and tried and, surprising for the city, my signal appeared full and my calls dropped less often (but not entirely). Data speeds were more often than not faster than my previous iPhone 3G -- frankly, I was a bit dumbfounded by my perceived luck.

Cut to about a week ago, I was in a new part of town in the back of a bar with apparent full reception, and I decided to give Erica Sadun's signal strength app another go. Bingo. Holding the phone southpaw-style would quickly kill reception, calls would drop, data would drip. So no, it's not affecting me day-to-day, but I can most assuredly recreate the problem. 'Inconsistent, troubling' might be the more apt description in my case."

Myriam Joire (San Francisco): "I own an iPhone 4 delivered by AT&T on launch day. I use it without a case and I do see a reduction in signal strength when I cover the antenna gap at the bottom left corner with my hand. That being said, it's not causing dropped calls or degrading data performance to the point where it affects my use of the device."

Michael Gartenberg (New Jersey): "I've been using iPhone 4 as my main phone since release. I've had no issues with dropped calls or loss of data beyond what I normally get with any other phone. If anything, I get better reception in places that used to be problematic. I have seen my signal go up and down a bit but i can't replicate it or cause it to occur on demand nor does it seem to affect my normal use of the phone."

Ross Rubin (New York City): "Overall, I'd say the iPhone 4's reception has outperformed its predecessor. I've been able to make the signal drop by touching the gap only once in a location where I was getting about 2-3 bars, although I've tried it many times. In general it hasn't seemed to matter how I hold the phone when I'm on calls. I was pleasantly surprised when the iPhone held on to a call as I took a cab through New York's Midtown Tunnel soon after its launch, but in a similar trip the other day it dropped a call three times."

Sam Sheffer (Manalapan, New Jersey): Besides the fact that my first iPhone 4 had overheating issues and was replaced, my new handset works fine -- it's way better that my 3GS, at least, in terms of reception. Yes, I can make the bars drop when I touch the lower left antenna, but I have yet to actually drop a call while holding the phone in 'death grip' position. And I honestly don't mind holding it in a different way to avoid messing with the antenna -- I've simply adjusted the way I hold the phone and the issue's gone away."

Industry notables:

David Pogue, New York Times (New York City): "I've held the phone in the forbidden position maybe 25 times, in different locations, and I've only ever seen the bars drop twice. I think it's heavily dependent on where you are and how the signal strength is. (And once, I saw the bars go UP...)

Overall, though, I agree with the consensus that reception is generally better than on the older iPhones -- even with the Death Grip issue."

Harry McCracken, Technologizer (San Francisco): "My experience has been inconsistent -- when I've intentionally tried to degrade speed by touching the lower left-hand corner I've sometimes seen an impact, and sometimes I haven't. And when I've been out and about making phone calls, I've often been impressed by the phone's audio quality.

But yesterday I was in an area which I know has iffy AT&T reception, and my iPhone 4 was an utter basket case -- until I intentionally held it by the upper right-hand corner. When I did that, it worked perfectly.

My conclusion: The antenna design helps in many situations, but it can be a major real-world problem if you're in an area with iffy AT&T reception and aren't careful about how you hold the phone." (Make sure you check out Harry's full post on the his issues at Technologizer, as well)

John Paczkowski, All Things Digital (Marin County, California): "Though I've tried, I can't reproduce the 'death grip' on the iPhone 4 I'm using. That said, I do see some attenuation when holding it from the bottom. I haven't noticed an increase in dropped calls."

Jacqui Cheng, Ars Technica (Chicago): "I'm able to make the signal drop (via the bar display) on my iPhone 4, but I can't get a call to drop. Calls seem totally fine, and I haven't had any problems at all when using the phone as a phone. When I can get the bars to drop, I can get them to go down to almost nothing."

Chris Foresman, Ars Technica (Chicago): "I haven't had any issue with my iPhone 4 with respect to reception -- it's as good or better in my westside apartment as it was with my 3G."

John Gruber, Daring Fireball (Philadelphia): "At home in Philly, I've had nothing but good reception, no matter how I hold the phone. Data performance is better than on a 3GS right next to it, even while holding the 4 with my skin bridging the infamous gap.

I spent the last few days on a vacation in Vegas, and coverage here has been spottier, varying wildly even between different areas of our hotel. The phone often shows only 2 or 3 bars, but everything still works. Data has been slow -- especially latency, but it didn't seem any different on my wife's 3GS. A few times when I've only had two or three bars, I've tried the 'finger on the spot' test to see what happens. Sometimes it dropped down to a single bar within 30 seconds. Sometimes nothing happened at all. One time it went up from 3 bars to 5 bars while I had my finger on the spot, and when I took my finger off, it went back down to 3 bars. But even out here with meager coverage, I haven't been able to make data stop working just by 'holding it wrong'.

I've either got lucky skin or a lucky iPhone 4, I think."

Anand Shimpi, Anandtech (Raleigh, North Carolina): "I can make the signal drop, but that's not because I'm some sort of superhero - anyone can make the signal drop on their iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, Nexus One, etc... The iPhone 4 simply drops "more of its signal" than other phones, depending on how you hold it, because of the location and design of the antenna.

So to summarize, yes I can make the signal drop and it has led to dropped calls or trouble continuing the call. It's particularly bad in my office if I hold the phone "incorrectly" while texting or using the phone in portrait mode for something else. Luckily I'm on WiFi when I'm using it like that so it's normally not as big of an issue.

Ultimately it is a real problem with the iPhone 4 and will impact those who have borderline AT&T network coverage more than those who have great coverage. When Apple pushes this new fix forward it's really going to show people whether they have good signal or bad signal where they live (hopefully)." (Make sure you check out Anandtech's full report on the signal issue, as well.)

Dieter Bohn, PreCentral (Miami): "I have regularly dropped calls and watched data grind to a halt when I am in an area with poor AT&T signal, but when the signal is fairly decent I have no problems at all. I'm using the bumper now and it's completely solved my problems, but I'm not fond of it."

Noah Kravitz, PhoneDog (Oakland): "Yes to dropped calls. On par or probably fewer than with 3GS, but I know for sure there have been quite a few 4-to-4 drops recently. Have definitely noticed a few left-hand drops, but haven't yet been able to correlate for sure. Also because some of the drops have been of the Proximity Sensor bug variety."

Eric Zeman, PhoneScoop (Rockaway, New Jersey): "Even with just one bar during a death grip, I was able to successfully make calls, send emails, and browse the web. I use a case. With the case on, there's no change in signal performance whatsoever."

Lance Ulanoff, PC Mag (New York City): "Like others in this survey, I've been carrying around an iPhone 4 for nearly a month. In my other pocket is a BlackBerry Bold 9000. Both are on AT&T. A network we found to be the fastest for mobile broadband in the nation. It's also the least consistent. So my crummy connectivity experience on the iPhone 4 is virtually mirrored on the BlackBerry Bold-a device which has consistently dropped calls for me in my home town from the moment I got it. The point is, as a pure voice phone the iPhone 4 is not the best device on the market.

My experience with the device remains as it ever was. I've been entranced with it from day one. I make calls and, when I have a good signal, I stay connected. I've literally never had a dropped call. Yes, I can recreate the 'death grip,' but only when I'm holding the phone away from my head -- and not making a call. That said, I probably do more texting, email, photo and video than I do actual calling on this phone. I wouldn't be surprised if that's what the 1.7 million other iPhone 4 owners also do. I'm not saying there's no fire near this smoke, but I'm still convinced that if this were a deal-breaking problem, Apple stores around the world would be filled with people trying to return their iPhone 4's. That isn't happening, is it?"

Ryan Block, gdgt (San Francisco): "I'll preface my experiences by confessing that in a bizarre and quite unexpected turn of events, for the first time in many years AT&T has apparently begun adding new cell sites to my fair city (starting right around the time of the iPhone 4's launch). So it's been an occasional challenge to determine whether changes in performance and reliability are due to the new phone.

But what I can say for sure is that I've been able to reliably and easily replicate the death grip, especially in areas where coverage isn't fantastic (which, around these parts is still much of the city). The death grip seems to have less effect (or no effect) in areas with solid coverage, but I'd say one of the worst aspects is how the issue undermines your confidence in the device, leading to a kind of idle paranoia that at any moment a call may drop or an email won't go through if I'm not holding the phone in just the right way."

Mark Spoonauer, Laptop (New York City): "I've experienced a few dropped calls on the iPhone 4 thus far (mostly in the Lincoln tunnel and at the Jersey Shore) but as we said in our review the reception has improved overall for both voice and data. Then again, I don't hold the phone with my left hand much. To test the severity of the 'death grip' issue we ran while in our office while holding the device in our left hand and with the iPhone 4 sitting on a desk. With the death grip we averaged 225.9 Kbps downloads and 17.1 Kbps uploads over 10 tests. And just sitting on a desk we averaged 634.9 Kbps down and 49 Kbps down. Not good."