Inside Apple's 'black lab' wireless testing facilities (update: video)

It's not surprising that after Apple finished explaining the iPhone 4 antenna issues to the press today, the company wanted to go one step further and say "yes, actually, we do test the hell out of these phones before we release them to the public." Though Steve Jobs went over the lengthy and intensive kinds of radio evaluation that goes on at Apple's headquarters, it didn't seem to be enough for the folks in Cupertino. And that, we suspect, is why we were invited (along with a small group of other journalists) to take a brief tour of Apple's Infinite Loop labs. Though we weren't allowed to shoot video or take pictures, we can tell you about what we did -- and what we didn't -- see and hear behind closed doors.

After Jobs wrapped the nearly hour and a half presentation, we were pulled aside by Apple PR and ushered through the center of the Infinite Loop campus -- a new experience for us, since we'd never been deeper than one of the company's small theaters. Once all the attendees had been gathered (folks like Jason Snell from Macworld, Daring Fireball's John Gruber, and a smattering of mainstream journalists from places such as Wired, USA Today and the New York Times), we were led further into the campus (and eventually across a street) into a separate building. After a series of double doors and long, anonymous hallways, we entered a large, warehouse-like lab cluttered with test equipment amid large tables covered in mysterious black cloth (and no, we couldn't look under the cloth). Awaiting us was Phil Schiller, Greg Joswiak, Bob Mansfield, and engineer Ruben Caballero. The latter employee has become a somewhat controversial figure over the last few days, as he was alleged to have known about and communicated concerns over the new antenna design (according to a Bloomberg article which Jobs lambasted as a "crock" during today's press conference). Oh, and there was also an assortment of PR folks, lest the nosey journalists get out of line and require a tasing.

So our group stood in the concrete and steel room -- quite sparse and utilitarian, not what you expect from Apple -- surrounded by giant aluminum cubes (a few of the company's 17 anechoic chambers used for radio testing), and a small army of Apple reps. Ruben began by telling us that the labs used to be secret even to Apple employees -- something they referred to as "black labs." He also informed us that there were 40 engineers working in those labs who were experts and held PhDs in physics, telemetry, and all matter of dark arts that allow the company to continually develop and test wireless technologies. We were walked over to one of the stranger chambers, a box on one side with an ever-tapering portion on the other that made the whole contraption look a bit like a bird's beak. Ruben informed us that this particular chamber would run you about $1.2 million US dollars. Inside, the room was covered in massive teal pyramids of sound and signal damping foam, and there was an iPad strapped to a rotating mechanism that we were told was being used to get an idea of what the wireless performance would be like at any angle. This was a passive test, as opposed to active tests involving humans and real interference (more on that in a moment), and it was being performed using Macs running... Windows XP. When asked why they would still be testing the iPad, Bob and Ruben had a good laugh about having been testing the iPad "for years," and then Ruben smiled and offered a rote explanation about continually testing even after products are in the market. Sure Ruben, sure.

We were shown another chamber opposite the "beak" where an iPhone 4 was jammed into a bizarre styrofoam cube... that was rotating at intervals. Panels in the room were also rotating, while an antenna supported on an arm (this one delivering a cell signal to the device, this being one of the "active" measurements), changed its position periodically. We'd be lying if we didn't tell you we were a little disturbed, it was like a tiny, very clean Saw contraption. According to Phil, what we were looking at was "the most advanced lab for doing RF studies that anyone in the world has."

It's worth noting the progression of testing styles we were presented with, each one introducing a little more variance and human interaction, which brings us to probably the coolest thing we had a chance to see: that room in the picture above.

The third chamber is a bit of a throne room, or the "Stargate" as Ruben claimed they call it at Apple. And it really, really does look like something straight out of a sci-fi movie. Essentially, this room is used to test signal in 360 degrees around a subject holding or using a device. The circular structure which surrounds the chair is dotted with single use antennas -- those little yellow plusses you see -- and all they do is tell the tester whether a signal has been received or not around the loop at that position. We can't stress how incredibly isolated these chambers are. Calling them a dead room would not be an understatement. We've been in some pretty dead rooms before, but these are basically foam coffins. At this chamber one of our group started asking about the length of time standard testing takes, but the Apple crew got a little defensive over the point -- they didn't want to say how long or how much they tested particular products. Even when pressed on a "general" length of time for a nameless product, we couldn't get an answer out of them. The company did tell us that products were run through each individual experiment a minimum of 24 hours, but that says nothing for longer term testing.

Ruben and the crew led us through another hallway and into a separate lab where more interference testing was going on using "heads" and "hands." The heads are made of plastic and filled with a liquid mixture that replicates the contents of... well, your head. The hands are made from a kind of high-test foam rubber -- which Ruben pointed out was not "a standard," meaning not something agencies like the FCC regulate -- and are used to test interference in different positions. In the same room we were also shown the custom, $20,000 "foot" that was used to test the radio in the Nike+. Then we were taken to a workstation where the guts of an iPhone were displayed on two large monitors -- from a CT (computed tomography) scan of the device. Ruben explained that when you're looking for a problem in a device, opening it changes what's happening inside, so Apple installed a CT scanner to look inside without altering the results by opening it.

Finally we made our way outside and got a look inside a heavily instrumented van in which Apple testers hit the streets. The vehicle was outfitted with a number of stations for those "heads" and "hands" we saw, as well as spots for human testers to take devices out into the real world and get results. The point here, as with the entire tour, was to demonstrate that Apple takes testing antennas and wireless communications very seriously -- if, in fact, there was any question.

And we get it -- there have been people out there suggesting that Apple simply didn't test their phone before letting it out into the market. Or that they were so bone-headed that they only tested it in those special cases made for bringing the phone to bars, so of course they didn't see the antenna issue. But let's be honest -- this is a multi-billion dollar company that's been making wireless devices for a long, long time. This isn't their first phone, it's their fourth, and though there have been reception issues with the previous models, nothing suggests that Apple isn't doing its due diligence on these phones. The truth is, we didn't need the tour to understand that, but it's possible some people do.

Update: the lucky folks over at ABC were given special permission to film inside Apple's lab, and here's the video (sorry, US viewers only):