Apple resolved the iPhone antenna problem as anticipated on Friday by handing out plastic bumpers free to customers. The MSRP $29 bumpers are of negligible cost to the company and well worth the expense to solve the problem.
The antenna design on the iPhone really is quite clever and innovative. By using a significant portion of the bevel around the device, Apple antenna engineers made a much larger – and therefore probably more sensitve – antenna than the typical Planar Inverted F Antenna (PIFA) used in most cell phones. This enhanced antenna sensitivity means less transmit power to talk, longer battery life, and enhanced reception in weak signal areas. Of course the downside is the increased sensitivity of the antenna to hand placement, but the bumper solution seems an easy fix. Why wouldn’t an iPhone owner want a bumper to keep their device from getting scratched anyway?
My only gripe with Apple is I wish they’d allow their antenna experts to publish a technical article or two on their work so we could better understand the performance of the their antenna systems. There may be other reasons the “cult of Apple” rubs some people the wrong way – the proprietary and closed architecture bothers me. And they were a bit disingenuous about it all being a software problem. However, if you aren’t happy, they will offer you a full refund. What more do you have a right to expect?
Apple invited journalists into their “secret” antenna test lab (here’s the Wired report). The journalists photos focused on the anechoic chambers with their eye-catching blue pyramidal absorber. Apple also appears to be using a Satimo Stargate system.
“This is the most advanced lab for doing RF studies that anyone in the world has,” said Phil Schiller, vice president of marketing at Apple. “The designs we do wouldn’t be possible without it.”
You’ll note they quoted the marketing guy. No self-respecting antenna engineer would make such a patently bombastic, ridiculous, and insupportable claim, and I can just imagine the cringes this caused among Apple’s antenna gurus. Still, they clearly have a variety of good quality test chambers and – one would presume although it was never shown or mentioned – the appropriate vector network analyzers, rotators and other test equipment necessary to use the chambers to full advantage. Here’s the TechCrunch report.
It will probably be a while before the whole story leaks out. Given how thoroughly Apple has documented the prowess of their antenna engineering design team, I find it unlikely they didn’t know all about this problem long before it surfaced – as claimed by Bloomberg. So who made the fateful decision to ignore the antenna problem and save a few pennies off the cost-of-goods-sold by shipping the iPhone without a bumper? While this makes an interesting story of internal corporate decision making, it’s hardly a scandal.
Update: Other manufacturers dispute the way Apple alleged the problem is common to many handsets in this Ars Technica piece.