IPhone 4 Hell: a Personal Tale of IPhone 4 Woes

Apple's unprecedented move to hold a press conference regarding the iPhone 4's antenna issues underscores the power of the masses, and the fact that the phone has serious problems. I know about the iPhone 4's flaws first hand. Here's what went wrong with mine.

Apple's unprecedented move to hold a press conference regarding the iPhone 4's antenna issues underscores the power of the masses, and the fact that the phone has serious problems. I know about the iPhone 4's flaws first hand. Here's what went wrong with mine. Consumer Reports on iPhone 4's Bad Reception: Duct Tape to the Rescue

David Letterman Piles on Apple’s iPhone 4 Problems

As I write this I'm on my third iPhone 4 replacement so far. Yes, that means I've had a total of four phones in the three weeks the phone has been out. As responsive and friendly as the Apple Store has been through this, I really didn't need to get to know the store so well. At this point, I've spent as much on cab fares to and from the Apple Store as I would have on a couple of bumpers in different colors.

One bad phone can be written off as a fluke; but three is extreme and indicates something more may be in play. I've come to expect better from a company like Apple. I reached out to Apple for a comment, but no response at this writing.

Consumer complaints around iPhone 4 include poor reception and dropped calls to faulty proximity sensor, software crashes, and more. With Consumer Reports' widely publicized withdrawal of its support for iPhone 4 earlier this week, the clamor for Apple to do something tangible more than point fingers its software for calculating signal strength and announce a software update.

In my case, I experienced some of the oddities right on my first phone call-the touchscreen kept activating when I didn't expect it while on the call. This problem inadvertently invoked the iPhone 4 video call feature called FaceTime. Little did I know that would be a regular occurrence over the next month. My first iPhone also froze up several times, with the touchscreen not responding.

Replacement Time

The next day, the San Francisco Apple Store cheerfully swapped the device out for a fresh shrink-wrapped model. And I lived with that phone and its wonky behavior for the next three weeks. I eventually cried uncle and scheduled an appointment with the Genius Bar.

This iPhone's symptoms were many, even though I never even synced the phone with iTunes, and purposefully downloaded only a handful of apps (ESPN FIFA World Cup, Scrabble, Ebay, Pandora, Hulu Plus, and AIM). First off, the proximity sensor-which detects your face's location vis a vis the touchscreen-made cheek dialing the norm. The sensor just would not behave and one time even let my cheek create a new contact on my phone.

Other oddities persisted (a photo that refused to transfer to my PC due to an error detected in the phone, the alarm clock self-scheduling itself), plenty of failed calls (none of which I could directly attribute to the so-called death grip, even though my phone, like others, could see the bars drop when held just so). But what pushed me to action was when the mission-critical phone app crashed repeatedly.

Immediately, the Genius Bar doctor was able to detect the proximity sensor had a problem, noting that it "lagged" when she tested. That lagging behavior could account for the improper screen activations, the tech added, noting she'd seen more phones come back with a proximity sensor issue than for any dropped calls due to the well-publicized antenna design issue.

Proximity Sensor Problems

When asked what could cause this, the tech said it could be due to the sensor's cable not being seated properly. Another possibility: A faulty sensor part.

This is the first acknowledgments I'd even heard about the proximity sensor problem, let alone a potential explanation. And either option gives reason I was told the sensor alone was grounds for a replacement phone. However, we learned even more about my phone's wonky behavior when the tech ran Apple's Behavior Scan diagnostic software.

Of the 219 phone calls I made with this handset, I had 20 modem resets. The tech told me a modem reset explains the failed or dropped calls, as the signal gets lost during the reset. While alone not a red flag, the tech noted that was an unusually high number of resets.

To elaborate further, the iPhone 4 has a chipset by Infineon that serves as both the cellular voice and data chipset for all 2G and 3G service. "If in fact that device is resetting, " confirms Ken Biba, chief technology officer at Novarum, a 3G and 4G wireless design and testing consultancy. "It would cause a dropped call. And if it needs to be reset that suggests it is not performing well in some manner." Biba further notes that with the iPhone 3GS, Apple was aggressively managing power consumption, and in the past the Infineon chipset might have been related to the dropped calls in some markets with AT&T. Whether that's the case with iPhone 4 remains to be seen.

I was also experiencing low iPhone memory which I was told was directly responsible for my phone app freezing up. Hearing the low memory diagnosis was odd considering I had only ever opened 22 apps at some point or another, and those apps were still accessible in the multitasking pop-up for fast app-switching. Sound like a lot? I only installed six apps compared to the dozens most iPhone users have. The only app that truly ran in the background, perhaps, had been Pandora-which I'd made a point of manually closing out of earlier in the week, so I'm not sure it's a suspect to consider for why the phone app froze up.

That the number of apps was being called out was odd unto itself. At WWDC, I was told there was no limit to the number of apps, and that iOS 4 would manage the apps for the user, purging apps before the device would run out of memory. Presumably, that would include purging apps before the device reached a low enough level of memory to crash basic applications like the Phone app? Oops, apparently not.

Replacement iPhone 4: Number Three

I was given my third iPhone 4 replacement. While at the Apple Store it activated smoothly and showed it was connecting only to AT&T's 2G Edge service. And once outside the store, even the Edge service devolved to "No Service". In 12 hours of use, the third handset never achieved anything better than an Edge signal (in areas serviced just fine by AT&T's 3G signal), and it only achieved Edge twice, for minutes at a time. The rest of the was spent with a steady "No Service". Sigh.

The next day I'm back at the Apple Store and I watched as it regained Edge service - albeit just one weak bar. Again, suspect behavior. And again, a swap.

Replacement iPhone 4: Number Four

Both times, the swapped phones came in sealed black plastic cases; just the phone, no accoutrements. Both times, the phones appeared identical to my first one (contrary to some Web reports of different hardware being deployed in replacement phones, as being reported anecdotally on Gizmodo and Engadget. I have no way of verifying whether the phone's internals are any different, as one analyst claims may be implemented in newer iPhones.

It will be interesting to see if iPhone 4, the fourth replacement, proves to be more stable than the other handsets I've tried. And, it won't be a direct comparison: I'll soon be downloading iOS 4.0.1, now available.

I was told three Genius Bar techs that at this early stage, just weeks after the iPhone 4's release, these replacement phones are indeed new. Eventually, though, I was told that by one of the techs that the supply of new replacement phones will be replaced with refurbished models-an idea that bothers me both as a consumer advocate and a consumer who dropped the $300 + asking price (closer to $400 when you factor in AT&T's tax on the full, unsubsidized cost of the phone) on the iPhone 4 with the expectation of getting a new, not factory refurbished, device.

Poor Quality Control?

When I received my fourth iPhone 4 the Genius Bar tech made a point of looking through the drawer for a unit from a different batch and/or different factory. When he mentioned that, it got me thinking.

The antenna grip-of-death is clearly a design flaw; that Apple never caught this design flaw before sending the phone out in the wild is shocking. So too was the company's admission that its software was misreporting the service bars available. And I expect we'll hear plenty about this from Apple on Friday when it holds its press conference.

But that's a separate problem from this consumer receiving not one, not two, but three flawed devices.

That all consumers aren't running back to the Apple Store for a return speaks to the fact that some devices are clearly less affected than others. I guess I'm just unlucky when it comes to iPhone 4s. Even among Engadget's survey of technology press, experiences vary dramatically.

Nonetheless, I keep coming back to the same question: Can at least some of the reported behavioral issues out be attributed to poor quality control?

Considering that this was the largest iPhone launch to date, maybe we shouldn't be surprised Apple tripped up and fell flat on its face. The stats are clear: 1.7 million iPhone 4s were sold in five countries in its first three days. Apple was quick to brag that it took more pre-orders and sold more handsets with this debut than ever before.

Could all of this point to Apple and its contract manufacturer Foxconn simply failing to maintain Apple's vaunted quality control on the initial production lines of iPhone 4? A random musing I have no hard evidence for save my own experiences. But this experience-and the countless complaints on the net of faulty proximity sensors-makes me wonder if the quality control slipped, and these issues are beyond normal tolerances.

So why not ditch the iPhone and buy an Android? Because, there are areas where iPhone 4 continues to excel, and provide a marked improvement over the iPhone 3GS and other smartphones. I want to keep the device for the same reasons as why I purchased it to begin with: Tack-sharp display, better camera, and HD video.

Let's hope Apple can deliver on its promise.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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