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On New iPhone, a Mystery of Dropped Calls

For iPhone owners, it always comes back to the antenna.

Apple’s touch-screen smartphone has been a sensation since Day 1 three years ago, and many who own the device believe it to be almost perfect — if only it worked better as a phone.

So it is not surprising that as the first boxes of the new iPhone 4 landed in the hands of the earliest adopters late Wednesday, the antenna’s reception quickly became an Internet obsession. What surprised many of them: the precious little bars that signal network connections inexplicably disappeared when they cradled the phone in their hands a particular way. Sometimes, but not always, the cradling resulted in dropped calls.

Two women compare the new iPhone 4 (right) and an iPhone 3 in front of Manhattan's 5th Avenue Apple Store.
Emmanuel Dunand | AFP | Getty Images
Two women compare the new iPhone 4 (right) and an iPhone 3 in front of Manhattan's 5th Avenue Apple Store.

In the hours before Apple weighed in on the problem, iPhone fans turned to one another on the Internet in a zealous exercise in crowd-sourcing for answers to the mystery.

They were all the more baffled because the iPhone 4 was designed to have better reception. A metal band that wraps around the edges of the device is supposed to pull in a stronger signal; software is supposed to choose the section of the signal with the least congestion.

A user calling himself FFArchitect appeared to be the first to report the phenomenon on MacRumors.com, a site for the Apple-obsessed. He said that touching the band in various places caused reception problems. His report, like many that followed, included a video demonstrating the problem.

Soon after, Gizmodo, a popular site for gadget fans, picked up on it, calling the phenomenon “weird.”

“When the guy holds the iPhone in his hands, touching the outside antenna band in two places, he drops reception,” Jesus Diaz, a writer for the blog, said. “Placing the phone down gets him 4 bars.”

From then on, report after report began to ricochet across technology Web sites, and Mr. Diaz posted updates as new stories from around the Web dropped into his in-box. “This is worrying,” Mr. Diaz wrote.

One commenter linked to an article from early this month about a Danish expert in radio antennas who predicted that touching the antenna would affect reception. Another update claimed to narrow down the problem to touching the lower left side of the phone.

The reader reports included suggestions for how to fix the problem — Update 19: use nail polish to insulate the antenna; Update 21: enclose the phone in a rubber case — and appeared to show some wisdom in this crowd. Late Thursday, an Apple spokesman, Steve Dowling, acknowledged that the issues experienced by users were real but he played down their importance.

“Gripping any phone will result in some attenuation of its antenna performance, depending on the placement of the antennas,” he said. “This is a fact of life for every wireless phone.”

Mr. Dowling declined to say whether Apple experienced the issue during testing of the phone and suggested that users not hold the phone in a way that covers both sides of a small black strip on the lower left side. Alternatively, he said, they could use one of many available cases.

Analysts and investors did not appear overly worried.

“Apple has not had one introduction that hasn’t had issues,” said Charles Wolf, an analyst with Needham & Company. “Sometimes these things get blown out of proportion.”

On Wall Street, shares of Apple slid a mere 0.8 percent, faring better than the broad Nasdaq index, which dropped 1.6 percent.

And given the long lines outside Apple stores in New York heat, Chicago rain and San Francisco fog, consumers appeared unconcerned by, or unaware of, the potential reception issues.

Even Brian Lam, Gizmodo’s editorial director, saw an upside to the iPhone 4, antenna problems and all. “We are paying attention to the antenna issue because it could be a big deal,” he said.

But Mr. Lam said that for years, he had not been able to use older iPhones to make calls from his home. That changed on Thursday, after he bought an iPhone 4. “I have made three hours of calls today,” he said.

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