iPhone 4 Hell: A Personal Tale of iPhone 4 Woes

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 firsthand. Here's what went wrong with mine.

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 on the market. As responsive and friendly as the folks at the Apple Store have been through this, I really didn't need to get to know them 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.

I could write off one bad phone as a fluke--but three is extreme, and indicates that 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 I've received no response at this writing.

Consumer complaints about the iPhone 4 include poor reception, dropped calls, a faulty proximity sensor, software crashes, and more. With Consumer Reports' widely publicized withdrawal of its support for the iPhone 4 earlier this week, the clamor reached a fever pitch: Consumers wanted Apple to do something more tangible than simply blame its software for mistakenly calculating signal strength and announce a software update to fix how the signal-strength bars display.

I experienced some of the oddities on my very first phone call: During the call, the touchscreen kept activating when I didn't expect it. This problem inadvertently invoked the iPhone 4 video-call feature, FaceTime. Little did I know that it would be a regular occurrence over the next month. My first iPhone 4 also froze up several times, with the touchscreen failing to respond.

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.

Apple Genius Bar
This iPhone 4's symptoms were many, even though I never synced the phone with iTunes and I 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-à-vis the touchscreen--made cheek-dialing the norm. The sensor simply would not behave, and one time it even let my cheek create a new contact on my phone.

Other oddities persisted; for instance, one photo refused to transfer to my PC due to an error detected in the phone, and the alarm clock scheduled itself. I also had plenty of failed calls, none of which I could directly attribute to the so-called death grip, even though my phone, like others, showed the bars dropping when I held it just so. But what pushed me to action was the repeated crashing of the mission-critical phone app.

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

Proximity-Sensor Problems

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

That was the first acknowledgment I'd heard about the proximity-sensor problem, let alone a potential explanation. And either possibility, I was told, was grounds for my getting another replacement phone. However, when the tech ran Apple's Behavior Scan diagnostic software, we learned even more about my phone's wonky behavior.

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

Apple tech support
Image courtesy of Apple
To elaborate, the iPhone 4 has an Infineon chipset that serves as the cellular voice and data chipset for all 2G and 3G service. "If in fact that device is resetting," says Ken Biba, chief technology officer of 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 a factor on the dropped calls in some markets with AT&T. Whether that's the case with the iPhone 4 remains to be seen.

On my iPhone 4, I also experienced low memory, which the tech told me was directly responsible for my phone app's freezing up. Hearing the low-memory diagnosis was odd, considering that I had opened only 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 had installed just six apps, in contrast to the dozens that most iPhone users have. The only app that truly ran in the background, perhaps, was 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 the phone app's freezing up.

That the diagnosis called out the number of apps was odd unto itself. At WWDC, I had heard that 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, right? Oops, apparently not.

iPhone 4 Number Three

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

The next day I was 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.

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 reported anecdotally on Gizmodo and Engadget). I have no way of verifying whether my replacement phone's internals are any different, as one analyst claims may be implemented in newer iPhone 4 units.

iPhone 4
It will be interesting to see if my fourth iPhone 4 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, which is now available.

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

Poor Quality Control?

When I recieved 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.

Apple disappointment
Artwork: Chip Taylor
The antenna grip-of-death is clearly a design flaw; that Apple never caught this design flaw before sending the phone out into the wild is shocking. So too was the company's admission that its software was misreporting the service bars. And I expect that 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 in 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 be attributed to poor quality control?

Considering that this was the largest iPhone launch to date, maybe we shouldn't be surprised that Apple tripped up and fell flat on its face. The stats are clear: 1.7 million iPhone 4 handsets were sold in five countries in the product's first three days. Apple was quick to brag that it took more preorders 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 the iPhone 4? That's a random musing I have no hard evidence for, save my own experience. But this experience--along with the countless complaints on the Net of faulty proximity sensors--makes me wonder if the quality control slipped. These issues are beyond normal tolerances.

Reasons to love Apple
Artwork: Chip Taylor
So why not ditch the iPhone 4 and buy an Android model? There are areas where the iPhone 4 continues to excel, and to provide a marked improvement over the iPhone 3GS and other smartphones. I want to keep the device for the same reasons why I purchased it to begin with: an incredibly sharp display, a better camera, and HD video.

Let's hope Apple can deliver on its promise.

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