iPhone 4 a hit, but ‘death grip’ drama goes on

A customer looks at an iPhone 4 at the Apple Store 5th Avenue in New York, June 24, 2010.

Steve Jobs became the butt of countless jokes over the weekend after declaring that there’s a right and wrong way to hold the iPhone 4. But that didn’t stop throngs of eager customers from lining up to buy one.

Apple usually pipes up the Monday after the release of a big new product to crow about sales figures, and this time around the story was no different. More than 1.7 million iPhone 4 handsets were rung up between Thursday’s launch day and the end of business Saturday, making for the “most successful product launch in Apple’s history,” said Steve Jobs in Apple’s Monday morning press release.

Monday’s announcement included no mention of Jobs’ BP-level gaffe late last week, in which he told a user complaining about the iPhone 4’s apparent tendency to lose reception when it’s held in the lower-left corner: “Just don’t hold it that way.” Jobs was still sending e-mail Sunday, telling one annoyed MacRumors reader: “There are no reception issues. Stay Tuned.” (Hey, at least he hasn’t called us “small people” yet.)

Bloggers and pundits argued through the weekend about whether the iPhone 4’s “death grip” problem represented a serious design flaw on Apple’s part (the antenna on the new iPhone is integrated into the stainless steel band that rings the outer edge of the handset) or was being overblown.

AntennaSys expert Spencer Webb postulated that at least some the blame might lay with the FCC, which mandates that phone antennas in general be as far from the user’s head as possible, which usually means putting the antenna at the bottom of the handset – where your hand usually goes. In the iPhone 4’s case, just touching a pair of tiny little slots near the bottom corners of the handset could be enough to “short” the antenna and cause interference, Webb wrote.

Why didn’t someone catch the issue earlier? Maybe because the FCC doesn’t require a hand to be touching a handset that’s being tested, claims Webb. Ugh.

Several iPhone reviewers, meanwhile – including me – were able to replicate the issue, with PC Magazine noting that the reception problems could result in slower data speeds or prevent the iPhone from connecting to callers in “very weak signal areas” (which is certainly the case in my AT&T-free apartment in Brooklyn).

Personally, I’ve noticed slightly better reception on the 4 than on my old iPhone 3GS, so long as I’m holding the handset with my fingertips (as I usually do). But when I’m in my low-signal living room and if my hand happens to touch the lower-left corner while I’m placing a call, my bars of AT&T reception slowly blink out, and making a voice connection becomes problematic if not impossible.

Suggested solutions for the iPhone 4’s “death grip” woes have ranged from buying one of Apple’s $30 plastic Bumpers (which cover the iPhone’s outer edge and seem to cure the problem) to masking the phone’s left corner with electrical tape – not the most elegant remedy. Rumors were also flying that Apple might release a firmware update for the iPhone 4’s reception problems as early as Monday night. The UK’s Daily Mail was left with egg on its face after reporting that a recall was in the works – based on a tweet from “ceoSteveJobs,” a parody Twitter account.

Though the “death grip” issue  came up whenever I showed off my new iPhone over the weekend, there’s no question that the iPhone 4 is a monster hit. Apple stores and iPhone resellers like Best Buy and Radio Shack were selling out coast-to-coast over the weekend.

Apple stores were expecting to get more iPhone shipments starting Monday, but I’m guessing they won’t remain in stock for long.

Among those who did manage to snag an iPhone: actor Jason Bateman, who became a whipping boy on Twitter over the weekend for reportedly cutting in line at an Apple store. Bateman later claimed that “there wasn’t one boo” when an Apple clerk pulled him out of the line and “away from the paparazzi,” but that he “was content in line” and now “wish[es] I’d stayed.”

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