iPhone 4S Battery Issues Aren't Another Antennagate

Last year, Apple released the buggiest-ever product of the second Jobs era, the iPhone 4, which suffered from an endemic number of hardware issues, including a broken antenna design, a faulty proximity sensor, an easy-to-break glass back, and other problems. This year, some users of the revised Apple 4S are reporting problems with battery life on the new device, and because the Cupertino consumer electronics giant hasn't yet addressed this publicly, some commentators are harkening to last year's "Antennagate" event. But 2011 is nothing like 2010.

Here's why.

The original iPhone 4 was, perhaps, the purest of the products released under Steve Jobs in that it heavily favored design over function—a staple of Jobs' design philosophy. The antenna was placed on the outside of the device rather than internally because Jobs and Apple design guru Jonny Ives preferred the sleek look of a metallic outer band, and because doing so allowed the iPhone 4 to achieve a subtly thinner look.

But mobile device engineers have known for decades that this kind of design causes attenuation when held in certain ways, resulting in a loss of signal or, in worst-case scenarios, in dropped phone calls. (In fact, this type of interference was first observed in the 1800s.) So Apple engineers complained to Jobs and Ives that this is exactly what would happen if they moved the antenna to the outside of the device. Jobs pushed ahead, unmoved. "You can make this work," he told them, once again choosing design over functionality and dooming iPhone 4 users to poor reception.

And then the complaints started, culminating in the trustworthy Consumer Reports refusing to recommend the iPhone 4 because of these problems. Apple scheduled a hastily conceived press conference to deal with the Antennagate issue and essentially reworked the argument into "all cell phones have some issues" and then offered customers free bumper cases that would alleviate the attenuation, all while never really admitting that the device had an endemic hardware fault.

And with that, Apple's admiring press contacts proclaimed that the company had satisfied the complaints.

But it hadn't—not really. Continuing to insist that the iPhone 4 was just fine the way it was, Apple later released a version for the Verizon Wireless network, and claimed at the time that it had made no change to the antenna design because there was, after all, nothing wrong with it. Meanwhile, it was clear that Apple had indeed changed the configuration of various gaps that appear on the external antenna; these gaps prevent attenuation unless they're blocked by the user's hand. So Apple had subtly changed the device in a bid to fix a problem it never publicly admitted existed.

Consumer Reports found that the Verizon version of the iPhone 4 still suffered from attenuation and it refused to recommend that device, too. And as has been revealed in the recent Steve Jobs biography, Apple knew that this issue was a "flaw" in the device and Jobs only belatedly "realized there was a problem."

So now we have the iPhone 4S. It looks exactly like its predecessor, using the same "revolutionary" steel band that caused signal-loss problems in the original model. Inside, however, the iPhone 4S is "all new," according to Apple, with a new processing and graphics chipset and, more tellingly, a completely new way of utilizing its antennas. Here, Apple has once again worked to prevent attenuation in the seemingly identical form factor, using a technique that Apple's Phil Schiller said has "never been done in a phone before," while not admitting that such a thing was never before required either.

"Our engineering team worked really hard in advancing this state of the art to something new," he said at the iPhone 4S announcement in October. "They've done something that's really technically amazing. It's never been done in a phone before. It can now intelligently switch between the [device's] two antennas to both transmit and receive [wireless signals]. This works even while you're on a call. You can switch between the antennas to make even better call quality."

I've been testing an iPhone 4S and will publish my review this week. It's been a very positive experience, and while I've not traveled out of state with the device yet, I've not dropped any calls or experienced any signal loss. Based on what I've read about the iPhone 4S and on my own admittedly limited experience so far, it appears that Apple has finally solved the attenuation issue. It will be interesting to see whether Consumer Reports confirms that.

But there's one more thing.

Early iPhone 4S customers are reporting that the device provides significantly less battery life than its predecessor. And they're leaving complaints and tales of woe on Apple's support website, which is stockpiling the complaints without any meaningful comment from the company. Apple, too, hasn't addressed this issue publicly—at least, not yet. Knowing how Apple operates, one might reasonably expect a fix to appear silently in some coming iOS 5 update.

Here's how Apple described the iPhone 4S's battery life at the product announcement last month.

"You would think ... that one of the things you're going to trade off [on] is battery life," Schiller said. "But [we have] industry-leading battery life. For the first time in an iPhone, we now have 8 hours of talk time on 3G, 14 hours on 2G, 6 hours of [web browsing], 9 hours on Wi-Fi, 10 hours watching video, and 40 hours of listening to music."

What Schiller didn't mention, at all, was standby time. And that might be because, inexplicably, the standby time of the iPhone 4S is rated as 100 hours shorter than its predecessor. Standby time is the amount of time the device will retain a charge while it's not in use. (In all other areas, the iPhone 4S outperforms the battery life of the iPhone 4.)

Some users complain that the iPhone 4S standby time is far lower than Apple's rating, and that the device sometimes dies in a day even if it's left sitting on a desk.

So why isn't this like Antennagate?

First, the standby issue isn't globally reproducible. It doesn't happen to all users, and one can't simply walk up to any iPhone 4S and experience this issue 100 percent of the time. So, clearly some mix of software and services is causing this battery-life loss in some devices only. (My own iPhone 4S doesn't experience this problem, for example.) Meanwhile, anyone could grip the iPhone 4 incorrectly and cause signal loss.

Second, unlike with the original iPhone 4, Apple is already reaching out to actual customers. It has privately contacted a number of early iPhone 4S users with the problems to find out more about their devices, in an effort to figure out what's happening. With the iPhone 4, Apple's strategy was to pretend that attenuation was an issue with all phones—it wasn't—and that the very real problem it caused with that device wasn't really an issue at all. Oh, and please accept a free bumper case. Not that you need it.

The future isn't hard to predict. Apple will figure out what's wrong, and then provide a workaround or issue a software fix, or both. Tech blogs will post about little configuration changes you can make to (maybe) alleviate some of the battery-life problems. ("Bump down the screen brightness!") And users will continue to buy iPhones, regardless of the veracity of these claims: After all, they made the iPhone 4 a bestselling smartphone over the past year, and that device had all kinds of problems.

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