iPhone 3G woes a hardware problem

Posted by Hitarth Jani | 7:28 PM | 0 comments »

Spotty wireless broadband connectivity for some of Apple's new iPhones most likely results from a hardware problem introduced during mass production, a Swedish technical magazine has reported.

Ny Teknik, Sweden's foremost engineering weekly, obtained a report on tests conducted by unnamed experts that showed some handsets' sensitivity to third-generation network signals is well below the level specified in the 3G standard.

So-called 3G networks offer the promise of faster web surfing on mobile phone browsers, and make bandwidth-hogging applications like video calling feasible. Phones that access 3G networks must meet certain engineering and technical specifications, which are set and maintained by the International Telecommunication Union, a Geneva-based organization.

The report said the most likely cause of the 3G problems is defective adjustments between the antenna and an amplifier that captures very weak signals from the antenna. This could lead to poor 3G connectivity and slower data speeds.

The iPhone 3G, which went on sale July 11 in Australia and 21 other countries, was meant to offer faster web browsing than the year-old original model.

Since the launch of the next-generation iPhone, Apple's message boards have been flooded with complaints of dropped calls and poor 3G connectivity indicated by few or no "bars" on the phone's display.

Some users said they performed side-by-side tests and found that the iPhone had connectivity problems in locations where 3G phones from other manufacturers did not. The reports were made by users who said they lived in Australia, United States, Canada, Japan, Britain and other countries.

Apple spokeswoman Natalie Kerris declined to comment on whether the problem lies in the iPhone's hardware or software, or with the various carriers' 3G networks.

In the United States, AT&T is the only wireless provider to sell the iPhone. Mark Siegel, a spokesman for AT&T's wireless unit, said AT&T has not received a significant number of complaints and that, "overall, the new iPhone is performing just great on our 3G network."

In an interview, Siegel recommended that iPhone 3G users sync the devices with Apple's iTunes program frequently to take advantage of improvements that may come via updated software.

Connectivity is just the latest of Apple's problems with the iPhone 3G.

Just hours before the new phones were set to go on sale, users of the Cupertino, Calif.-based company's old data-synching service were locked out of their accounts when it took Apple longer than expected to get the new version, MobileMe, up and running.

On launch day, Apple's servers buckled as buyers tried to activate new iPhones in stores, while owners of older iPhones and the iPod Touch were updating and reactivating their devices at home.

Francis Sideco, a senior analyst for El Segundo, Calif.-based research group iSuppli Corp., said the connectivity problems described by users - dropped calls and the low number of bars in particular - could be caused by any of a number of parts, from the phone's antenna and amplifier and the radio frequency transceiver to the baseband that processes the digital signal and sends it to the speaker or screen.

A faulty part could cause the phone to think there isn't enough signal strength to keep a call connected, he said, and could prompt the phone to display too few bars.

Different parts from different manufacturers also vary in their ability to draw the 3G signal from the air, the analyst said, which would support users' claims that different phones held side by side show different numbers of bars.

Ny Teknik's report suggested the error was introduced during mass production. Sideco noted that cell phone chips, or the phones themselves, go through a testing and certification process before reaching consumers, but only a fraction of the chips or handsets are tested.

"We've seen this in the past before, in Motorola's Razr line. It was a very big seller, but the first version of that phone had RF (radio frequency) problems. They had to recall it, fix it, (and) put it back out there," he said.

Sideco said such a problem could explain another oft-heard iPhone 3G complaint, the shorter-than-expected battery life.

"It could end up drawing more power because now the phone thinks it's (getting a) worse signal than it actually is. When it goes to talk to the network, it speaks louder than it needs to," he said.

The analyst said similar complaints from people in more than one geographic location indicates that the problem is with the phone, not the network.

Without knowing exactly what is going wrong, Sideco could not say whether software or firmware updates could fix the glitch, or whether Apple could be facing the possibility of a recall.

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