Deathgrip. It sounds like a Harry Potter villain or a Darth Vader finishing-move. No matter what it sounds like, it’s still the arch-nemesis of cellular networks. When Apple addressed the iPhone 4′s deathgrip issue — dubbed Antennagate — it dragged other manufacturers down with it by saying that the same thing happens to all phones when you hold them wrong. Those manufacturers quickly rebuked the claims of Steve Jobs, but inside a sealed, top-secret Australian facility, behind a thick, steel door, Telstra was testing all of its handsets for deathgrip symptoms. The results: deathgrip affects every handset ever made.
This is part two of Gizmodo’s Top-Secret Telstra Test Lab Tour. Read the first instalment here.
Meet Warwick. Upon first inspection, he’s just an average Aussie bloke. Average height, build, weight and stature, but when you start talking to him, you realise he’s one of the most important people currently under Telstra’s employ. Well, at least one of his body parts is.
Don’t worry, it’s not anything suspect. Warwick is commonly known as the “Right Hand of Telstra”. His job is to stand inside a sealed box day after day and hold the latest and greatest in phones. Just hold them. Nothing too complex.
I know what you’re thinking: “That’s not so tough! Why is he so special?” Warwick is special because it’s his job and his job alone to replicate the infamous deathgrip. It’s his job to push phones to their cellular breaking point. He has the magic touch.
His office is unlike anyone’s in the top-secret Telstra Mobile Innovations Lab. Instead of sitting at a desk all day, he stands in what’s known as an anechoic chamber. Anechoic is a fancy word for “free from echo”. Wander inside the chamber and you’d be forgiven for thinking it resembles like a recording studio built by sadomasochists. Blue felt spikes reach out from every wall and corner to try and grab you, the floor is padded with rubber and at the far end, away from the door, is a pedastal topped with an HTC One XL.
Warwick breathes life into the handset, and proceeds to hold it carefully in his hand while an antenna ripped straight from a cell tower fires signal at the device from inside the room. He cups the phone, moulds his hand around it, cradles it and squashes it to see how it reacts to having the antenna covered. There are 10 different grips that Warwick uses to test handsets, and the results are measured by his off-sider who stands outside the anechoic chamber, waiting patiently for the all-important data.
A bad handset will lose signal when both sides of the device are covered, much like the antenna did on the iPhone 4. A good handset will be able to push through the fleshy obstacle and grab the all-important signal as if the hand wasn’t even there.
The anechoic chamber is rigged to replicate rural scenarios; real edge-of-coverage zones like regional New South Wales and central Australia. The best-performing handsets nab what Telstra refer to as the Blue Tick for regional coverage. That means that the handset is the best for people like farmers, bush-dwellers, truckers and anyone who thinks that a drive along the Nullabor Plain is a great time.
Blue Tick handsets have to satisfy other criteria beyond having the best coverage, which includes sporting a jack for an external antenna and actually being able to perform in regional Australia when tested out there by field technicians. But the first line of testing and the ultimate authority on what phone is best for regional coverage is Warwick. He’s the right hand of Telstra, and it’s an appendage manufacturers fear.
Warwick won’t be drawn on what happened when the iPhone 4 came through the S&M-style cellular torture chamber, but he does know that manufacturers have made changes to handsets based on what he and the rest of the team at the Mobile Innovations Lab decide. Nobody can apply for a Blue Tick. They either get it, or they don’t, and missing out is serious business to some manufacturers.
So the next time you have coverage in an area you thought impossible, thank the stars for guys like Warwick: the deathgrip detective.
The story continues in the third and final instalment…