The free protective cases Apple is offering iPhone 4 buyers to fix signal problems are likely to be available to New Zealand customers when the device goes on sale here, says Vodafone.

The so-called "death grip" problem with the iPhone 4 occurs when the phone is held with a bare hand, which can muffle the wireless signal.

Matt East, spokesman for Vodafone, which sells the iPhone in New Zealand, said the free cases were being provided by Apple rather than the telcos that support the iPhone and he expected the deal would extend to New Zealand.

"That's something Apple is doing in the States - not through the carriers. I imagine they'll be doing the same thing here," he said yesterday.

New Zealand is on a list of countries due to get the iPhone 4 on July 30 and Vodafone expected to hear more details this week.

East said it was too early to tell whether the controversy over the iPhone 4's signal would affect sales in New Zealand, but he said Vodafone had received a lot of interest in the new device.

Apple chief executive Steve Jobs on Saturday apologised to people who were dissatisfied with the iPhone 4.

"We tested it - we knew that if you gripped it a certain way, bars would go down a little bit," he said.

"We didn't think it would be a big problem because every smartphone has this problem.

"We're not perfect," Jobs said. "Phones aren't perfect."

Those who have bought an iPhone 4 can go to Apple's website from the end of this week and sign up for a free "Bumper" case, which normally costs US$29 ($40) , he said. The more than three million people who have bought the iPhone 4 and new buyers until September 30 will all be eligible.

Apple will send refunds to people who already bought a Bumper.

Jobs echoed an earlier statement from Apple that no cellphone gets perfect reception.

At a press conference in California, he played a video showing competing phones, including a BlackBerry from Research in Motion, losing signal strength when held in certain ways.

Phones usually have an antenna inside the body. In designing the iPhone 4, Apple took a gamble on a new design, using parts of the phone's outer casing as the antenna. That saved space inside the tightly packed body of the phone, but meant that covering a spot on the lower left edge blocked the wireless signal.

Consumer Reports magazine said covering the spot with a case or even a piece of duct tape alleviates the problem. It refused to give the iPhone 4 its "recommended" stamp of approval for that reason, and last week it urged Apple to compensate buyers and fix the problem. Jobs said Apple was "stunned and upset and embarrassed".

Jobs said the iPhone 4's antenna issue isn't widespread, with just over five out of every 1000 complaining to Apple's warranty service and less than 2 per cent returning the device. Jobs also said while the iPhone 4 is dropping calls slightly more frequently than its predecessor, the iPhone 3GS, it's "less than one additional dropped call per 100".

"We're not feeling right now that we have a giant problem we need to fix," Jobs said. "This has been blown so out of proportion that it's incredible."

Analysts have criticised Apple's responses to reports of reception problems as dismissive, and cautioned that the company shouldn't come across as arrogant. A curt note attributed to Jobs told one early iPhone buyer to either hold the phone a different way or buy a case.

Apple has said the main problem is with software, not antenna design.

Apple said it recently discovered that iPhones display more cellphone signal "bars" than they should, leaving people who believed they had a strong signal frustrated by dropped calls. Apple's software update said it would make the number of bars shown on the phone's face more accurate.

- Staff reporter, agencies