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Summary:

Apple heralds that the iPhone 4 launch has been the most successful product launch ever, but in the past week since it first went on sale, reviews across the world have remarked on issues of signal quality. Apple says it’s a software issue, but is it?

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Apple heralds the arrival of the iPhone 4 as the most successful product launch ever, but since the device first went on sale, reviews across the world have remarked on issues of signal quality. From notions of holding your phone incorrectly to simply displaying an inaccurate representation of signal strength, the issue has become prominently associated with the popular phone and could affect its sales. Today, Apple finally released a response addressing the concerns.

The architecture of the new iPhone 4 places the antenna structure within the stainless steel band that wraps the new phone. And the problem many users have noted is that applying normal pressure along specific points of the phone causes the signal quality indicator to drop. Seems like just a hardware issue, right? Well before you go old-school and wrap your phone in aluminum foil in a desperate attempt to boost the signal strength, there’s more to the story.

The issue of signal strength has been picked apart across the Internet; some people can reproduce the problem, while others cannot. A few days after these issues first came to light, Steve Jobs said in response to an email:

Gripping any phone will result in some attenuation of its antenna performance, with certain places being worse than others depending on the placement of the antennas. This is a fact of life for every wireless phone. If you ever experience this on your iPhone 4, avoid gripping it in the lower left corner in a way that covers both sides of the black strip in the metal band, or simply use one of many available cases.

It’s an interesting response, but it seems to speak to Apple’s industrial design decisions, since such sensitive hardware is in a region of the phone that’s naturally likely to be handled. Regardless, since Jobs’ comments, there have been daily rumors concerning Apple’s solution to the issue, whether it’s a software update to “fix” the problem or providing customers with an iPhone 4 bumper case that avoids placing pressure on the antenna. Most recently, fabricated emails have come to light suggesting that Jobs told a customer “calm down” and that it’s “not worth it.” While that turned out to be a fake email according to Apple, the company finally released a statement regarding the issue altogether.

According to the statement, the algorithm for calculating the signal strength has just been inaccurate, showing more bars than it should in some cases. In an example provided by Apple, what is displayed on your iPhone could be two bars higher than the actual signal strength. The statement also suggests your real signal strength never changes, so when you see the lower signal strength as a result of placing pressure along one of the antennas, you’re really seeing a more accurate representation of the signal.

Okay, so it’s a software issue. Or is it?

Apple says this problem of inaccurate signal strength has been present in every iPhone since launch. (Thanks, Apple!)

So if it’s an issue of inaccurate signal strength, how does that affect performance? Look at the video that Cameron Hunt posted to Vimeo that shows how Safari simply stops loading when he touches one of these antenna points along the device. If you apply Apple’s logic to his scenario, when you watch the bars begin to drop, his actual signal strength shouldn’t be dropping. Yet it does, because Safari cannot finish downloading the page. Clearly, there’s still some degree of a hardware issue involved.

Apple says a free software update for iPhone 4, iPhone 3G and 3GS users will be available in the next few weeks to address the problem, and will cause your iPhone to display a more accurate signal strength. Additionally, the update will make the first three signal bars “a bit taller” and “easier to see.” Just remember, they’re only taller to make them more visible, not because the signal strength is any better.

For the technically minded out there, it’s been mentioned that the field test mode in iPhone 4 has disappeared. That’s too bad, as it would have been a great way to see what’s really happening to the signal strength. Does anybody know how to access it on the new iPhone 4?

Do you really believe Apple’s response that the issue is software-related and the reality is that the network reception is actually much lower than what your iPhone displays? Is there really anything wrong? Or is nothing wrong? Or is there something wrong but the problem is just normal of cell phones and it’s just time for us Apple users to drink the Kool-Aid again? Share your thoughts in the comments.

  1. Im amazed at how many people are missing the point of this statement.

    The point is that yes, you lose signal. as with all phones.

    this update will make it easier to show how much signal you are ACTUALLY losing, rather than all of it, as people are complaining now.

    its not a ‘fix’ for an issue. its definately not a software fix for a hardware problem. its merely going to put it into perspective for you!

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  2. does this mean at&t’s network is even worse than previously thought? I mean it can’t be good news that the iphones are always showing more signal than is actually out there, this just serves as an apple blow to at&t, way to shift the blame?

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  3. Rob Crawford Friday, July 2, 2010

    I believe them — their signal strength meter is broken. At work, in my cube, my iPad 3G says it gets five bars. But half the time it can’t connect to the 3G network at all, and everyone who works in this building knows it’s a dead spot for ALL wireless networks. My Verizon phone (yes, different network, different towers) gives a very low signal strength in the same location.

    But outside the building, both phone and iPad work just fine.

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  4. AnandTech have a very thorough review and seem to have been able to get the the iPhone 4 to display signal stength. Their findings bear out what Apple are claiming:

    http://tinyurl.com/2v47vyx

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  5. Apple Did Not State That Loss Of Signal Was A Software Issue. They Specifically Said That The Software Was Giving Incorrect Signal Strength Readings.

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  6. There are two separate issues with the iPhone signal strength bars. One is that it shows more bars than it should. I have always thought it did because of all the times my phone shows 3 bars yet won’t even make a phone call or connect to the internet or pretty much do anything.

    But yes, the signal quality does drop when covering the antenna or bridging the two antennae. This happens with all phones as Mr. Steve has pointed out. There have been people reproducing the same issue in their 3GS and other people doing the same thing with their old Nokia free-with-contract brick phones.

    I don’t think there are many people who still ‘palm’ their phones any more, ever since the invention of the cell phone. It’s uncomfortable for me to hold my iphone with my whole hand. Maybe a house phone that is bigger but not a small cell phone.

    I have been able to reproduce “the problem” on my iPhone 4, but only in areas with a weaker signal anyway I have tried it where I get a really strong signal and bars do not drop at all.

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  7. I’m not buying it, their explanation that when the bars drop it’s actually showing the true signal that you have is nonsense, I live very close to an O2 mast, I get full strength signal on other handsets and 3G dongle, my iPhone4 shows full signal but as soon as I bridge the strips it drops to nothing, so according to Apple I actually have no signal on the iPhone to begin with.

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  8. The concerning part to me – regardless of Apple’s explanation – is that since my wife and I got iPhone 4’s, it doesn’t seem like either of us can keep from dropping a call from our home. We didn’t have this issue with our 3G or 3GS models a week ago, or historically. I don’t care what the bars INDICATE, the calls stayed connected previously. They don’t now. it’s quickly becoming frustrating to say the least.

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    1. your calls are probably dropping because of the proximity sensor problem. the press has been hung up on the antenna issue and is missing the real store: the proximity sensor on the iphone 4 is badly broken. it’s still unclear whether it’s a hardware or software issue. (hope for the latter).

      http://discussions.apple.com/thread.jspa?threadID=2475509

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  9. this is funny, apples solution is to tell everyone they were lying this whole time and probably admitting to violating numerous consumer protection acts

    nice work

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    1. No one was doing any lying to anyone. It was a bug, that has been located, and announced publicly. Usually bugs dont get announced, but because of a lot of crybabies it probably seemed like a good idea.

      the consumer protection act doesnt even come close to relevant in this software issue

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  10. Serves people right for buying it within the first few nano seconds of availability…

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