Apple today admitted the iPhone 4 has a signal issue and plans for a software update to address the problem. But will it fix the issue? From the sounds of it, the update will simply show less bars in more places — not boost reception.

Apple today released a statement on the widely reported iPhone 4 antenna issue, and plans to offer a software update within the next few weeks to address the problem. The Cupertino company says it was “stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong.” The upcoming software fix is expected to use a recommended formula from AT&T to properly calculate the visible bars of signal strength on any iPhone running iOS4.

Here are the details of the problem — which Apple says existed since the original iPhone — according to the Apple press release:

“Our formula, in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength. For example, we sometimes display 4 bars when we should be displaying as few as 2 bars. Users observing a drop of several bars when they grip their iPhone in a certain way are most likely in an area with very weak signal strength, but they don’t know it because we are erroneously displaying 4 or 5 bars. Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place.”

While the new stainless steel frame of the iPhone — which doubles as an antenna — may indeed be an improvement over prior designs, I see nothing in the press release indicating a software fix for a hardware problem. In other words, unless I’m misunderstanding the whole problem, the software fix will simply reflect a more accurate number of signal bars.

We’ll have to see what happens when the software update arrives — the iPhone 3G and 3GS will get the fix too — but my take: if you hold iPhone 4 in your left hand now have a problem with the signal today, you’ll still have it after the update. Unless you spend $29 on a stunning bumper, that is.

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  1. I agree with Kevin. This isn’t going to fix any real problem with signal issues. They might show a more accurate signal strength. But, the cynic in me thinks they’ll detect a single drop in conjunction with movement with the gyroscope and other sensors and simply avoid showing an extra signal drop.

    I think Apple is handling this whole situation badly. Own up to it and stop pretending you’re perfect, Apple. Apple is acting like a child.

    1. wheelalignmentshop JP Friday, July 2, 2010

      Yeah, the way they are handling it is a bit strange to me. Almost arrogance or frustration.

      If it’s frustration perhaps it’s with AT&T. I would love to see Apple start selling to other carriers and have to say I remain rather surprised that they aren’t.

  2. I’ve definitely noticed the bars drop when holding it, but I haven’t really had any reception problems during this process. I’m glad to see that Apple’s addressing the issue with something more appealing than ‘hold it differently’, though.

  3. GoodThings2Life Friday, July 2, 2010

    Am I the only one that notices the whole “we’ve been lying to you about the strength of your signal for 4 years” bit? No wonder everyone complains about AT&T’s crappy network… it really IS crappy.

    1. And after the software fix, you’ll get a better representation of crappiness. Sorry… I couldn’t resist that one. ;)

      1. Yep, exactly right. Although, I’m on Sprint, so I’ve always had a nice representation of AT&T’s crappiness, lol.

    2. A little extra TP should clean up the mess!

    3. I think you are the only one. Because that’s not what they’re saying. What they are saying is framed within the iOS 4 context.

  4. Josh Sunshine Friday, July 2, 2010

    What Apple is saying here is that there isn’t actually a hardware problem at all; instead, the iPhone shows a high number of bars, which then drops to one or two, but it never had the high number in the first place.

    For instance, let’s say my iPhone shows 4 bars. I pick it up, and it drops to 1 bar. That’s not because I picked it up, but because in reality it only had 1 or 2 bars before, the iPhone was just showing it incorrectly.

    For this reason, a software update will most likely fix the issue because the iPhone will be able to show the correct amount of bars all the time, without seemingly dropping bars.

    1. Josh, you’re right and wrong at the same time, I think. The software update will fix the issue of displaying the wrong number of bars. That I get. But it won’t fix the issue of losing a signal based if cover the black strip of the antenna band.

      Let me ask it this way: do you think the software fix will make all of the signal or call drops go away that people are experiencing when holding the phone with the left hand? I don’t. I think it will just show fewer bars when it happens…

      1. Gruber has a good translation/take on iPhone antenna issue – http://bit.ly/dAf8Ds – 4 steps forward, 1 back. The back gets the attention and that’s too bad because overall (if you have signal strength) everything is way better.

      2. Wonder how many people “actually” held it in a way that affects the antenna “before” they were “taught” how to screw it up so the could “whine”?

  5. Apple thinks we all just fell off the turnip truck. Ever heard of SpeedTest.net? Run it once with the iPhone 4 sitting on the table. Then run it again while you’re holding it as you normally do. Are their calculations wrong, too? Unbelievable… literally.

  6. Apple may well be correct in saying they have a problem with the bar display, and yes, software could fix that. But nothing any software can do will change the fundamental problem that if you hold the phone in such a way that you’re bridging and grounding the 2 antennae with your hand (or other conductive material) – the signal attenuates quite substantially – much more than many other phones. The site anandtech.com has a GREAT review of the iPhone4, and in particular on page 2 of that review, they’ve gone to great lengths to actually measure the phenomenon (as best as they could without having specialised tools). It certainly seems like a very real issue. There are accounts online (see, for example, Erica Sadun on tuaw.com) of people whose data connections slow down or freeze, when the phone is held in the “death grip.” That is a real issue with measurable impact. Bar display is cosmetic only, as long as your calls and data are not actually impacted. To be fair, I think only very few people are having actual voice call issues – it could be that the iPhone 4 antenna design and/or other hardware or baseband improvements are such that even the “death grip” does not completely negate voice call performance improvements.

    I should be receiving my iPhone 4 next week, so I will find out all the fun for myself very shortly! I’m actually getting an officially unlocked SIM-free one from the Apple Store in the UK. I had it delivered to my parents in Scotland, and a friend is bringing it over to the US for me :-) It cost me a fortune, but I’d rather have that than a crippled product (ie AT&T-locked and can never be unlocked without jailbreak). I travel internationally, so a SIM-locked device is not acceptable to me.

    BTW Kevin, I had the pleasure of meeting you at CTIA in Las Vegas in April 2009. I was behind the scenes in the booth of one of the major Telecoms companies (I don’t want to mention which one on a public blog)! Anyway, it was great to meet you, and I still follow the blogs and podcasts with great interest!

    1. Kevin C. Tofel Craig Friday, July 2, 2010

      Oooh… a mystery commenter that I’ve met at CTIA. Now I’ll be spending the whole holiday weekend trying to figure out which company booth we met at, Craig! ;) Seriously, thanks for the kind words.

      And I totally agree with your take on the anandtech.com review – the level of detail shown in signal testing there may actually have exceeded Apple’s own testing. ;)

  7. Here’s my take

    This actually makes sense, NOT what is actually going on but WHAT they are going to do about it.

    They are TELLING us essentially that the BARS are being “over reported” as in HIGHER than they actually are. this is in the press release.

    What that MEANS is, is that AFTER the fix we are going to SEE fewer bars. What that MEANS is, is that they are going to DISCONNECT the external antenna via software – nulling any impact that touching it could cause and only rely on the INTERNAL antenna which is going to make the reception even worse and show less bars.

    since they cannot fix the physical hardware problem remotely or without a recall of the defective devices, they are going to remote KILL the hardware and the signal will just get worse.

    But, at least touching it won’t have any effect on performance anymore.

    1. Kevin C. Tofel tivoboy Friday, July 2, 2010

      What internal antenna will this software be using?

    2. you moron. thats not whats going to happen at all. all that will happen is you will see a much less dramatic decrease in signal, as you wont start off with as much as you thought you previously had. So touching the side of your phone may lose 1 bar of real signal, rather than 4 bars of what the iphone thought it had before

  8. This is no “fix,” but merely an adjustment of perception. Or in other words,

    Apple: “There is no spoon.”

    1. WTF ?

      Of course there is a fix. It’s all in the software and the fix is on the way !


      1. SILLY YOU for missing the obvious Matrix reference. Go watch the movie, then come back and read this, and you will undetstand…

  9. Draconian “Hold it different” is now JarJar-esque “whoopsie-doodle, our multi-billion dollar product had a boo-boo thingy, all brokey.”

  10. Joel McLaughlin Friday, July 2, 2010

    Exactly my point Kevin. Apple has basically shifted the blame to AT&T. If you have a crappy AT&T signal now, you will still have a crappy one, but now the meter will show that it is crappy.

    1. So having this “more accurate” bars will definitely warrant using AT&T’s Mark The Spot app to complain about poor signal/dropped calls.

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