Apple Says Signal Strength is Just a Software Issue, But is It?

Apple (s aapl) 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.