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

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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.

35 Responses to “Apple Says Signal Strength is Just a Software Issue, But is It?”

    • Roger

      I don’t have a case and never will. I can reproduce the signal drop in locations with marginal signal but not in locations with good signal.

      I don’t know about other people but I don’t bear hug my phone when I talk so I don’t ever have a problem in real world use.

  1. Rick S

    I think Apple may correct the display issue with the signal bars, but this will not fix the issue of signal degradation when bridging the gap between antennas.

  2. The only issue I had have with my iP4 is that it shows more bars when I am at the office when I know the signal their is weak. So I do believe this is the problem. I know lots of people still don’t get what the real issue is and go with the hysteria.

  3. M Reid

    I don’t care about the problems with my iphone reception. Atleast I am honest. Like most people, I buy Apple products because they are cool! What’s wrong with that? Land Rovers sell for $70,000 despite ranking last in the WORLD for 6 years on JD Powers Initial QualityI We live in a rich society…these products are not necessities..they are toys…and we like toys at all ages!!

  4. Chris

    Duh Mr Jobs, you built and released a phone with a major hard defect. I’m going to guess the software fix is just PR bullshit. I’m betting there are little Apple engineers working feverishly to come out with a solution. I’m sure the fix will exist for all those customers who will buy at Christmas, but thanks for screwing all your early adopters and best customers again.

    It’s a shame Apple is willing to tarnish it’s brand and image for the sake of short term shareholder value.

  5. Gregory

    The core mis-understanding you – and others who claim that it must still also be a hardware issue – are making is that you assume that you had good signal in the first place.

    When this issue shows up – you don’t. You have bad signal.

  6. I love that Apple states that it’s been overstating the iPhone’s antenna capability for years and nobody picks up that that is the real story.

    The fact that all iPhones have poor reception has been clear.

    • Roger

      My wife has a Blackberry and I have had numerous phones including all the iPhone versions. In my experience, the iPhone antenna performance is comparable to other phones, not great but not bad either.

      If you think the iPhone is the only phone that exagerates the number of bars then you are very naive. Apple was simply calibrating the bars like all phones do. If they did not, people would be complaining the iPhone reception is worse than phone xyz because it shows fewer bars.

  7. BarryP

    What I find funny is that everyone takes their statement at face value. How often does Apple list every detail in ANY software update? The fact that there is going to be an update says to me 1) They know there is a problem. To think that they don’t understand the issue after the amount written in the last 10 days alone is ludicrous. 2) They are saving face. The statement is detailed enough, but leaves out anything that would make them look particularly careless, or worse, liable. 3) Whatever the issue is (and it probably is more than they are saying), it will be fixed, and soon after the update, this will all be forgotten.

  8. Ethan Wood

    Just from holding the phone a certain way you lose signal strength and he thinks it’s a “non-issue”. How is that a non-issue? And how is it apple didn’t discover this earlier? Surely they had to know about it. Yet they are going to charge users $30 for a little cover that can stop this problem.
    Force Factor

  9. Ive seen too many examples of this problem illustrated to believe Its a software problem, it seems more like a form over function snafu. Ifits software, why is apple selling a rubber band that corrects the problem.

  10. Brian

    “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.”

    WTF are you talking about? Apple’s logic is that your signal appears stronger than it is. Apple hasn’t claimed that dropping bars don’t affect signal strength.

    • Raint No Guarantees

      If it is just appearances pre-hold, then the download experience would necessarily be consistent pre- and post-hold.

      What I really find funny is that now we’re supposed to believe Apple, as opposed to when they were shoveling the shit that the problem didn’t exist. Fool me once…

  11. Why don’t we give Apple a chance to issue the software update before making a final decision on this? I don’t know anyone with an iPhone 4 that has had reception issues, myself included.

  12. dilip

    There are two issues directly associated with the reception. The first is a question of how the signal strength is displayed, the second is a question of the design of the antennas.

    Apple is being disingenuous when they claim that the signal strength display is meaningless as it stands. Right now, 5 bars is better than 2 bars. It may not be much better, but it is in fact better. If the phone starts constantly showing a weak signal, will people compare it to other phones that show better signal strength on the same network?

    The second problem is more interesting for many people. Antenna design is a difficult task. Putting it on the outside so that people with sweaty hands will be holding the actual antenna was an odd choice. Having 2 antennas that a sweaty hand can bridge was a recipe for disaster.

    Apple has mishanlded this on so many levels, but putting the antennas in a place that they make physical contact with a hand, and can be both occluded from the tower and bridged to each other for the sake of a pretty design is an example of the triumph of form over function.

    How much of the complaining about AT&T by iPhone users, is better addressed to poor antenna design?

  13. Not sure what the fuss is about. I can’t replicate the problem on my iPhone 4 on O2 in the UK – and I have tried!! No perceived drop and, way more importantly, no actual drop in signal, even in weak areas.

    In answer to the question that was posed in the article – will safari cease to access the network if the software perceives insufficient signal? If the software looks to the same algorithm that drives the signal bars, perhaps Apple is right after all.

    Either way I look at this, I’m still way happier as an Apple iPhone 4 customer than I ever was with any other device. I guess nothing is perfect, but at least Apple make some effort toward design and customer service. Ever tried getting Palm or Nokia to admit a flaw and then fix it? How about Microsoft (LOL)?

  14. Roger

    “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”

    The statement made no such suggestion. Totally your fabrication. In fact, Apple has stated ALL phones lose some signal when being held. Apple only says the lose is less dramatic than perceived. The software fix will fix perception. It won’t make the phone lose less signal when being held.

    A true analysis was done by AnandTech. Apples statements are consistent with that analysis.

    • Shardsofmetal

      Thank you for pointing that out. The author misinterpreted the statement. It is saying that after the update, your signal will likely seem worse, but it will be showing your real singal, which hasn’t changed, instead of the higher reading it showed before. The statement never said the antenna issue didn’t exist, or that the phone only reported that the signal decreased while it stayed the same; it merely said that the phone reported a 3 or 4 bar drop, when it should only have been reporting a one bar drop. For the readers who didn’t check out the statement, this is the paragraph that mislead the author:

      “To fix this, we are adopting AT&T’s recently recommended formula for calculating how many bars to display for a given signal strength. The real signal strength remains the same, but the iPhone’s bars will report it far more accurately, providing users a much better indication of the reception they will get in a given area. We are also making bars 1, 2 and 3 a bit taller so they will be easier to see.”

  15. steve

    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

    • 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

  16. 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.

  17. Fraggle35

    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.

  18. Austin

    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.

  19. Rob Crawford

    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.

  20. 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?

  21. 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!