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Apple Admits iPhone 4 Signal Issue, Blames it on Incorrect Signal Display. But Will Software Fix It?

Apple (s aapl) 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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67 Responses to “Apple Admits iPhone 4 Signal Issue, Blames it on Incorrect Signal Display. But Will Software Fix It?”

  1. Chris K

    Only thing this has shown is how hysterical the internets can get especially with anything related to Apple.

    Here is some lesser reported info from Anandtech’s testing:

    “…. I couldn’t make calls drop driving around an entire day cupping the phone, despite being at -113 dBm (1 bar) most of the time.”

  2. Peter

    I can imagine the algorithm something like this: If signal is strong, display 4 bars. If signal is weak, display 4 bars. If signal is non-existent, display 4 bars. How stupid can Apple be? I’m serious.

  3. So all I have to ask is this – are Apple followers more devote or more silly by not all returning their devices?
    If it was any other platform we would have just returned the damn thing. I don’t hear that really in this story.
    And really – not many are in doubt about the whole thing.


    • Tal, I doubt many are returning the phone. If I bought an iPhone 4, I’d likely wait to see exactly what the software update does, although I’d have low expectations.

      But your comment makes me wonder: will Apple get the software update before or after the 30-day return window from launch day?

      • Michael

        Notice they said the simple display fix will take “a few weeks”? If I were a betting man, it will be AFTER the 30-day return window from the launch day.

    • I disagree. Look at the Sprint Evo. It’s battery life is RIDICULOUSLY low. But people aren’t returning them en masse.
      While the iPhone is having reception issues, it’s not a 100%-of-the-time thing, it’s only when it’s held a certain way (which only some people seem to be doing). So as a work-around, hold it differently, and wait for the fix. The quality of the rest of the product makes up for the need of a work-around for most people.

      Disclaimer: I don’t own an iPhone. I don’t want an iPhone. But if I just got an iPhone, I’d wait until about 29 days into ownership before passing final judgement.

  4. All of this is Crap, this is just a silly answer by apple. All of us know about Steve Jobs humorous, dumb and sense less replies to all questions. You’ll have to bear folks ;) Apple aint perfect, No one is :)

  5. So how come on an o2uk iphone 4 there are dropped calls and low signal bars, yet when an o2 HTC Desire is used in exactly the same spot there is full signal and no dropped calls, same goes with data, so what Apple are actually saying is that phone calls on an iphone 4 are going to get worse!? Wow!!

  6. Masters & Johnson found the G-Spot. And now Apple has its iSpot. Watch this video to find it:

    Here’s one explanation of what’s actually going on. It obviously has nothing to do with how many reception bars Steve chooses to fudge and display on the screen…

    Kristian Bjørnard:
    It is a flaw in the antenna design, as both the Bluetooth and the Phone antennas are a part of the metal rim around the outside of the phone. They are technically two separate antennas, and the place that you put your finger in the video looks like the place in the specs I’ve seen where the ends of the two antennas have a small gap. By touching the phone there you effectively connect the two antennas, and this causes the problem—you basically short the phone antenna by linking it with the Bluetooth one. This could be confirmed by checking whether or not Bluetooth devices also lose their connection with the phone, as it should screw up the Bluetooth antenna as well.

  7. Bartender


    Apple seems to think they can fix it with 2 bars. I say hooey fooey it gonna take enuff bars to get everyone drunk so nobody care anymore that how many.

  8. Zack Lee Wright

    This just confirms what so many of us have known all along namely that ATT network sucks to the high heavens. At least the geniuses at Apple are on top of this. I think we can all rest easier tonight knowing Steve’s Engineers have nipped this in the bud. Of course had this been anybody (i.e. Google, Microsoft, Cisco, intel, etc) you would never ever have heard them admit fault. Apple is a great great company and you can thank them later. This episode just shows how good the 4 really was all along: The Best damn phone the world has ever seen. :-)
    Note: Sorry to EVO but you are a cheap plastic piece of junk compared to the rugged industrial design of the 4. woot.

    • Ward, that may be the comment yet on this topic. I fell off my chair laughing, although of course, cars that don’t stop are no laughing matter. And neither are cell phones that can’t make calls. ;)

  9. bluemonq

    I don’t know what to do with this statement. Should I laugh, cry, or rage? If I can stand in a particular spot and make a call holding an iPhone 3GS with a so-called “deathgrip” or an iPhone 4 with a pincer grip away from the antenna gap, but not with an iPhone while holding it with a deathgrip, we have a problem. If I get 1 Mbps with a pincer grip on the iPhone 4 but 500 Kbps or less with a deathgrip, we have a problem. No amount of bar-fiddling will make a difference.

    Who wants to bet that if Apple adds some sort of coating to the antenna, they won’t announce that fact?

    • Cupertino Engineering

      Relax bubba. Steve has your back. The fix is in. Everything is good again. Chill. Happy Unicorns and Rainbows for everybody. Viva La Apple !!!

      Seriously, software can and will remedy this issue. time to move on.

  10. Ronald Stepp

    So what’s the deal with people like Leo Laporte who have been regularly dropping calls when they hold the new iPhone4 by the bottom left corner?

    One would think if it was just an indication problem, the calls would still carry on with no problem.

  11. It appears that the iPhone 4 definitely has a hardware problem with the antenna, and that the only realistic corrections are a bumper or a recall. They’re in a tough position, but if it was my decision I’d go for the best long-term outcome and issue a recall.

  12. DemiGuru

    I read many articles about the iPhone 4’s antenna attenuation issue, including’s detailed analysis.
    But for some reason I cannot duplicate this antenna issue on my end.
    Am I not as salty that I do not conduct as well? :-)

  13. So basically Apple just said they’ve been misrepresenting AT&T’s service. To me, that’s pretty unacceptable. It’s like if T-Mobile had rigged the G1 to say it always has full strength 3G signal. It’s not false advertising, but when I show the phone to my friends, they get the wrong impression. Perhaps there needs to be some kind of investigation here?

  14. Joel McLaughlin

    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.

    • Terry

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

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

  16. tivoboy

    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.

    • 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

  17. Craig

    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 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 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!

    • 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 review – the level of detail shown in signal testing there may actually have exceeded Apple’s own testing. ;)

  18. Apple thinks we all just fell off the turnip truck. Ever heard of 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.

  19. 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.

    • 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…

      • PXLated

        Gruber has a good translation/take on iPhone antenna issue – – 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.

      • PXLated

        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”?

  20. GoodThings2Life

    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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

    • 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.