Apple Says iPhone 4 Signal Problem Is Really Just About Bars

The iPhone 4 seems to have a problem with bars. First, the prototype for the Apple smartphone got left in one by a careless engineer, and now the new iPhone apparently has trouble displaying an appropriate number of bars to accurately depict its signal strength. Maybe the phone and the engineers need to find other places to hang out.

According to Apple, recent reports of a “death grip” that cut into the iPhone 4’s signal strength are overblown, and the real culprit is a software bug that displays the network level inaccurately:

To start with, gripping almost any mobile phone in certain ways will reduce its reception by 1 or more bars. This is true of iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, as well as many Droid, Nokia and RIM phones. But some users have reported that iPhone 4 can drop 4 or 5 bars when tightly held in a way which covers the black strip in the lower left corner of the metal band. This is a far bigger drop than normal, and as a result some have accused the iPhone 4 of having a faulty antenna design. …

We have discovered the cause of this dramatic drop in bars, and it is both simple and surprising.

Upon investigation, we were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong. 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.

Apple says it is working on a software upgrade that will fix the problem, and insists that the iPhone 4’s wireless performance “is the best we have ever shipped.”

According to AnandTech, which conducted tests on the iPhone 4’s signal strength, the model “gets the best cellular reception yet.” The site points out that its tests show that there are some reception problems based on hand position, and that similar problems exist with other phones:

“The fact of the matter is that cupping the bottom left corner and making skin contact between the two antennas does result in a measurable difference in cellular reception….

…Inside a case, the iPhone 4 performs slightly better than the Nexus One. However, attenuation gets measurably worse depending how you hold the phone. Squeezing it really tightly, you can drop as much as 24 dB. Holding it naturally, I measured an average drop of 20 dB.

The drop in signal from cupping the device with a case on is purely a function of us being “ugly bags of mostly water.” A material which happens to be pretty good at attenuating RF – thus increasing path loss between the handset and cellular base station. There’s nothing Apple nor anyone else can do to get around physics, plain and simple. It’s something which demonstrably affects every phone’s cellular reception.

… [E]ither the most sensitive region of the antenna should have an insulative coating, or everyone should use a case.”

Confused? Maybe it’s time to hit those “4 or 5 bars” Apple refers to, and stay there until you get a clear answer.

Letter from Apple Regarding iPhone 4 []
The Real Story on iPhone 4’s Antenna [AnandTech]


Edit Your Comment

  1. umbriago says:

    I thought the problems with the iPhone 4 all started at a bar.

  2. Im Just Saying says:

    So the real problem is that the reception sucked to begin with?

    • DAK says:

      Exactly! I’m beginning to think that iPhone buyers just crave abusive relationships.

    • BobOki says:

      Sounds like AT&T got apple to BS the signal bars to make people think they had better signal in the first place.
      I cannot say how many times I had 3g with two bars and no actual signal.
      So, now they will modify the stupid thing to show less bars, but be more static, so less dips. They refuse to address the network issue and how they have more dropped calls than any other carrier in the world.

      p.s. I have a friend in Iraq that says their network gets less dropped calls.

    • XianZhuXuande says:

      Nah, do some reading. The AnandTech article is a good start. It might be better than a lot of phones, but it isn’t the best one out there. What we really need is a good Signal to Noise ratio test of some sort, because that’s where the iPhone is excelling.

  3. GuyGuidoEyesSteveDaveâ„¢ says:

    So why do 3GS people who upped to iOS4 have nearly the same problem as the iPhone 4? I don’t think it’s a bar problem, and more of a frequency shift problem.

  4. MuffinSangria says:

    Maybe they are only looking Apple phone when saying all phones drop signal strength relative to the grip. Never had that issue.

    If the phone is showing more bars then it should because of a faulty calculation, how does gripping the phone cause the software to lower the number of bars? Unless certain grips do lower the signal strength, which means it is a faulty hardware design in addition to the faulty software.

    Did I miss something?

  5. SeanPG says:

    Anyone else smell bulls**t? I wonder when they will talk about the car stereo problems the new operating system is causing?…21&start=0&tstart=0

  6. MongoAngryMongoSmash says:

    So, wait. Who are we blaming, now, the user, Apple, or AT&T?

    • kagekiri says:

      We blame everyone. The users for whining too much, Apple for bad reception-bar-depiction software, and AT&T for terrible reception in general, with or without the newest iPhone 4.

  7. jsl4980 says:

    Wow this is the best they’ve ever shipped? The phone misrepresents signal strength to show 4 bars instead of 1 or 2. Now they’re going to stop lying to customers and that is the best they can do? I don’t understand people who buy iPhones, it’s not too late to return it.

  8. tedyc03 says:

    There’s a great piece on signal strength and what each bar means here:

    In short, not all bars were created equally. Your signal can drop 10 dBm before you get to 4 bars, but only 2 dBm before you get to 3 bars, 4 dBm before you get to two bars, and 6 dBm before you get to one bar. Each bar ought to represent an even amount of signal presence.

    So, when someone cups the iPhone at five bars in their hands, they might lose 15 dBm but still show four bars; when they’re at 4 bars and they do the same it drops to 1 bar. Rather than reception being the problem, the phone is showing too high a number of bars for the amount of signal.

    If they fix the bug, so that each bar represents say 6 dBm, a 3-bar signal actually goes down to a 2-bar signal; a 4 bar signal may be a 3-bar signal depending on the quality of the overall signal strength.

    Of course, Apple removed Field Test from the apps directory before shipping the iPhone 4, so it’s difficult to get real numbers to associate with the problem.

    • tedyc03 says:

      Guess the link I posted is the same as the link they posted. Still, it’s a great read to understanding the problem.

  9. Mike says:

    WOW. There is an antenna issue and their solution is to change how many bars display? I call BS on their claim, I have seen several tests that show very clear results, here is just one of many videos I have seen:

    The phone completely loses its internet connection until the dude puts phone down. Sorry, but this explanation from Apple is complete BS. If the proposed solution as described here were applied to this guy’s phone, his phone would show more bars, but he still would not have a connection to the internet for a standard Ping test.

    Sounds to me that the engineers were trying to make up for AT&T’s crappy service by showing more bars and now it has come back to haunt them.

    • Mike says:

      Edit: If the proposed solution as described here were applied to this guy’s phone, his phone would show fewer bars, and not have an internet connection. That just makes the problem worse.

  10. Rocket says:

    My Motorola i850 has an extendable antenna. Works fine no matter how I hold it. :-D

  11. Geekybiker says:

    And andandtech notes that the iphone 4 is more affected by grip issues than normal by a large margin.

  12. redwall_hp says:

    The real problem is that people don’t understand anything about antennas or decibels. The “bars” are pretty much meaningless. For one thing, they only measure the strength of the signal, not other factors like interference. It’s entirely possible to make a call with zero bars or to be unable to with all of them lit. Second, the bars are mapped to certain decibel readings. While a drop may occur when you grip the phone, changing the antenna dynamics, the drop shouldn’t affect your call quality too much as the new antenna is much more sensitive than those in previous models.

    Stop worrying about bars, which are a useless metric. I imagine Apple could release a software patch to fix it by changing how the bar readout works.

    Anyway, the Nexus One, HTC Desire (?), and a few Nokia phones have the same problem. I think everyone is making too much of a big deal about this.

  13. MyTQuinn says:

    ” There’s nothing Apple nor anyone else can do to get around physics, plain and simple…”

    Sure there is. Design a phone so that the antenna doesn’t come into direct contact with the user’s skin.

    So their saying that since the very first iPhone, their signal meter has been displaying more bars than it should? Is it really possible that AT&T’s network is even worse than we thought?

    If this really is a software issue, then they can fix the problem by replacing their faulty algorigthm with this one:

    If SignalLevel > -100dbm Then Display 5 bars
    Else Display 5 bars

    Problem solved!

  14. Happy Tinfoil Cat says:

    Grand marketing ploy,
    showing better reception,
    backfired from deception.

  15. Dacker says:

    Apple’s response is pure PR spin and is not based on the reality of the situation. Wander over to Gizmodo and you will find several videos of people using to demonstrate 90% or greater drops in data throughput if you hold the phone “wrong”, in Apple’s parlance. This test is completely independent of how the bars are displayed on the phone. The signal strength drops are real.

    I’m voting with my wallet. I’m canceling my iPhone 4 order, not so much because of the problem, (which can be ‘fixed’ by using a case) but because of Apples arrogance, denials, and especially how they think their customers are stupid enough to fall for the “the bars are wrong, the signal strength is fine” excuse. I don’t want to support a business which treats its customers as fools.

  16. DrXym says:

    Apple should just man up and offer refunds. Hacking the software to make it pretend to hold signal strength even when it has none is a pretty lame effort.

  17. backwerds says:

    The entire email is full of corporate smug and arrogant writing. Briefly summarizing this in 4 points:
    1. The metric they use currently was not taking standardized levels to measure signal strength; which implies that AT&T’s signal is even shittier than we first assumed.
    2. The signal isn’t directly related to how you cup the phone. There is a video out there ( that shows a guy placing his phone on a counter, not cupping and only putting a key to bridge the connection.
    3. In the software patch, Apple will be making the 1, 2 and 3 bars taller so “they will be easier to see”. No, they aren’t making it easier to see, they are making it look like you have a signal. In the past 5 years, we have gotten accustom to signal bar size, and by making the bars larger, we will naturally assume we have a better connection that we really do.
    4. Of course Apple labs showed that this solved reception issues; Apple labs weren’t competent enough to identify the problem before it went live.

  18. jimstoic says:

    Nigel Tufnel: The numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven and…

    Marty DiBergi: Oh, I see. And most amps go up to ten?

    Nigel Tufnel: Exactly.

    Marty DiBergi: Does that mean it’s louder? Is it any louder?

    Nigel Tufnel: Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it? It’s not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You’re on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you’re on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?

    Marty DiBergi: I don’t know.

    Nigel Tufnel: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?

    Marty DiBergi: Put it up to eleven.

    Nigel Tufnel: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.

    Marty DiBergi: Why don’t you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?

    Nigel Tufnel: [pause] These go to eleven.

  19. JHebert says:

    I’m sorry but I have to blow the bullshit horn (like a vuvuzela but more annoying). I didnt get mine till Tuesday, so I was aware of the reception issue and tested it first thing when I got home. I had seen the videos and decided to try it out. Going to google while holding it in the “wrong” way, really does tank the internet. It flat out refuses to load. Moving my hand an inch in the either direction (mind you it’s much more unnatural and uncomfortable) solves the problem. I’m sorry but this seems like a pretty glaring flaw. Apple could have REALLY reduced the bad PR from this by just taking a different approach. “Oops, we fouled up, let us work to find a solution”. Instead they’re blowing smoke about how it’s a non-issue. Yeah they might have ended up losing a good chunk of change, but not as much as I’ve seen other people claim. 1Million iPhonesX $30 bumpers does NOT equal $30M in cost to apple, or phone even $30M in lost revenue (not every iPhone user would have bought one). I’d honestly be surprised if the cost of each bumper is greater than $5 to Apple. Considering the fact that there are those people who bought their first iphone last week, the gesture of good faith would probably go a long way to making more customer’s like me, I’ve camped out for every iPhone that’s been available to me (here in AK the 1st gen was never released).

    *Note* I’m not a complete fool about my iPhones, I’ve turned a profit every time a new iphone comes out, Sell my old one just prior to the new phone being released and I generally sell it for enough to cover the cost of the new phone + early upgrade fee + a couple hundred extra

  20. Mom2Talavera says:

    I’m fed up with iPods and iPhones! Apple is evil.

    Looking at the droidX

  21. DH405 says:

    Bullshit. I was sitting in a cafe with the iPhone 4 last night. I sat it on the table and simply placed my finger on that one spot and started a call on speakerphone. I wasn’t “Blocking” anything with my big meaty pc-user mitts of attenuation. The bars steadily dropped, one by one, until it was searching for signal. It dropped the call around 1 or 2 bars.

    Their software’s method of displaying bars somehow made it drop the call? Bull. Shit.

  22. Hardwired says:

    This has got to be the worst excuse I’ve ever heard in my life. Apple really does think the people who purchase their products are stupid. (As do I, just my opinion).

  23. Hardwired says:

    By the way, there is no quick fix for this BUT a software solution. Any hardware changes to the iPhone 4 would have to go through the FCC FIRST. In other words, it would take a while. Congrats iSheeple. You’ve once again, been had…