Apple Promises Software Fix For iPhone 4 Signal Bar Problem

And so, the truth comes out. Finally. Apple's iPhone 4 has been the quickest selling Apple product in the company's history, so there's no question that people are digging the phone. But since day one, some consumers have complained that holding the phone in a certain way significantly reduced the signal strength, or at the very least, reduced the amount of bars seen on-screen. Some suggested that this led to dropped calls, while others suggested it was merely a bug in the way the bars were being displayed. Many could replicate the issue, many could not. Some even suggested that it was simply iOS 4 causing the problem, because they could see similar issues when holding the iPhone 3G and 3GS.

Over the course of a few days, this story had grew into a monster. It was likely Apple's worst nightmare, though judging by sales, we're guessing that it really didn't slow down the purchase rate all that much. But for a company that is obsessed with their image and obsessed with fantastic user experience, having something like this on the nightly news wasn't exactly ideal. Most people assumed that Apple would just sit this one out and simply let people "learn" that buying a case to block the hand-band connection was the most logical solution. We personally would never carry around a $500+ gadget without some sort of protection around it, but suggesting that users need to purchase an accessory just to make their product work correctly was really rubbing some consumers the wrong way.

During our own review of the iPhone 4, we weren't able to replicate these issues. We didn't see any notable signal drops when holding the phone in any way, and we actually saw that the new antenna system helped our reception in some places. But we didn't doubt that the issue was real and happening to at least some owners, and obviously Apple has been investigating this entire time as well. Today, the company made a bold move. They published an open letter in response to the complaints, and they not only acknowledged the problem, but promised a free fix in the coming weeks.

What's most interesting here is that this isn't the first time that Apple has seen this issue; it's just the first time that it has been so magnified throughout the industry. Every single iPhone before has had "reception" issues; just search YouTube for iPhone, iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS reception problems, and you'll find similar complaints from every generation prior. Signal problems and the iPhone have lived together from the beginning, but for whatever reason, it's just the iPhone 4 that really crossed the line. We're guessing that the drops were simply more noticeable and more repeatable here than ever before (maybe due to the metal antenna band?), but either way, a solution is coming. Apple's full statement is below, but here are a few key quotes:

  • "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."
  • "At the same time, we continue to read articles and receive hundreds of emails from users saying that iPhone 4 reception is better than the iPhone 3GS. They are delighted. This matches our own experience and testing. What can explain all of this?"
  • "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."
  • "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."

Apple even admits that this mistake "has been present since the original iPhone," so the software fix that's coming "in a few weeks" will also solve the issue for iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS handsets. So, the takeaway? You'll see less bars after the update. According to Apple, those high bars weren't actually high, so you can get used to hanging around with 2-3 bars a lot more often than 4-5 bars. We're curious to see if this really changes anything for those who claim that grasping the phone in a certain way drops calls, as this is one aspect that Apple has completely avoided.