Apple iPhone 4 bar problem: More signal and less noise, please

Apple released an explanation for its iPhone 4 reception problems, but no real solutions. Cringely isn't surprised

It seems Apple has a real problem with bars, and not just the kind in which its software engineers leave supersecret iPhone prototypes behind. No, it's the bars that indicate signal strength on the iPhone 4 that appear to have Apple flummoxed.

For a week or so, the blogosphere has been abuzz with stories about the iPhone 4's signal problems (aka "death grip hysteria"), prompting a handful of well-publicized email replies from Steve Jobs essentially stating a) there is no problem, you're just imagining it, b) there is a problem, and it's because you're holding the phone incorrectly, and/or c) why don't you just stop bugging me and get a life?

[ Also on InfoWorld: Cringely wonders who will get the last laugh in "Apple's iPhone 4: The joke's on us." | Stay up to date on all Robert X. Cringely's observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

Now Apple has finally come clean (kind of), publishing a letter to iPhone 4 users admitting there are indeed problems with the iPhone 4's reception (of a sort) and are planning to issue a fix (well, almost). Turns out the problem isn't the iPhone's reception, it's your perception of its reception.

Here's the money graph:

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.

In other words, your iPhone reception still sucks. But at least you know your hand is not the cause. And, more important, neither is Apple, technically speaking. Blame AT&T.

(You might also possibly blame Apple for signing an exclusivity agreement with the world's worst carrier, but only if you're not an Apple fan boy.)

Apple's solution? It's changing the iPhone's software to display your lousy signal reception more accurately and making the bars taller so that you can more easily see how crappy your connection is. Isn't that special?

Needless to say, this response did not entirely appease those in the land of obsessed-by-all-things-Apple, which includes 97 percent of the bloggerati.

Normally stalwart Apple supporter John Gruber of Daring Fireball serves up a funny (if NSFW) translation of the Apple letter, including this bit:

We decided from the outset to set the formula for our bars-of-signal strength indicator to make the iPhone look good — to make it look as if it “gets more bars”. That decision has now bitten us on our a**.

Over at eSarcasm, JR Raphael offers a simple three-step solution for solving your iPhone reception problems. Hint: they involve a wastebasket and a visit to your local big-box retailer.

There is, of course, the inevitable "Hitler reacts to iPhone 4 antenna issues" video, despite a) how tired that meme is, and b) the DMCA takedown notice that forced YouTube to remove most of these videos in April.

The Technologizer's Harry McCracken notes the many online reports and videos demonstrating what happens when you grasp the iPhone by the lower-left corner (that is, it drops your calls), none of which is addressed by Apple's "bars" solution.

Apple's reply would likely be the "this happens to all cell phones" line, but if that were the case you'd think the Web would now be chock-full of YouTube videos showing Android and BlackBerry handsets in a similar death grip. So far, nada.

Considering how hard it is for Apple to admit to any flaw, no matter how minor, some poor Cupertino minion probably got taken out to the woodshed and flogged for the signal bars problem. Or possibly he/she is hanging by the thumbs next to hofbrau-happy Gray Powell in some secret Apple detention facility.

Either way, Apple has a much bigger problem, and it's brought to you by the letter A, standing for either "antenna" or "AT&T" -- take your pick. But don't expect a real solution any time soon. This is all noise and no signal.

How do you hold your iPhone? Suggest alternate grip styles below or email me:

This story, "Apple iPhone 4 bar problem: More signal and less noise, please," was originally published at Read more of Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog.

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