Apple iPhone 4 Reception Explanation Borders on Surreal

Techwriter10 0 Tallied Votes 1K Views Share

Apple released a letter this morning explaining its infamous iPhone 4 reception issues. I encourage you to read it and then come back. The letter is so bizarre to me I thought at first it was joke or a hoax like Steve Jobs' "Relax, It's a Only a Phone email." I clicked the Home page to make sure, I was actually on the Apple web site. As far as I can tell, this is really their explanation. In the words of Seth and Amy on SNL news: Really Apple?! This is a serious "Really!?!" moment because if this is the best they can come up with, it's a joke.

Don't Squeeze that Phone

First of all, Apple tells us that when you squeeze any phone too tightly, you lose reception. Really Apple?! I honestly hadn't noticed that, ever, and I'm guessing you are going to have a really hard time convincing the phone buying public that phone squeezing is really a universal problem.

It's The Formula, Doncha Know

So there's the squeezing issue of course because we are all acutely aware of the famous phone squeezing-signal issue. (Isn't there a Wikipedia entry about it?) But there's more. Oh, yes. It gets better. An explanation that Apple calls "both simple and surprising." I guess that's one of looking at it.

It seems that Apple has been using the wrong "formula" to calculate the number of bars we are seeing on the iPhone, so if you're seeing 4, you might only have 2. I think it's best at this point to leave it to Apple to explain this convoluted idea. They write (they really wrote this; I'm not kidding):

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.

Oh, so the bars were never there - and you were stunned to find it was wrong. I get it. You're totally off the hook then.

Is That Supposed to Make us Feel Better?

If the bars were never there, isn't that in itself a HUGE problem? We are being told by Apple and AT&T that we have a good signal, only we don't. That's supposed to make us feel better? Really Apple?! Really?! So to fix the issue, they will be issuing a "software update" in a few weeks with the "correct formula."

This could be one of the lamest public pronouncements I've ever seen. That it came from Apple, rather than Microsoft is really shocking. They are going to have to do a heck of a lot better than this if they want smooth things over because this explanation needs work. Really.

GaryREM 0 Newbie Poster

Why is this such a problem for you?

All they are saying is, when you were in an area that had weak reception, the indicator showed too high a reading. When you held the phone in a certain way, reception was slightly decreased (not anything significant) but it was enough and the software was showing a reading that was more realistic at lower values. To put it another way, when the signal was very low or very high it was reasonable accurate, but when it was somewhat low it was showing too high.

The result was dramatic swings in the indicator that were incorrect. All of this ranting has been on the basis that the indicator was showing the correct values. Apparently it wasn't.

For me, the only thing questionable in the reply is the comment that this mistake has been there since the original iPhone. If it was, then something in iOS 4 made it show up more than in the past.

Techwriter10 42 Practically a Posting Shark

If my phone says I have 4 or 5 bars and I actually have 2, that's not a slight problem, that's a dramatic problem.

Thanks for your comment.

GaryREM 0 Newbie Poster

No. Your missing the point.

All evidence points to the iPhone 4 getting better reception. A good article at anandtech discusses in great detail. The display issue comes up if you are in a somewhat weak reception zone. In the real world signals sometimes are weaker.

What should be happening is if you happen to be in a weak signal zone you should see something more accurately representing the signal. Not 4 or 5 bars when it actually should be 2.

Techwriter10 42 Practically a Posting Shark

I like this article, which covers the research comprehensively:


GaryREM 0 Newbie Poster

I like this article, which covers the research comprehensively:


Good article. I guess I just get frustrated by all this emotion. There probably have been 2,000,000 iPhone 4's sold by now. How many people are really having problems? And what kind of problems? Some guy shows bars dropping on YouTube and a bunch of people go out and try to duplicate it. And everyone is up in arms. None of those people knew what the changing bars even meant in terms of actual impact on reception.

Some people are concerned about dropped calls. They connect it to this 'reception' issue. Really? How many of those 2,000,000 are affected?

It's been just over 1 week since the phone has been released and we have law suits! We're just out of control.

Is there a problem here? Probably. And Apple's way of introducing the product doesn't help.

But what ever happened to gathering data and dealing with facts? How about giving people a chance to look into things and see if this is really an issue? We're finally getting some factual information, but even it is limited to a couple of people with a handful of phones. When I was doing engineering work we sure made we had a representative sample of devices and understood the root cause of problems before jumping to conclusions.

Techwriter10 42 Practically a Posting Shark

I can't disagree that mine was a bit of a rant, but I don't think I was wrong about it either. I have been querying my social networks about actual experience with the iPhone 4 and people are reporting they do have this problem (and have said things like "I was holding it wrong.") There shouldn't be a right or wrong way to hold a phone. If the design is flawed, they should have picked that up in testing.

Does it affect everyone? Probably not, but it affects enough people that it's a very real issue for Apple, and i don't think it was wrong to call them on their silly response.

Thanks for all of your comments.


GaryREM 0 Newbie Poster


I'm not saying you are wrong. As I said, I think there is probably something here.

But, as Richard Gaywood wrote "...I believe the perception of the size of the problem has certainly been exaggerated by the miscalibration - with the attendant hysteria from some of the press. ... The problem isn’t as big as some people are saying — but it’s not the non-problem Apple are trying to paint it as either."

So, enough on this. I'll wait to see how this plays out.


Techwriter10 42 Practically a Posting Shark

Indeed. Sounds like a fair way to go. Hope you enjoy the weekend and thanks again for all of your comments. I enjoy the conversation and debate.


wfolta 0 Newbie Poster

Have you read an actual, rigorous test of the iPhone 4 reception issue?

Read it and perhaps their explanation won't be so eager to rant about "surreal" explanations. The fact is, most of the hue and cry is due to bars disappearing, plain and simple, not calls dropping. And all of the calls-dropping complaints I've seen end with something like, "I live in New York and my 3GS calls dropped like flies, too."

This really is a chance for Android fanboys to jump all over Apple and to try to ignore the iPad -- which surpassed Android internet usage already -- until an Android pad can come out.

Techwriter10 42 Practically a Posting Shark

Yup I've read that. My link a couple of comments up references that post as a matter of fact. It's interesting that you think I'm an "Android" fan boy because I have the audacity to criticize Apple when they are really in an indefensible position on this one.

Fact is, I'm typing this post on my Mac Book Pro, I own an iPhone 3G and an iPad. I'm a big fan of Apple products, but that doesn't mean that they are a perfect company or they get a free ride when they do something incredibly stupid.

Imagine for a second that Microsoft came out with a similar problem. Do you think for a moment people would be suggesting that Android fan boys are simply trying to "jump all over Microsoft?"

Apple made an error here. Let's be clear about that. The antenna is actually a real problem. The letter was a very clumsy attempt to deal with that problem.

Do you expect Apple to just get a free pass when they release products with issues?

I can't accept that, and I see it as my job to write about it when they release products with issues.

Thanks for the comment.


theden 0 Newbie Poster

The truly hilarious thing here is that it's a shell game, and it will work!

Here's the deal- if you have four bars, and I take away two, how many have you lost? TWO!! However, if you have two bars, and I take away one, how many have you lost? ONLY ONE!! I'm saved!!

That's what you'll get from the great unwashed, and that's what Apple hopes you will believe. Here's how an engineer would answer:

Four bars take away two = 50%. Two bars take away one = 50%. The same!!

There's an antenna detuning issue, there's no question. The software 'fix' is only a cover-up for stupid people.

Alex_ 0 Junior Poster

In other words you pay a lot of money over and over again for phone that is PLANNED to be obsolete after a year or two so they can brag about the iphone 5 that it's the best thing ever happened (best plan for obsoleteness that ever happened,that is ).

They fool you: and you LIKE it!

Techwriter10 42 Practically a Posting Shark

I'm not sure who your'e talking to Alex, but this is the first real problem I recall with iPhone. I've had my iPhone 3G for 2 years and I could use it for much longer. It' s not obsolete. It's just evolved as all phones do. Look at the Droid and now the Droid X as an example. All companies, whether they're cars or handbags come out with new models on a yearly basis. That's what businesses do. If you want the latest technology (or the latest fashion or model or whatever), you fork it over. If you don't care you hold onto the old one. It's not about fooling people, in my view. People can buy or not buy as they see fit.

Thanks for the comment.


tiger86 16 Posting Pro

Hey Ron,
You know I am a big fan of your articles. What you said is correct on the most part. I have experiemented with Apple claiming that if youHold a RIM phone to tight it will make you drop a bar or two. I was amazed that this is indeed correct. I can youtube this, if you would like. I hold a RIM Blackberry Curve 8310 on the sides tight and it drops, I hold it via the top and the bottom and I am at full signal. I would like to point out that in my tests you have to grip your phone very firmly with your left hand for this issue to occur, than again ones firmness could be anothers softness. I wrote an article about the iPhone 4, because I didn't see yours.

Alex_ 0 Junior Poster

Techwriter10, what about multitasking? Computers and phones where able to multi task decades ago... but iphone decided to disable multitasking in iphone3g,3gs,ipad... and just now they enabled it with iphone4. They planned not to multitask until now. That's a planned obsoleteness so that they can sell as many as products possible.

Techwriter10 42 Practically a Posting Shark

Hey Tiger:
Thanks for sharing your experiment. I guess it's just not a real issue for most people unless you're feeling really tense that day and are gripping the phone so hard, it makes it happen.

I was having a little fun with that aspect of the letter, but I still think it's a ridiculous response that deserved ridicule.

There's plenty of room for multiple articles on a subject from multiple points of view.

Always great to hear from you.


Techwriter10 42 Practically a Posting Shark

My understanding is that they don't have multitasking on previous iPhones because they don't have the processing power to deal with it and it will kill the battery too quickly. The iPhone is an amazing computing device. You're probably right that Apple manipulates the upgrade path to some extent, but that's not necessarily sinister, it's just business.

It's not as though they are forcing you to upgrade just for multi-tasking. There are multiple other reasons including the improved display, improved battery life, faster processer, 5 mpixel camera, HD Video, Facetime, front and back camera, flash for the camera, telephoto zoom for the camera.... and so forth. They give you a lot of bang in the upgrade for the buck.

But I get your point. I just don't see that there's anything wrong with it.

Thanks for your comments. I welcome push back.


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