Dear Apple: Thanks For Writing, But I'm Still Confused

By  |  Friday, July 2, 2010 at 9:39 am

So Apple has finally issued an official response to all the chatter about the iPhone 4 seeming to lose signal strength when you hold it by the lower left-hand corner. The gist of Apple’s letter to iPhone 4 users: There is no reception problem. Instead, the iPhone 4–all iPhones, actually–sometimes displays more bars than it should, leading users in areas with poor coverage to think that reception is better than it really is. The company will fix this in a software update.

Well, okay, except…I think this will do little or nothing to end the controversy. There are numerous bits of data on the Web that involve the iPhone 4 dropping calls or suffering dramatic slowdowns when held by the lower left-hand corner, not simply displaying a signal meter indicator that may be overoptimistic.

Mark Sullivan of PCWorld:

In three of my testing locations, connection speeds dropped to zero or near zero when I held the phone against my left palm. The number of connection bars showing dropped from five out of five to just one or two out of five.

Here’s Insanely Great Mac touching the lower left-hand corner and getting dropped calls.

John Gruber noticed download speeds dropping by a third (but remaining better than the iPhone 3GS) when he held the phone by the lower left-hand corner.

Cameron Hunt found a spot on the phone that works like a pause button for 3G reception.

Me, I ran SpeedTest.net’s iPhone app a few days ago and got much slower results when I held the phone by the lower left-hand corner. I tried to replicate these results just now, and the phone’s speed numbers wildly varied from test pass to test pass no matter how I held it–which goes to show that there are a zillion factors which impact how well any phone will work.

Apple says that its tests show that the iPhone 4 has the best reception of any phone it’s made, and that all phones can suffer from reception issues depending on how they’re grasped. Brian Krug and Anand Lai Shimpi of AnandTech ran some ambitious tests of their own and they were impressed with the phone’s overall performance (while also concluding that lower left-hand corner issues are real). The phone is capable of uploading data massively faster than the 3GS.

But unless a lot of smart people are suffering from mass hallucination, I don’t see how the software glitch Apple detected (completely) explains what’s going on here. And Apple, being full of smart people itself, understands that. Right?

 
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19 Comments For This Post

  1. Mike Cerm Says:

    This is NOT a software problem, but Apple thinks it can make it less problematic by changing how it reports signal strength. Going from 5 bars to 0 is bad, and looks REALLY bad when you can easily duplicate the results, and then post them to YouTube. But, what if instead of 5 bars, you only had 2 to begin with? That would seem like less of a drop.

    That's Apple's fix; they're going to show you fewer bars in weaker signal areas. I suspect they might change their sampling frequency as well, so that instead of getting a 5-bar drop in 15-30 seconds, you'll have to hold the phone for a minute or so to have the same drop (which should make the YouTube videos less interesting).

    If Apple is claiming their hardware is sound, and it's just the way they report signal-strength that's to blame, doesn't this just open up to more questions about "Why have you been lying to us for 3 years, intentionally misrepresenting the strength of AT&T's network?" Seems to me, by trying to avoid the hardware recall and class-action lawsuits, they're opening the door to more class-action lawsuits.

    Also, who was in charge of the "misreporting"? Did AT&T request a software tweak from Apple at some point to show "more bars in more places"? I'm SURE they did, so Apple's pretty much throwing them under the bus here, too (which is fine with me, because AT&T belongs under a bus, as far as I'm concerned).

  2. chartier Says:

    Steve Jobs has been plainly acknowledging the signal attenuation issue in various email responses which, unlike yesterday's BGR conversation, have not been refuted by Apple. The company reiterated its stance on the topic at the beginning of the second paragraph of today's statement:

    "…gripping almost any mobile phone in certain ways will reduce its reception by 1 or more bars. This is true of iPhone 4…"

    Lots of cell phone manuals have variations of "don't hold it that way" instructions, such as the Nokia 6126:
    http://davebc.com/post/735870112/iphone-4-nokia-d

    And you can see the same signal attenuation problem demonstrated the the Nokia E71:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amPG52DVQuk&fe

    As well as the iPhone 3GS and 3G:
    http://youtu.be/AN6265QQwhU http://youtu.be/EMpXTjkFYyU

    and similar issues have been reported on other phones, including the Nexus One and other Nokias:
    http://www.macrumors.com/2010/06/24/other-mobile-

    Unless I'm missing something, it feels like this issue has been passed over by the tech industry for a long time, and is only now being blown way out of proportion because Apple made the mistake of promising "magic" and "revolution."

  3. Mike Cerm Says:

    I think that part of the problem is that Apple's "revolutionary, magical" antenna was discussed for several minutes during Steve's keynote, when the iPhone 4G was unveiled. Something as boring and mundane as antenna design and placement is not something that gets brought up when handset manufacturers are revealing their latest innovations, so Apple was inviting the scrutiny when they made such a big deal about their new design.

    The iPhone has historically had poor reception (dropping more calls than other handsets, given the exact same network conditions), and this was touted as the solution that everyone has been waiting for. At a minimum, they over-promised and under-delivered.

  4. Singer Says:

    It's a software problem with respect that the signal loss is being exaggerated by the loss of bars.For example, if you were at two bars it would only go down to 1 bar. If you were truly at four bars it would have gone down to three, etc. That's why not everyone is having the problem.

    The reality is that all phones when held certain ways depending on where there antennae is will lose strength.

  5. chartier Says:

    It's such a messy issue though, since many users, including myself, are experiencing better reception and call quality in most cases. If I really try, I can create the signal attenuation problem, but that's not how I naturally hold my iPhone in my left hand. AnandTech also found that the iPhone 4 does actually experience better reception than previous iPhones, and speed tests show better results too (especially when uploading data).

    So it's really just about whether owners hold the phone "that way" in this one spot, which has been an reality of many (or most? perhaps *all?*) phones all this time.

  6. @heulenwolf Says:

    There is plenty of technical uncertainty in wireless communications. What happens in the near field of an antenna, especially when pressed up against a big bag of water doped with all sorts of other chemicals in an inconsistent fashion, is too complex for analytical models and requires compute-intensive, iterative numerical modeling as well as verification testing of those models to accurately predict. Even among experts, designing a good RF antenna is seen as more an art than a science unless its several wavelengths away from anything that could interact with it.

    That being said, plenty of other wireless handset vendors seem to have avoided the problems iPhone 4 appears to be having where the presence of a hand on the handset destroys the signal in some scenarios. Is the iPhone a victim of its own success, subject to greater scrutiny by a wider audience than other phones due to its popularity, or is there a fundamental problem with the handset design that is part of the complex problem? My guess is there's a fundamental problem that was hidden by all the other uncertainties in wireless communications. Apple PR appears to be using that uncertainty to its advantage by challenging the public to prove the unprovable: that no one else has this problem and that nothing else could be the cause.

  7. Peter Says:

    The software update won't necessarily solve the problem with holding the phone "the wrong way." What it will do is more accurately show you your signal strength. This can be helpful.

    Let's say my phone shows me five bars. I grab the lower left corner and it shows me three bars. Well, three bars should be enough to make a phone call, right? But the reality is that I only had three bars–not five. And now, after grabbing it in the lower left corner, I have 1 bar. If I see this, I might think twice about making that call–or move my hand.

    Again, this won't solve the dropped calls problem. All it does is let you know that you really don't have the connectivity that you think you do.

  8. R2D2 Says:

    R2D2 here,

    Apple Inc. said Friday that it was "stunned" to find that its iPhones have for years been using a "totally wrong" formula to determine how many bars of signal strength they are getting. Since Job’s first fix “you’re holding it wrong” did not sell well he now has the solution: Use software to pretend that the hardware is working. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Oh, and that new software will also make you weigh ten pounds less and will add 10K to your bank account. Ahhhhhhahahahaha! Oops, help me Obi-Wan! I laughed so hard I fell over and can’t get up.

    It’s July and hot on Earth. Better drink up that Kool-Aid.

    No such problems with my Droids. The hardware is the best in the galaxy. You earthlings can expect another delivery very soon. The Millennium Falcon has just jumped to hyperspace to get my Droids there without delay.

    The Force is with us! R2D2

  9. James Says:

    I don't think they're saying the issue is not real. Or even that this "fix" will fix it. They're saying that the issue is being framed incorrectly. Some people are claiming that the issue takes a phone with a 100% signal and bring it all the way to 0%. That would indeed be a huge design defect.

    Imagine if Apple's signal gauge had been correct at launch. People would be complaining that holding the iPhone a certain way when you had only one bar was causing it to drop calls. I think that complaint would not have resonated as much with the public or press because people would rightly counter that blocking the antenna in a one bar area is an expected behavior. People would intuitively understand that yes the way you hold your phone when you barely have a signal is a factor.

  10. Tim Says:

    Let's review here:
    1. Apple IMPROVES reception tremendously in the iPhone 4.
    2. People are now able to get a signal in places with low reception WHERE THEY PREVIOUSLY COULD NOT.
    3. However, sometimes, the signal in those places remains tenuous, and is susceptible to local interference effects like hand placement. So they experience more dropped calls. Even though they wouldn't have had a chance to make any call at all with a previous generation iPhone.
    4. Lawsuits ensue.
    5. Remember, Anandtech showed that other phones are also susceptible to cupping it in your hand, just like the iPhone 4. (Why don't those phone owners complain about it? Maybe they can't make calls in the first place from those tenuous areas where iPhone 4 users can?)

    What a screwed up society we live in.

  11. Wayne Says:

    Did you even read your own article?

    "John Gruber noticed download speeds dropping by a third (but remaining better than the iPhone 3GS) when he held the phone by the lower left-hand corner."

    See the part about BETTER THAN THE IPHONE 3GS? You know, as in an improvement? As in superior to? This is what anandtech saw as well: even after the drop, which is larger (relative-wise) than other phones, it had markedly superior reception then the 3GS.

    This turns the complaints into people complaining that if the road is wet a Porsche drops its top speed way more than a Toyota Prius. The bottom line is, wet or dry, the Porsche is way faster, but the whiners can't accept that.

  12. Keith Shaw Says:

    Apple wants to be Obi-Wan Kenobi, wave their arms and go, "You don't have an antenna problem." Oh, yeah, we don't have an antenna problem. Move along. Funny, since they could also be saying, "Those aren't the Droids you're looking for."

    Heh.

  13. 3D TV Review Says:

    The iPhone has historically had poor reception (dropping more calls than other handsets, given the exact same network conditions), and this was touted as the solution that everyone has been waiting for. At a minimum, they over-promised and under-delivered.

  14. Harry McCracken Says:

    I dont quite understand the notion of not reading something one wrote oneself, but I get that John Gruber found that the 4's reception was better than the 3GS's even when held in the grip of death–which is why I mentioned it. The only point of this post is that I don't understand Apple's apparent contention that the antenna controversy involves faulty depiction of the reception bars. Gruber and others seem to have found that reception–not depiction of reception–is impacted depending on how you hold the phone.

    –Harry

  15. winc06 Says:

    The way I understand it is that your hand will drop the signal by a certain percentage, not completely. If the signal indication is optimistic then you do not have a clue that you might be in a weak signal area in which your hand is significant in getting you disconnected when it would only reduce the signal but still allow calling in a strong signal area. It is a problem when all signal indications look strong.

  16. Tech Says:

    It's a half-assed explanation from apple.

  17. Bart Says:

    Several items deserve comment.

    Signal Bar Display. There are many articles on the web by now which study the performance of the phone in relation to actual dBm signal strength (nice article at http://www.metalev.org/2010/07/android-vs-iphone-… ). One author converted his rooted iPhone to display dBm in the top left corner instead of the bar display. This would be the best solution for everyone in terms of determining good spots for good performance. The problem is people would have to be taught that -50 to about -85 dBm represents a “strong” signal, that "more minus" represents a weaker signal, and that approximately -110 dBm and below represents “no signal.” My Nexus provides a running dBm display.

    Antenna Design. Apple has touted the concept of the metal band as a much improved antenna (a good diagram of the two antenna elements may be found at http://www.anandtech.com/show/3794/the-iphone-4-r… ). In my view, Apple made a profound error by locating the "7:00 o'clock" gap where it did, exactly where most people hold the phone. I would think that flipping the two antenna elements so that the 7:00 o'clock gap moves over to the right side at 4:00 o'clock would make a good deal of sense and should probably show up in the iPhone 5.

    Finally, to everyone out there who purchased an iPhone 4, clearly a superior product to its predecessors, "don't hold it that way."

  18. jatan Says:

    hahaha lot of Apple loyal fans trying to save Apple's As*. Well can't blame Apple really because this is the first time one of their products is selling, so now they'll understand how difficult it is bring out a perfect thing.
    Hope now you understand what Microsoft goes through. So maybe instead of putting down Microsoft and wasting time over there as till date you guys never had anything else to do, try to come out with a good product for once in your life.

  19. Leslie Says:

    LoL. Yeah, their explanation didn't really explain much. So it pretty much says that your signal bar is useless because it can't tell you how strong your signal really is. But when I think about it, I'd rather it tell me how strong my signal really is instead of giving me false hope. I'm not really sure if Apple's explanation makes it better or worse.
    This is why people should never go rushing to buy a new product, there's always bugs and glitches. :P I'm sure they'll fix it up in no time.
    PS…How annoying it is that your call drops just because of the wrong handling of the phone?

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