Final Words

The new signal strength visualization in iOS 4.0.1 is simply going to be more honest with iPhone users. Whether that's going to result in customers confused about why their phone performs "worse" after the update or simply get really mad at AT&T remains to be seen. In the area of Raleigh, NC that I live in, it's tough to get better than -90 dBm on AT&T without driving a few miles away. Even then you're only at -80 dBm at best. I literally have to drive for about 10 minutes to see a fifth bar on the iPhone 4 now in my area.

Not everyone will like the new bars but you can't fault Apple for being more honest with its users. We'd still prefer if Apple allowed all users to see a numeric readout of their signal strength if they desired, but this is a step in the right direction for transparency at least. Unfortunately, that's only part of the problem.

Yesterday Microsoft’s COO referred to the iPhone 4 as Apple’s Vista. I’d actually take that one step further and call this whole situation Apple’s first Microsoft moment. And I don’t mean that in a bad way towards Microsoft, but rather that as a result of Apple’s own great success, it is now susceptible to the sort of fire that Microsoft has been for years.

When Apple had issues with battery life in Snow Leopard, CPU utilization while playing MP3s in Mac Pros, or even SSDs in 2nd gen unibody MacBook Pros the backlash just wasn’t there. While Mac users care about having problem-free hardware, there simply aren’t enough users to really create the angry mob that has happened in iOS land. Well there are a ton of iPhone users out there. This isn’t going to be the last time that Apple feels the heat.

A large part of it is Apple’s fault. At any company that regularly introduces new products there’s this concept of regression testing. It’s particularly prevalent in technology companies that have to deal with things like driver updates. The idea behind regression testing is to make sure that anything new you introduce doesn’t break anything that previously worked fine. While the iPhone 4’s antenna tradeoff is largely acceptable if you live in an area with good reception, if you don’t then it quickly becomes a problem. This combined with some of the other Apple follies I mentioned above leads me to believe that Apple simply needs to test more. This is something I’ve asked for in previous Mac articles.

And Apple honestly should have been more willing to discuss the issue publicly than it has been. There's no reason Apple couldn't have come public with its own testing showing the same results we showed in our iPhone 4 review.

The phone itself delivers better battery life than anything else in its class, has good performance and a wonderful screen. Whether or not the antenna design manifests itself as an issue really depends on AT&T’s coverage where you’re using the phone. As a result, AT&T can also share in the blame here. As I mentioned in our EVO 4G review, Sprint and Verizon appear to have slower data rates but more consistent coverage wherever I use them. In comparison, AT&T generally offers higher peak transfer rates but reception that varies more wildly.

Criticism that isn't constructive is rarely useful, and as we’ve just shown there are things that Apple can do to address the issue today. Using a bumper the iPhone 4 behaves no differently than the 3GS. Hold the phone as tightly as you want with a bumper and it’ll lose as much signal as a 3GS or Nexus One. Put some sort of insulating coating on the stainless steel band and you’ll significantly reduce, but not eliminate the issue.

Apple iPhone 4 with Bumper Case. Image Courtesy of Sarah Trainor.

The third option would be a redesign of the phone’s internals, potentially even taking a step back to something more reminiscent of the 3GS’ antenna design. I’m not sure this is necessary because of the options on the table today.

Our original assessment still stands: Apple should provide free bumpers to iPhone 4 customers. Nickel and diming is never the way to maintain a loyal customer base. Introducing a non-conductive antenna band and replacing existing phones in the market also makes a lot of sense, assuming Apple has found a way to do that. Apple planned a press conference for tomorrow to talk about the iPhone 4 and presumably these issues. In a little over 24 hours we'll find out how Apple views the situation and what it plans to do about it.

Mitigating the Problem with Tape/Gloves


View All Comments

  • mfenn - Thursday, July 15, 2010 - link


    Can you update the article with the exact part # or a link to that Kapton in the appropriate width?
  • Brian Klug - Thursday, July 15, 2010 - link

    Hey mfenn,

    Updated the article with a link and specifics about the tape. I also discovered that what I thought was 5 mil thick tape is the 1 mil thick Kapton - still an amazing insulator though.

    I didn't buy it online however, rather got it somewhere else locally. I don't know whether you can find that exact size online, but you can definitely cut it.

  • Stokestack - Thursday, July 15, 2010 - link

    And maybe elaborate on why you think the new system is more accurate, considering that (in a digital system) a large range of signal strength does give you "full service".

    Shouldn't a phone show full bars for the entire range of signal strength that gives you totally effective performance? At the weak end is where you see performance variation, so that's where the bars should vary as well.

    What's the point of showing differing numbers of bars through a range that doesn't change the phone's performance?
  • lunarx3dfx - Thursday, July 15, 2010 - link

    The difference, is that rf and digital are two totally different beasts. RF is like nothing you'll ever learn about. I have to deal with it a lot in the work that I do, and while a shift from -117 to -81 doesn't seem like that much, for every 3 dbm gain or loss, you are doubling or halving your signal strength (in wattage), but it still isn't that simple, for example a 10dbm signal will be expressed as 10 mW signal strength, a 20dbm signal will be 100 mW. You can't compare RF with anything else. It is it's own world. Reply
  • rushbc - Saturday, July 17, 2010 - link

    i understand about the RF energy being different than anything, it really is its own world (i know, i work for AT&T).

    but i think stokestack has a good point. if -94 dBm gives you great service and good speed for voice/data, then the end user shouldn't care if the display shows one bar or ten bars--their phone is working, transferring data and voice with no issues. so a large dynamic range of signal strength that shows the end user 5 bars does make sense. five bars simply indicates that you have enough signal to do what you need to do, and your device has enough signal to do what it needs to do.

    but since i do work for AT&T, and since i have talked to AT&T customers, i know that they DO care about the bars. i cannot tell you how many times people will tell me, "hey, i am only getting one bar on my cell phone at my office".
    and i say, "well, can you make and receive calls?"
    and they say, "Yes".
    then i say, "well, can you connect to the internet on your phone without any problems?"
    and they say, "Yes".
    then i say, "well, what is the problem, then, sir?"
    then they say, "but i am only getting one bar!" then i just smile to myself and try not to scream. it's almost like the famous old "who's on first" routine, but in real life.

    so i predict many users will be confused by the "new" bars. and some will be angry. but Apple is doing the right thing by displaying the "more correct" signal bars. honesty really is the best policy.

    Apple should really bite the bullet and completely ditch the whole bars thing.

    it would be another way for Apple to show great leadership, bravery, and innovation. lets just get rid of the silly bars, totally. we need Apple to just go with strict numerical dBm readout. sure people will be confused. sure people will complain. sure there will be a learning curve. but it would be a quick adjustment. and within two years every smartphone in the world would be doing the same thing with numerical readouts in dBm, not bars.
    it's called "standardization" (something completely lacking in signal strength indicators for wireless devices), and it would help the industry, and educate the consumers, and probably improve the wireless networks ability to respond to coverage needs and customer requests for network improvement. it would certainly help wireless consumers better understand how strong or weak their signal really is, and it could help people adjust their expectations accordingly.

    "Death to the Bars!"

    bring on the transparency of dBm numerical readouts on handset displays, i say.

    Disclaimer: I am an AT&T customer and an iPhone owner. I am also an AT&T employee. I do NOT receive any form of compensation for my posts. My posts reflect my own personal opinions and do not necessarily represent AT&T’s positions, strategies or opinions. I also do not possess any "insider knowledge" of future products or future releases. And if I did, I certainly wouldn't tell you! :)
  • anandreader - Sunday, July 18, 2010 - link

    "I just smile to myself and try not to scream..."

    You're not listening to your customers. What they're telling you is that when the signal is weak, the voice quality is very poor. They may not be articulate enough to say that to you but that's the message that's being sent. You're just so fucking self-satisfied with your little syllogism that you're failing to hear the message. At&t's signal is crap in too many locations.

    Your attitude clearly illustrates why people detest At&t.
  • thisma - Wednesday, July 21, 2010 - link

    Anandreader, I suspect that rushbc's interpretation is accurate.

    Occasionally a user will have a real problem but describe it using some idea which is quite remote from the actual problem. I find, however, a good match in my comparison between rushbc's statements and how I expect users do express themselves.

    My applicable knowledge, about how people communicate and what concerns users, has been developed during my several years of professionally teaching people how to use technology including, among other things, computers, phones, audio and video equipment, and all manner of peripherals.
  • oPad - Friday, July 23, 2010 - link

    Wait a minute, it sounds like rushbc asked if there's anything wrong other than the bar strength display and they said "no",
    What's to articulate?
  • thisma - Wednesday, July 21, 2010 - link

    Rushbc, I would love that! I fear however that the most prevalent perspective of users is that they don't care about precision of truth until they understand what that precision means. Even then a 5 bar display is so easy to interpret that a person doesn't even have to consciously check the indicator; if it's low you'll notice that out of the corner of your eye. My preference would be to have both the same way, perhaps, as you can optionally have the battery life indicator shown with the percentage of battery life next to it. Reply
  • bigboxes - Saturday, July 17, 2010 - link

    Sound waves act very similar. Reply

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