Apple customers love to complain about the reception on their iPhones. It turns out it may be worse than it looks.
Apple on Friday said it had solved the mystery of the disappearing bars on its new iPhone 4, a week after some users began complaining that when they held the phone a certain way, the bars indicating signal strength dropped off dramatically. The problem, Apple said, is a software bug that displayed too many bars in the first place, indicating a stronger signal than there really was.
And astonishingly, for a company that obsesses over every detail of its products, Apple said this glitch, which it promised to fix shortly, existed with older versions of the iPhone and had gone undetected for at least two years, if not more.
In other words, Apple has been overstating signal strength all along, and once it fixes that, customers will be able to see just how bad reception really is.
But there is good news too. The much-vaunted antenna — designed specially for the iPhone 4 — works just fine, the company said. In fact, Apple said, the iPhone 4 is the best ever on several fronts, including wireless reception.
Apple gave its explanation in an open letter to customers on its Web site. Company officials declined further requests for comment. AT&T, the sole carrier for the iPhone in the United States, and whose network has been blamed for most of the reception problems, also declined to comment, referring questions about the issue to Apple.
Many customers agree that the iPhone 4 is better at making calls than earlier models. But others say they are skeptical of Apple’s explanation of the vanishing bars.
“This is a public relations pirouette,” said James Katz, director of the Center for Mobile Communication Studies at Rutgers University. “They are trying to exculpate themselves by saying this seeming flaw is not a flaw because it has been there for such a long time. And the fact that they have to brag about how good the new phone is shows their own anxiety.”
Last week Apple said that people who saw their reception bars drop when they held the phone a certain way should simply hold it differently. That comment was greeted with derision by some users, and with snarky barbs by rivals. It sparked scores of Web videos on how to avoid the so-called “death grip” on the iPhone 4. Motorola ran ads for its new Droid X saying one of its great features was that users could hold it any way they want.
In the letter on Friday, Apple said, “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.” The company said the formula “in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength.”
The company explained that sometimes the phone shows four bars when it should show only two. It acknowledged in the letter that people who see a drop of a few bars are most likely somewhere with a weak signal. But, the letter said, they are not aware of that “because we are erroneously displaying 4 or 5 bars.” The letter adds, “Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place.”
With the fix, Apple said, “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.” The fix will also be offered for older iPhones, the 3G and 3GS models, which suffer from the same problem, it said.
Like Apple’s previous response, its admission of a software bug — after suggesting last week that the problem had to do with hardware — is unlikely to diminish either scorn of critics or the sales of the iPhone 4.
“You can’t make something like this up,” said Charles Wolf, an analyst with Needham & Company. “The problem is so ridiculous that it is humorous. But none of this is going to have any impact on sales.”
Apple apologized to users “for any anxiety we may have caused,” and said users who are not satisfied with their iPhone 4 can return it for a full refund within 30 days of purchase. No word on whether it will offer a coupon for Zoloft.