Apple stunned to get its signals wrong

In what might seem like a bout of number fudging worthy of a Tory MP's expenses claims, Apple has explained away its antenna woes in a letter to iPhone 4 owners.

It turns out that people aren't getting reduced signals when they grip their phones in a certain way, according to Apple. The real problem is that the phone is erroneously reporting a better signal than it should be until you grab hold of it. Then you get what you really should be seeing.

That's the way we're reading Apple's slightly desperate-sounding missive which we have reproduced for you edification and amusement in full:

Dear iPhone 4 Users,

The iPhone 4 has been the most successful product launch in Apple’s history. It has been judged by reviewers around the world to be the best smartphone ever, and users have told us that they love it. So we were surprised when we read reports of reception problems, and we immediately began investigating them. Here is what we have learned.

To start with, gripping almost any mobile phone in certain ways will reduce its reception by 1 or more bars. This is true of iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, as well as many Droid, Nokia and RIM phones. But some users have reported that iPhone 4 can drop 4 or 5 bars when tightly held in a way which covers the black strip in the lower left corner of the metal band. This is a far bigger drop than normal, and as a result some have accused the iPhone 4 of having a faulty antenna design.

At the same time, we continue to read articles and receive hundreds of emails from users saying that iPhone 4 reception is better than the iPhone 3GS. They are delighted. This matches our own experience and testing. What can explain all of this?

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.

To fix this, we are adopting AT&T’s recently recommended formula for calculating how many bars to display for a given signal strength. 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. We are also making bars 1, 2 and 3 a bit taller so they will be easier to see.

We will issue a free software update within a few weeks that incorporates the corrected formula. Since this mistake has been present since the original iPhone, this software update will also be available for the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 3G.

We have gone back to our labs and retested everything, and the results are the same— the iPhone 4’s wireless performance is the best we have ever shipped. For the vast majority of users who have not been troubled by this issue, this software update will only make your bars more accurate. For those who have had concerns, we apologize for any anxiety we may have caused.

As a reminder, if you are not fully satisfied, you can return your undamaged iPhone to any Apple Retail Store or the online Apple Store within 30 days of purchase for a full refund.

We hope you love the iPhone 4 as much as we do.

Thank you for your patience and support.

Apple

We were one of the first sites to publish a video of the amazing disappearing bars caused by the grip of death, but we have to admit that we've never has a single dropped call on our iPhone 4, despite the handset occasionally displaying just one carrier bar.

Other evidence would also seem to bear out Apple's opinion, no matter how shonky it may sound to the unconverted. Anandtech's eye-wateringly comprehensive review of the iPhone 4 is well worth an hour or three of your time in any case, but the in depth analysis of the handset's wireless capabilities echoes Apple's apparent excuses, and concurs in no uncertain terms that the iPhone 4 has the best reception ever for an Apple mobile.

So Apple seems to have covered all bases. Those who are happy with their shiny new toy will be able to continue to use it safe in the knowledge that they have the best smartphone ever produced (so far). And that Apple will soon fix those pesky bars so that they don't drop like a stone whenever you cuddle it too tightly.

And those who hate the iPhone 4 can go and get a no-questions-asked refund and buy an Android handset instead.

There is, of course, one other category. Web hacks who have never even seen an iPhone 4, let alone lived with one for a week or so, and will write any old cobblers as long as it gets the fanboys on either side of the love it or loathe it divide frothing.

As far as we're concerned, they can just shut up altogether.