iPhone 4: The bars are a lie

There has been, well, some vigorous discussion this past week about the iPhone 4 and what those bastards at Apple have foisted upon us. People are losing their freaking minds. Lawsuits have been filed. People are threatening to take their phones back. And, of course, people have emailed Steve Jobs directly, with results of varying veracity.

Only, the thing is, it’s really not such a big deal. I know people are angry, and they have every right in the world to feel that way. And I know Apple has been unusually tone-deaf in how they’ve handled this situation, but I also think they’re doing the right thing. So let’s take a step back, look at the situation for what it really is and see how this all sorts out. (This would be a good place to take your happy pills if you need them.)

Design

The single most striking feature of the iPhone design, which you notice even before you see the ZOMG droolworthy screen, is the stainless steel band sandwiched between the two plates of glass. This is not only the structural support for the phone, but also the antenna. The left side, from the headphone jack around past the volume buttons, is the WiFi/Bluetooth antenna, and the rest is the cellular antenna. While this design choice simplifies and minimizes the layout of the phone, it also means that you will, in the act of holding the phone, alter the the reception of the phone as you, who are essentially a bag of salt water as far as RF signals are concerned, change the conductivity of the antenna.

The result is what has become known as the "iPhone Death Grip." If you hold the phone so that your skin bridges the tiny gap between the WiFi and cellular antennas, you can watch in awe and/or horror as your signal bars drop from five to one. This "design flaw" is what all this fuss is about.

Signal attenuation, by the numbers

Sure seems like a design flaw, right? To go from full signal down to nothing just by touching the phone? Touching the phone in the exact same way you see Steve Jobs holding it in just about every picture of him and the iPhone 4 on the web?

Well, maybe, maybe not.

See, the truth is that five bars can be well removed from "full signal," and even that’s kind of a misnomer left over from analog phones that doesn’t mean much in a digital world. Let’s look at the actual math for a minute. This won’t hurt a bit.

Click to read more the by creator of this chartRF signals are measured in negative decibels. The best signal you can get, standing right next to the tower, is -51 dBm. The worst is -113, the point at which AT&T’s towers just stop trying to talk to you. Now, you would think that the bars would be evenly distributed over that 65 dBm range. But the problem is that it’s a logarithmic scale. -100 dBm is ten times weaker than -90 dBm.

As a result, you see a "full" five bars all the way down to -90 dBM. Meaning as soon as you start losing bars at all, you’re not approaching the cliff, you’re already falling off.

This is already confusing, but it gets worse. When you touch the antenna, depending on conditions (moisture, etc.) you will cause the signal to drop by 20-24 dB. If you’re in a strong "five bars" area, this will still leave you with more than 90, and thus still have "five" bars. If you’re sitting right around 90, dropping 24 dB can drop you all the way down to the cut off point, even though you started with "five" bars.

Passing the bar

Only, even that isn’t really the case. Because as I mentioned before, the whole concept of bars is a hold-over from analog cell phones and doesn’t really make sense in a digital world. With digital cell phones, signal is a binary condition. Either you have enough signal to make the call, or you don’t. (It’s the same way with digital TV over the air now. You either get a perfect picture or you get nothing, no more snow that kinda resembles your favorite show.) Numerous reports have shown that the iPhone 4 holds on to a call just fine all the way down to -111 dBm, and holds calls in places the iPhone 3GS would have dropped or not shown service at all.

Apple contends that the iPhone 4 has the best reception yet of any iPhone, and even with the attenuation problem factored in, this does in fact seem to be the case. Personally, I’ve lost a grand total of one call that I can blame definitively on the Death Grip. Granted, when I touched the antenna and dropped the signal enough to drop the call, I was already in an underground parking garage. o_O

Bump the Bumper

Apple raised eyebrows at WWDC when they announced the iPhone 4 by also announcing their first ever case for the iPhone, something they’d previously left to third party companies. The Bumper is a minimalist case that only covers the steel band around the iPhone, leaving the glass front and back mostly uncovered. Once reports of problems with the antenna surfaced, it didn’t take long for people to figure out that 2 + 2 = Conspiracy Theory!

Obviously, they say, Apple knew about this problem, and that’s why they’re ripping us off to the tune of $30 for a band of rubber and plastic to cover up the problem they knew they had! Those bastards!

Maybe, maybe not.

I’ll admit the Bumper is suspicious. And yes, it does seem to reduce, but not completely eliminate, the attenuation. But a wise man once advised to never attribute to malice what could be explained by simple incompetence. And I can also see not only why Apple would have offered the Bumper without knowing anything about the signal issue, but how they never would have seen the signal issue.

The Bumper is good for more than just antenna insulation. It also provides a good deal of shock absorption, something at which steel and glass are notoriously bad. An iPhone 4 wearing a Bumper is much less likely to crack or shatter when dropped to a hard surface on the corner than a naked iPhone. So Apple could have provided it simply because they knew the iPhone 4 might benefit from the extra protection.

As for them knowing about the signal issue, think about how this problem manifests and how Apple tested the phone. You don’t see it at all in strong signal areas where even dropping the full 24 dB still leaves you with five bars. And within the Apple campus at Cupertino, you can bet they have impeccable AT&T signal. So on campus, they’d never notice it.

Of course, they don’t just test it on campus. In fact, we know at least one radio baseband engineer who, while testing the phone in a bar, had a little too much German beer and wound up without his prototype iPhone 4. But we also know from that little escapade that when off of Apple’s campus, the iPhone 4 was hidden inside a specially built case that made it look like a 3GS. And holding it inside that case would have insulated the antenna, similar to how the Bumper works, which means they wouldn’t have seen it there either.

In short, Apple’s testing methodology seemed to guarantee that they’d never the test the iPhone naked and in poor signal at the same time. When they say they were "shocked" to discover this problem, I believe them. I really don’t think they tested it in all possible conditions.

Don’t hold it that way

Apparently, Apple was caught so off guard by this controversy that they they stumbled repeatedly in dealing with it in public. The first time a user emailed Steve Jobs himself about it, or at least the first (only?) one Jobs replied to, Jobs actually told the guy not to hold it that way. This struck most people as flippant and dismissive, which is probably why Apple quickly followed up with an official statement with more careful wording. BGR reported that Jobs also had a longer exchange with someone else where he ended up telling the user to get over it, it’s just a phone. Apple claims this conversation is a hoax, though BGR stands by their reporting.

What we do know is that Apple’s official stance at the time of this writing is that all phones have this issue to one degree or another, but that iOS4 has badly calibrated signal bars that don’t give people a realistic idea of how likely they are to drop a call. This seems to be true, as people have been able to grip other phones from the Moto RAZR to the Google’s Nexus One in ways that cause similar signal drops, and the "hey, my bars are dropping like flies" effect is showing up on older iPhones that have been upgraded to iOS4. Apple is not recalling the phone or even offering free Bumpers as a matter of policy. Instead, they’re going to address this with a software fix.

Can’t fix the signal, so fix the bars

Wait a second. How can a software fix resolve a physical design issue? Because, as with everything in this story, things are more complex than they seem.

The iPhone 4 handles signal differently than other iPhones. Differently than other phones, as near as I can tell. Previously, iPhones tried to home in on the strongest signal from a tower they could find. The problem is that the tower they’re closest to–thereby providing the strongest signal–might also be the most crowded. Or there might be more electromagnetic interference in that area. So even though the signal is stronger, your call quality might actually be worse.

The iPhone 4 seeks out the "best" signal, not necessarily the strongest. It looks for clarity, lack of interference, low traffic on the tower. As a result, and keeping with digital calling’s binary nature, you "do" have a signal with the iPhone 4 more often than you "don’t" compared to older iPhones, even if the reported signal strength is a lower number.

Apple is going to change the way the bars are displayed so they follow AT&T’s guidelines on how many bars to report for a given signal strength. This seems to be another source for angry misunderstanding among the digerati, so pay attention.

Counterintuitively, this change is going to show fewer bars than you had before for any but really strong signals. Where you used to have four or five bars, you might now only see two. But, and this is important, those two bars are more "durable" and a more accurate indicator of what kind of signal you’ve actually had all along. You never really had the kind of signal strength you thought you did if you used to see five bars and now you see two after installing the patch. You always had "two bar" strength, you just didn’t know it. Everyone clear on that?

Let me sum up

So. Should you hold off on buying an iPhone 4 because of this issue? If you already have one, should you take it back? That depends. Are you dropping calls? Are you dropping more calls than you did with your previous phone, iPhone or not? If not, then I wouldn’t worry about it. As mentioned above, the iPhone 4’s antenna is actually better than the 3GS at holding on to a call at low signal strength, so for all practical purposes the numbers don’t matter.

Personally, my iPhone 4 performs at least as well as my iPhone 3G, and offers so many advantages besides, so I’d be a fool to take it back. Do I use a case? Sometimes. Sometimes not. I keep mine in a Griffin Elan Passport Wallet when I’m on the go along with my driver’s license and debit card. But I take it out frequently to sync, use around the house, for use as a GPS and when typing or watching video in the Griffin Travel Stand (no, I’m not sponsored by Griffin, but I wouldn’t turn them down; I like their products). In or out of a case, I don’t notice the “problem” much. It’s just not an issue. Put aside the hype and noise, and you might see the same.

iPhone order FAIL

My attempt to switch from Windows Mobile to the iPhone has been thwarted by AT&T themselves, with an assist by UPS (what can brown screw up for you?). I’m sticking with Windows Mobile for the time being, and might go with the Pre when/if it’s ever released.

I placed my order Sunday, knowing it would be processed Monday morning and with the 2-day air shipping AT&T was offering, I should have it today, Wednesday. However, there’s a problem. Apple dictates that AT&T use the same address as both the shipping address and the credit card billing address on all iPhone orders (this is according to AT&T). When I placed the order, my “billing address” on my debit card was still my old apartment, not the house where I live now. This hasn’t been a problem for me since I get my statements electronically, so it really hadn’t occurred to me to change it. (It’s changed now.) I had to put my old apartment’s address as the billing/shipping address when placed the order or the website wouldn’t approve my card transaction.

I called AT&T Monday morning to let them know that the shipping address was outdated. The customer service agent informed me that she couldn’t change it because it was already at the warehouse being prepared for shipping, and that I should call UPS and have them change the shipping address. This meant I had to sit and compulsively refresh the AT&T order page Monday until it finally showed me a UPS tracking number. Then I called UPS.

UPS informed me that they couldn’t change the destination address until the package had failed delivery. They had to make at least one attempt, then I could change it. So I’d just have to wait until Wednesday, then have them change the address and deliver it to me Thursday.

So I waited. I waited all day Tuesday and all Wednesday morning, checking UPS’s package tracking page to see when they tried to deliver it. Finally, I saw the exception pop up and that they’d tried to deliver it and failed. I called UPS.

They informed me that their contract with AT&T forbids them from changing the delivery address once a package has been shipped, and that there was nothing they could do on my behalf. They did say that AT&T could change the destination from their end.

I called AT&T and they told me that they weren’t able to change the destination address. What I needed to do was refuse the package… At this point I stopped listening and tried to explain that I can’t refuse the package because I DON’T LIVE THERE and they needed to fix this. They had two options, as far as I was concerned. Change the delivery address and get the iPhone to me on Thursday, or cancel the order entirely so I could go buy something else.

AT&T refused to do either. Here’s what they said would happen. UPS was going to try to make two more deliveries to the address where they now know I don’t live. Then, after they fail at an impossible task two more times, they’ll ship the iPhone back to AT&T and only then can I cancel my order.

Call me crazy, but this doesn’t fill me with a warm fuzzy feeling about AT&T and their attention to detail. I got conflicting information from both AT&T and UPS, conflicting not only with each other but with what they themselves had previously told me. I don’t think signing up for a two year stint with AT&T, with this in mind, is the wisest thing I could do right now.

So I’m back to a 2-device solution, my iPod Touch and an HTC Touch Pro with which I’m continually dissatisfied. Even virtually stock with no 3rd party software, the Windows Mobile device is slow, buggy and unreliable compared to the iPod/iPhone. Unfortunately, the iPhone is shackled to only one carrier here in the United States, a carrier that has baffled me by doing what I believed was impossible: providing even worse customer service than Sprint.

Blackberry Blah

While I will concede that Blackberries have become real smartphones rather than the uppity pagers of yore, I have to wonder at the thought behind this particular announcement.

AT&T Relevant Products/Services is preparing for a Election Day sales surge on Nov. 4, when Research In Motion’s BlackBerry Bold will launch at AT&T’s stores nationwide for $299.

Communications – BlackBerry Bold Set for Election Day Launch

So they’re releasing a new product on the same day as the most important election in many of our lifetimes? Because that won’t be a distraction.

There have been rumors floating about for a while that RIM has some serious problems with the Blackberry Bold, among them heat and battery life. Despite the hopeful, happy tone of this press-release-masquerading-an-article, I have to seriously wonder if RIM/AT&T picked this date in hopes of turning what had been a hotly anticipated launch into a safer, lower-profile “soft launch” in hopes that any early adopter complaints would be lost in the hubbub around Obama’s election. And if there really isn’t anything wrong with the Bold, why choose to launch it on a day when absolutely no one will be talking about it?