In case you haven’t noticed, the iPhone 4’s antenna design has come under considerable scrutiny. In our iPhone 4 review, we investigated the iPhone 4 antenna and came to two conclusions. First, that iOS 4 was displaying signal bars in an overly optimistic manner, compressing the dynamic range of possible signal bars users can see. Second, we identified a worst case signal drop of around 24 dB when the iPhone 4 is cupped tightly in the left hand, covering the black strip and possibly detuning the antennas and adding additional attenuation from the presence of the hand.

Since those initial measurements, we’ve been working tirelessly to both characterize the problem, fully understand the mechanisms behind it, and report on a number of possible solutions.

The Bars Have Changed

On July 2, Apple released a letter noting that the formula used in iOS 4.0 to calculate how many bars are presented for each signal strength is “totally wrong.” This mirrored our conclusions that the effects of the signal drop were exacerbated in part by the way the iPhone visualizes signal strength - the dynamic range is compressed so much that the 24 dB drop from cupping the phone without a case could make all the bars go away.

They went on to promise that in a future software update they would make bars 1, 2, and 3 taller, and make the bars more “accurate” by displaying 2 bars fewer in certain circumstances.

iOS 4.1 beta rolled around yesterday, and we immediately dove in to find out just how much the bar to signal strength mapping has changed. Update: iOS 4.0.1 final just came out this afternoon and we finished preliminary testing. The signal strength mapping algorithms are identical to the 4.1 beta. The findings in this article apply to 4.0.1 as well as the 4.1 beta.

After updating our devices to the iOS 4.1 beta (and 4.0.1) and making sure our little trick to show signal strength in dBm instead of bars still worked, we set off. Remember last time how I said I drove around town all day with iOS 4.0, testing the phone, and recording signal strength and how many bars were being shown? You guessed it - another update, another evening of driving around. Anand and I did quite our fair share of moving around to get a complete picture of what the new cutoffs are.


Old Bars


New Bars

The results are conclusive - Apple has dramatically changed the signal strength to signal bar mapping in iOS 4.0.1 and the iOS 4.1 beta, making the dynamic range not only much broader, but the range values for each bar much wider. The range of signals that correspond to bars three and four are the same width, and bar two is only slightly less.

The cutoff value for two bars to one bar remains the same, but every other value has increased. The result is that the worst case drop of 24 dBm no longer makes all the signal bars disappear, but rather two.

AnandTech reader Mike Escoffery, Director of Design and User Experience at Media Platforms, created his own diagram to help compare the old and new way of iOS signal strength reporting:

As you can see the old way (top) put far too much weight into the 5th bar of signal. Apple's new approach not only splits it up more reasonably between the 4th and 5th bar (still non-linearly keeping you in the 5th bar if possible) but also extends the range of the lower bars.

This change actually presented itself in our numeric signal strength reports - there’s more dynamic range in these numbers too. Previously, the absolute lowest value any iPhone would report was -113 dBm. With iOS 4.0.1/4.1, the value is now a shockingly low -121 dBm. In the iPhone 4 review, I talked a lot about how although the phone is prone to dropping signal from being held wrong, it was measurably more sensitive in weak signal areas. I was shocked that calls and data worked seemingly unfazed at -113 dBm. It seems as though this increased 8 dBm of range below -113 dBm was meant to show really how much more sensitive the radio stack is - it undeniably is more sensitive. Both Anand and I were able to hang onto calls all the way down at -121 dBm.

We’ve also included a comparison to how the latest version of Android displays signal bars from GSM or UMTS networks below. Thankfully, this didn’t require driving around town all day but rather inspecting the latest version of the Android source code from Google’s own repositories. Android uses an ASU value to compute signal strength, which isn’t anything more than a remapping of dBm to a sane value that’s a bit easier to interpret.

Apple’s mappings have gone from having probably the most compressed dynamic range among handset vendors to less compressed than Android.

While the software update obviously does not and cannot address the design of the antenna itself - or make the drop from holding the phone any less - it does change the way the issue is perceived among users. The result is that most iPhone users will see fewer bars disappear when they hold the iPhone 4 in a bare hand. The side effect is that the iPhone now displays fewer bars in most places, and users that haven’t been reporting signal in dBm will time see the - perhaps a bit shocking - reality of locations previously denoted as having excellent signal.

Interestingly enough, Apple has indeed changed the heights of bars 1, 2, and 3. They’re taller, and the result is that the relative heights are no longer linear, but rather a tad exponential looking. It’s a mind trick that Apple no doubt hopes will make the signal look better. If the bars are taller, they must denote stronger signal, right?


From top to bottom: iOS 4.1, iOS 4.0, Android 2.2

The reality is that Apple likely wants to deflect at least some of the initial backlash AT&T will face for reporting the signal bars without any concessions. Concessions that used to make coverage look better than it really is. Regardless of how tall the bars are, there are still going to be fewer of them virtually everywhere. Interestingly enough, while bars 1 and 2 are the most changed, their respective cutoffs are virtually unchanged.

While I was testing iOS 4.0.1, I told Anand that the signal reporting lie that started with the iPhone 3G had been removed entirely. That iOS 4.0.1 would potentially show the reality of AT&T’s coverage to iPhone users. With 4.0.1 users looking at signal bars will get a much more realistic view of how signal is changing. 

We tested the iOS 4.1 beta on iPhone 3GSes as well, and found the mappings to be the same there as well.

Better at the Low End, Mixed Feelings Everywhere Else
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149 Comments

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  • relentlessfocus - Thursday, July 15, 2010 - link

    Thanks for your professional approach and your in-depth analysis. It's a shame that Apple didn't handle this better, maybe they've learned something for the future and will be a better company as a result. I have to say that I love my iPhone 4.

    Keep up the good work!
    Eric

    Reply
  • AlexE - Thursday, July 15, 2010 - link

    "...we identified a worst case signal drop of around 24 dBm..."

    should say "a drop of around 24 dB". The difference between two referenced dB values (-10 dBm and -34 dBm for example) is actually expressed in dB, not dBm. As an electrical engineer, I couldn't leave that uncommented :p
    Reply
  • Brian Klug - Thursday, July 15, 2010 - link

    Dang, I thought I fixed all those! I totally agree - drops are dB, while the values themselves are dBm. Fixed now! ;)

    -Brian
    Reply
  • Cat - Thursday, July 15, 2010 - link

    Please don't use a marketing term. Many people hold the phone in a way that is bad for the iPhone 4, and have held it that way for more than a decade. Calling this grip "wrong" is wrong. Reply
  • cmdrdredd - Thursday, July 15, 2010 - link

    Yep...There is no wrong. A Phone should always work if the signal is reading good no matter how I hold it.

    As an aside, I came to this site originally because I built a PC and wanted info on the latest PC hardware and needed reviews on what was the best overclocking components and best bang for the buck video cards etc. There is a reason I didn't buy a Mac and am not reading a Mac centric website instead. I don't give a crap about Apple products or their newest laptop that is $2000 too expensive (I don't really care what type of battery life you can claim, I am always near an outlet and if I'm not, I'm only hours away from one and my laptop will work fine for those short couple hours). If I wanted that info I'd go to an Apple/Mac site and read it all there.

    So in truth, I agree with those who say that the Apple articles and apologetic tone is out of hand.
    Reply
  • Snaafu - Thursday, July 15, 2010 - link

    For someone that doesn't give a crap about Apple products you know a lot about price, battery life, and how to hold the iphone :p Reply
  • cmdrdredd - Saturday, July 17, 2010 - link

    Yeah...your argument is what? Exactly...as worthless as Apple articles defending flawed hardware. Reply
  • SharksFan - Monday, July 19, 2010 - link

    What a painful argument.

    So -24db drops means "broken", then what is the Nexus One's -17 drop?

    3/4 broken?

    What about -17db drops against a -113 cutoff? Isn't that identical to -24db drops against a -121db cutoff?

    So I guess the Nexus One is broken too?
    Reply
  • mesiah - Thursday, July 15, 2010 - link

    Did anyone else chuckle at the thought of Anand's cheek wanting to get some "Facetime" with a contact? Reply
  • eliotw - Thursday, July 15, 2010 - link

    If the iPhone 4 is able to transmit voice and data at lower signal levels then in most scenarios doesn't that compensate for the possible increased attenuation? So doesn't it generally perform on par with the 3GS and sometimes it's better? Why would this deserve some rushed urgent "fix" ? Reply

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