Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/3821/iphone-4-redux-analyzing-apples-ios-41-signal-fix



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

Brian came up with the plan to enable the numerical signal strength visualization and executed on it very well in our original iPhone 4 review. Since then there’s been a disturbing amount of debate as to whether or not this actually amounts to a problem with the phone.

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that doing this sort of antenna testing in a real world scenario is time intensive. As Brian mentioned on the previous page, for today’s article both of us were driving around our respective cities, stopping at various locations, measuring signal strength and comparing it to bar mappings in order to produce the charts you saw on the other page.

There’s no denying that Apple has played a significant role in why there continues to be debate about the iPhone 4 antenna. By simply addressing the pre-4.0.1 bars not being a good representation of signal strength and ignoring the fact that the iPhone 4 does lose more signal strength than competing phones depending on how you hold it, Apple manages to convince its faithful that there’s nothing wrong while driving its critics to demand a recall.

My mother always taught me that honesty is the best policy and presumably I’m not the only one in the world who was privy to this information. Had Apple come clean with both of these facts (the bar mapping and the signal attenuation issue) early on we’d be in a far more clear cut world today.

We have consistently argued that the 4’s antenna is a design choice by Apple. As we’ve seen in our testing there are situations where the iPhone 4’s antenna makes things better (e.g. holding onto calls with very low signal strength) and other situations where the design makes them worse (e.g. holding it wrong in situations with low signal strength). I wanted to describe the inconsistency in greater detail so I went out with an iPhone 3GS and 4 and documented my experiences.

In practice I found three things that were true about the iPhone 4’s antenna behavior compared to the 3GS.

Reception in average conditions is sometimes significantly better on the iPhone 4 than on the 3GS. Take a look at the image capture below. In the same exact location we have better reception on the 4 than the 3GS. Granted this could be due to a number of variables outside of the phone’s antenna itself, but it happened enough times that it’s worth reporting. This is the positive to Apple’s external antenna design - you can and do get better reception. Unfortunately the tradeoff is the scenario I just described before this.


iPhone 4 (left) at -81 dBm vs. iPhone 3GS (right) at -94 dBm

Signal strength is sometimes the same as or worse than the iPhone 3GS. This is really where the problem comes into play. In the shot below I have the 4 and 3GS sitting next to one another and they are displaying roughly the same signal strength. We’ve already proven that holding the iPhone 4 attenuates its signal more than the 3GS, which results in the frustration we’ve seen expressed by many at this point. In situations where the 4 has the same signal as the 3GS, holding the phone is going to drop it to levels significantly worse than the 3GS. If you’re in an area with low signal strength to begin with, holding the phone is going to bring you down to dangerously low levels.


iPhone 4 (left) at -103 dBm vs. iPhone 3GS (right) at -104 dBm


iPhone 4 being held tightly (left) at -115 dBm vs. iPhone 3GS being held tightly (right) at -107 dBm


iPhone 4 (left) at -77 dBm vs. iPhone 3GS (right) at -66 dBm

The iPhone 4 is better at holding onto calls and data at very low signal levels. We’ve mentioned this one before but it’s worth reiterating. The new antenna does let me make calls and transmit data at very low signal strength. With the iOS 4.0.1 update I was able to make a call at -115dB on the 3GS, however the call did drop within a minute of starting it. By comparison I was able to have a much longer conversation without dropping the call at -120dB on the 4. By no means is this a scientific comparison, but anecdotally both Brian and I feel that the low signal strength performance of the iPhone 4 is better than the 3GS.


A call at -120 dBm on the iPhone 4

If you’re keeping tabs you’ll note that this is what is traditionally referred to as a trade off. Apple opted for good performance in low signal situations (and style of course) over maintaining consistently better or unchanged radio performance compared to the 3GS. I would personally consider this to be an unnecessarily risky design choice, particularly for a smartphone vendor. Note that it's nearly impossible to separate out the antenna from the rest of the iPhone 4 platform to determine exactly what is responsible for the phone's signal sensitivity in various situations. All we ultimately know is how physically interacting with the antenna impacts reported signal strength.

I can’t stress enough that this issue impacts all users. The variability is in how strong of a signal you have to begin with. That’s the absolute only reason there’s debate in these discussions from phone to phone. At my desk I don’t get great reception on AT&T. With the iPhone 4 I’m usually at -96dBm. If I keep a tight grip on the phone or if I’m holding it to send text messages I can sometimes lose all signal entirely. This is a combination of poor reception at my house and the fact that the 4 loses more of its signal than other phones when held certain ways.

Brian on the other hand has much better reception at his home. To him, the signal strength drops but it does not drop enough for this to be a problem. I consider myself to be on the border. If I’m mindful of how I’m holding the phone it’s not an issue, and even most of the time if I’m not paying attention to it it’s not an issue. However there are definitely times when it does become a problem. I wouldn’t consider it to be the majority of the time or even more than 10% of the time, but it happens enough for me to have to think about it. Ultimately this is why I consider Apple’s design here to be unnecessarily risky. Introducing a change with stylistic and technical benefits where the downside is limited but potentially very noticeable is just ballsy.

Luckily for Apple, there are things that can be done about it.



Mitigating the Problem with Tape/Gloves

I originally tested the iPhone 4 in a number of different positions in the hand, and in a bumper case, and generated the signal strength drops reported in our previous article.

Signal Attenuation Comparison in dB - Lower is Better
  Cupping Tightly Holding Naturally On an Open Palm Holding Naturally Inside Case
iPhone 4 24.6 19.8 9.2 7.2
iPhone 3GS 14.3 1.9 0.2 3.2
HTC Nexus One 17.7 10.7 6.7 7.7

After getting those numbers, my first thoughts were that two dominant effects were responsible for the iPhone 4 signal drop being measured. The first was detuning due to capacitance added by the hand making galvanic contact with the stainless steel, and possibly even coupling the two discrete antennas together. The second was simply attenuation due to our meatbag extremities (read: hands) being not perfectly transparent to RF at 850 MHz and 1.8 GHz. I made some Star Trek references that some of you caught about us being bags of mostly water - it’s true, and it’s something Apple has emphasized heavily in its letter - that all phones drop signal when your hand is in between the path to the base station antenna. The real question was how much of that 24 dBm drop was due to galvanic contact with your capacitive hands (detuning), and how much was due to your hands being mostly water, and so close to the radiative surface.

Almost immediately after the issue was identified, many took it upon themselves to apply adhesive insulative tape to the troublesome area. Others suggested testing with rubber gloves on to see how much the issue changed. I set out to test both.

Allow me to introduce you to my friend Kapton tape.

No, it isn’t a gold iPhone 4, nor have I dipped the stainless steel band in gold (you have no idea how many people have asked) - it’s the native amber color of the world’s most awesome tape. I managed to find a roll of 1-mil thick Kapton tape that is exactly the right width of the iPhone 4’s stainless steel band. It’s miraculous really how exact the match is, without any cutting or tweaking, it just fits.

What makes Kapton the most conclusive choice of tape here ever (and not your grandpa’s electrical tape or duct tape) is that it’s the industry standard for flexible printed circuits. In fact, it’s what’s used to insulate just about every flex PCB antenna around. The tape obviously has a huge impedance, so when I hold it, I’m insulated completely from the stainless steel band.

I wrapped the tape all the way around the phone - not just the lower left trouble corner - to guarantee complete insulation. Of course, it’s impossible to use the phone like a phone this way since you cover the dock connector, speakers, and microphones, but just for testing. The other thing the tape simulates is how the iPhone 4’s antenna would behave with a thick 1-mil (25.4 µm) coating. To test, I cupped the phone just like I did to cause the 24 dBm drop before.

I also took an ordinary natural latex glove (yes, really) and held the iPhone, this time without any Kapton tape wrapped around the phone. Nothing special here, just a laboratory glove and cupping the phone.

The results speak for themselves.

Signal Attenuation Comparison from Cupping Tightly in dB - Lower is Better
  Bare Phone 1 mil Kapton Tape Coating Applied Natual Latex Rubber Glove on Hand
iPhone 4 24.6 16.6 14.7
iPhone 3GS 14.3 N/A N/A
HTC Nexus One 17.7 N/A N/A

Instead of a 24.6 dB drop from cupping the phone tightly without a case, with bare skin, we see a 16.6 dB drop with tape all the way around, and a 14.7 dB drop wearing a rubber glove. Insulating the stainless steel completely from the hand completely results in 9 dB less of signal drop. The remaining 16 dB is then due to the hand being so close to the phone.

The takeaway is that the best coatings Apple could possibly apply would bring the drop down to 15 or 16 dB - in league with the Nexus One’s worst case drop, and almost in league with the iPhone 3GS worst case drop. It’s hard to argue that bringing the signal drop down to levels other phones have been selling with for a year now isn’t a problem solved type solution.

However, adding tape won’t completely eliminate the drop in received signal, nor does it mitigate the problem nearly as much as getting a case. In fact, if you’re really concerned about dropping signal on any phone, you should get a case anyways. It demonstrably reduces the signal attenuation added by having your hand so close to the radiative surface of the antenna.

Oxide on Stainless

I talked with a number of materials science wizards, and picked their brains about the possibility of applying a nonconductive coating to the iPhone 4’s stainless steel antenna bands.

The response I got back was that stainless steel is difficult to coat by very nature of it being “stainless.” The metal unsurprisingly develops a dull oxide which itself is a poor conductor, but forms a protective layer that resists tarnishing and corrosion. This same layer that makes the metal stainless makes it difficult to coat. Some grades of stainless are apparently much easier to coat than others, but nearly all grades would require abrasion or chemical etching, followed by vapor deposition of the coating.

It’s not impossible to coat though, and if rumors that new iPhones built in recent weeks are rolling out with coatings turn out to be true, it’s obviously being done. But coating the stainless steel bands is obviously something Apple had to have considered.

Update

I originally thought my Kapton tape was 5-mils thick, turns out it's 1-mil thick Kapton Polyimide, with adhesive for a total of about 2-mils of thickness. It's P-221 Permacel branded tape billed as the "ultimate" in electrical insulation.

Total Silent Recall?

Gizmodo reported (and iFixit followed up) on some users claiming that newer iPhone 4s had a different coating on their stainless steel band that mitigated the signal attenuation issue caused by tightly holding the phone. In theory, with the right coating, Apple could deliver the same sort of results we just showed using the Kapton tape. To date we haven’t been able to get our hands on one of these iPhone 4s with improved coating.

We found an iPhone 4 produced in week 28 of 2010 (digits 4 & 5 from the left of the iPhone 4’s serial number indicate production week) and took a multimeter to it. There was no measurable difference in resistance between it and our older iPhone 4s. In other words, the band was just as conductive. While this doesn’t rule out the possibility of Apple changing the manufacturing process on the phone, I wouldn’t waste time trying to hunt down a phone manufactured on a specific date just yet.

Proximity Sensor

Until two days ago neither one of us had experienced the proximity sensor issue with the iPhone 4. The proximity sensor on the iPhone detects if your face is close to the screen, like it would be during a phone call. If it does so, the iPhone turns off its screen to avoid any accidental input and save power. The proximity sensor issue manifests itself by the phone incorrectly assuming that you aren’t holding the phone up to your head and turning the screen back on. This happens in the middle of a call and often results in your cheek doing things on your phone without your knowledge.

Two days ago I was on a phone call when the proximity sensor all of the sudden decided that my face was no longer near the phone. My cheek then navigated into my contact list and tried to FaceTime with another contact while I was on the phone. I didn’t find out until the iPhone complained that a FaceTime connection couldn’t be established (due to the contact my cheek was trying to FaceTime with not having an iPhone).

I’m on the phone quite a bit and so far this was the first and only time the proximity sensor bug cropped up. We’re still looking into it but so far we can’t tell what the root cause is or if it’s helped by iOS 4.1.



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.

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now