Apple delivers inadequate response to iPhone 4 reception problems

Apple has finally come out with a public statement about iPhone reception problems, and it's the kind of non-apology apology that politicians give out when they're caught making outrageously offensive comments about a major ethnic group.

In a letter posted to its Web site this morning, Apple says its iPhone 4 doesn't really have reception problems. The problem, says Apple, is with the formula the iPhone firmware uses to calculate the number of bars of reception it should display -- the company was "stunned" to find the formula is "totally wrong."

Many times, the formula displayed two more bars than it should have displayed. "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."

In other words, the problem isn't that the iPhone only gets a small number of bars of reception in some places. The problem is that it showed 4- or 5-bar signals in some places. Those 4- and 5-bar signals weren't real.

Apple plans to fix the problem in a free software update to be delivered in weeks for the iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, and iPhone 3G. The update won't actually change signal strength, it just changes how the bars are displayed.

Important questions unanswered

The letter from Apple has a couple of problems. One is that it doesn't answer all the important questions. "[W]hy has this problem in bar calculation only come up now and not previously if it has been in practice for two years already?" writes Ars Technica's Jacqui Cheng. "Furthermore, Apple's statement doesn't address the very real issue of handsets losing up to 24dB of signal strength from simple bridging two of the phone's antennas—which is either a serious hardware flaw or another error in how the phone detunes its antennas."

According to credible tests, the iPhone 4 isn't just having a software problem where it sometimes displays too many bars. It actually loses signal when you touch the lower left edge.

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On the other hand, early reviewers say that the iPhone 4 actually gets much better reception than its predecessors. It's "two steps forward, one step back design," writes Daring Fireball's John Gruber, in a funny, satirical post titled, "Translation From Apple’s Unique Dialect of PR-Speak to English of the ‘Letter From Apple Regarding iPhone 4.’"

Gruber writes in Apple's voice, and adds that the iPhone design is "maybe more like three steps forward, because this thing is faster at downloading, 10 times faster at uploading, and most importantly is better at not dropping calls with a weak signal. But, yes, there’s that one step back, wherein it can suffer from unintended attenuation when you bridge the lower-left antenna gap with your skin, and frankly, we’re a little pissed that this one step back is getting all the attention."

Apple concludes its letter -- the real letter, not Gruber's satire -- with a promise that appears, at first, to make the problem all better. But the promise turns out to be deceptive.

Apple says: "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."

Not all it appears to be

Well great! I thought when reading that. If you don't like your iPhone, you can get your money back. What are people so angry about?

But it turns out Apple's promise of a "full refund" is rubbish, it's mushmouthed corporate-speak. In plain English, a full refund is when you get all your money back. But that's not what happens with the iPhone 4; according to the company's refund policy, they'll charge you a 10% "restocking fee," and, if you had your iPhone shipped to you, you're out the cost of shipping.

I have a query in to Apple to confirm that their refund policy applies here; I'm not holding my breath waiting for a reply.

Apple needs to do better in straightening out this problem.

Mitch Wagner

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is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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