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Apple Says iPhone 4 Reception Mystery Is Solved! AT&T's Signal Was Never Really There!

iphone4 antenna

Never mind all of those quick fixes and videos about iPhone 4 reception dropping out when you hold the new phone a certain way. Never mind the fake Steve Jobs letters telling a customer to relax (or not).

In a newly released letter to customers, Apple — the real Apple — says it's figured out why some iPhone 4 users are experiencing lower bars in their reception when the phone is held a certain way:

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.

This is what many had thought to be the case, and it makes sense since despite the media clamor about iPhone 4 failings based on videos of the "death grip" effect, many other users couldn't replicate the problem at all. And other users reported that the iPhone 4 actually delivered better reception than previous editions of the phone. Apple itself notes this:

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?

So what's happening is this: The iPhone 4's radio frequency and digital signal processing electronics seem to be better than ever at snagging and holding onto a cell phone mast's transmissions when you're at the edge of a signal zone. This is good news, folks.

But when you cover the antenna with your hand, the usually small signal attenuation you cause (which is the case for every phone, as Jobs pointed out previously) is enough to cause the signal strength to drop below what the iPhone 4's amplification and error-correction systems can cope with, causing it to close the transmission and you to lose the call. Since the iOS4 programming is incorrectly over-exaggerating the signal strength on the screen, you then peep at your phone and see four bars dropping down to one or none, and the more passionate owner will shout "Bad Apple!"

When Apple's upcoming free patch is applied to correct its signal meter algorithm, nothing about the phone's radio performance or electronics will change ... it's just that you'll see a weak signal displayed on screen (as you will on any phone at the edge of a signal zone) and won't be surprised when a call drops. Some will still cry foul at this, saying Apple's merely "covering up" the problem. It really isn't. A modern smartphone is genuinely a complex mix of radio frequency circuitry, sophisticated digital hardware, and software—it's a system of systems. Errors like this are almost inevitable, and sometimes defeat a "common sense" (and sometimes incorrect) interpretation.

To keep up with this news, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.