iOS 4.0.1 and Signal Strength

The iOS 4.0.1 update is out. It claims to “improve the formula to determine how many bars of signal strength to display.”

From my initial (admittedly anecdotal testing), I can confirm a difference in the number of bars displayed. Whether or not the difference is an improvement, I suppose can be debated.

My iPhone includes the Field Test modification that allows me to toggle the status bar to display either bars or a dBm number. [Note: If you haven't already made this change, you can no longer directly do it with an iPhone 4 (as noted here). I was able to retain the feature by restoring my iPhone 4 from my iPhone 3GS backup, which already had the change included.]

Bar shifts. Using this dBm toggle, I can confirm that dBM numbers that formerly were linked to a 5 bar display, now display less bars. For example, dBMs in the range of -85 to -95, now show 3 bars on my iPhone. Previously, they showed 5 bars.

dBM shifts. Interestingly, iOS 4.0.1 also seems to have changed the way the iPhone reports the dBms themselves. Typically, I get fairly poor 3G reception in my office. Previously, my iPhone 4 would often show dBms here below -100, more than occasionally sinking to -113. Now, my iPhone’s dBm numbers almost never sink below -96 and have gotten as high as -78 (a level previously never achieved in my office). By the way, the -78 corresponds to 5 bars.

Does this mean that the reception is actually improved as a result of the update? Or simply that the method of reporting dBms has changed? It is too early for me to say for sure. But I suspect the latter.

Signal strength loss. The big question: What effect does the update have on the loss of signal strength when you hold the iPhone in the “wrong” way? My quick testing suggests that there is not much change. I still see about an 10 – 12 dBM drop off when I squeeze the iPhone in the prescribed manner. Using a Bumper case prevents this loss. However, because the dBM levels are (apparently) improved, the drop off doesn’t descend to the borderline -113 level anymore.

iPad update. Apple also released iOS 3.2.1 for the iPad today. The update “improves Wi-Fi connectivity” as well as fixing a couple of other minor bugs. Interestingly, the update makes no mention of modifying how 3G bars are displayed. Does this mean that Apple believes that the iPad’s method of displaying signal strength is not subject to the same errors as the iPhone? I don’t know. As far as I know, Apple has not commented on this.

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Apple’s Lingering iPhone 4 Problem

With so much already written on the iPhone 4 antenna topic, I want to keep my contribution to the absolute minimum (“if that,” as Chili Palmer might say). Here’s my attempt at brevity:

• The iPhone 4 antenna issue is not going away. As such, Apple should do more than do nothing. Actually, by deleting threads in their Discussions that refer to the Consumer Reports rating of the iPhone, Apple is doing worse than nothing. If Apple believes Consumer Reports is wrong, they should say so. Silence is definitely not golden right now — especially if a fix is still weeks or even months away.

• If Apple’s promised software fix does not truly and totally resolve the issue, Apple should already be working on what else they intend to do.

• Especially if Apple comes out with a redesigned iPhone 4.1, one that eliminates the antenna problem, they will have to deal with satisfying all the people that own an iPhone 4.0.

• I suspect giving a $30 credit for the purchase an iPhone Bumper would be sufficient. It won’t satisfy everyone. Some will complain they still have defective hardware. Or that they don’t want a case. But it will be sufficient.

• All that said, I believe this matter is way overblown. I can exactly duplicate the signal strength shifts described in many of the reports (such as this one). Even so, at a practical level, my iPhone 4 remains connected to the Internet about as well as my iPhone 3GS. I’ve had only the slightest increase in dropped calls — and I can’t even say for sure this is due to the antenna problem. From reports I have read, my experience seems pretty typical.

Unfortunately, as in politics, public perception matters here more than reality.

• I’ve actually had more trouble getting the compass on my iPhone 4 to work. I’ve been plagued with interference messages and incorrect readings. But that’s another story.

• A year from now, people will have trouble remembering what all the antenna fuss was about. Instead, we’ll be lining up for the iPhone 5.

The much larger problem Apple will likely face is competition from Google’s Android phones. I fear that Google may turn out to play the role of Microsoft in the 1990’s. By all accounts, the Droid is not yet on a par with the iPhone (see David Pogue’s review). But its market share continues to grow. And I keep reading blogs from iPhone owners (usually claiming to be fed up with Apple’s “control” policies) switching to a Droid.

The iPhone 4 will surely win the current round in this fight. But, as with Microsoft and Windows, the Droid will improve in the rounds yet to come. The Droid doesn’t have to win every round. It only needs to deliver a knockout in the last round. Eventually, as the Android app library grows and its interface is refined, its more open platform and availability on carriers beyond AT&T will combine to make the Droid a serious threat to the iPhone. Even if it isn’t “better” than the iPhone by some objective measure, the Droid may still be “good enough.” This should and will remain a concern to Apple long after the antenna mess has faded from the scene.

Apple still has the time and resources to finish on top. But it may have to change some of its cherished policies (such as regards its App Store restrictions) to do so. Whether or not it is willing to do this remains to be seen.

Update: July 17: Apple did do something. They held a press conference on July 16. And, in line with my suggestions (although I am certain they got the idea without my help), they announced a plan to give free Bumpers to all iPhone owners.

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iPhone 4 Bumper Bumps USB-Dock Cables

I’ve tried to let this go…on the grounds that it is too trivial to merit an entire article. But I just couldn’t do it.

I’m talking about Apple’s iPhone 4 Bumper.

Initially, I had no intention of buying the Bumper. It didn’t seem necessary. I changed my mind after reading about how it could mitigate the iPhone’s now infamous hand-grip-induced reduced signal strength.

Some have argued that Apple should give free Bumpers to iPhone 4 owners — as a remedy for the signal strength problem. I’m not arguing this.

Others have complained that $29 is too expensive for what amounts to a little strip of rubber and plastic. Perhaps. But it’s a well-designed strip. In any case, that’s not my gripe here.

My concern is the cutout at the bottom of the Bumper. This is where you insert the Dock connector cable (or where you would attach the iPhone to a Dock or similar peripheral). The cutout is so small that virtually all existing docks and cables no longer snap in when the Bumper is in place. As it is not especially convenient to temporarily remove the Bumper, there is no easy work-around. [If you're still not clear exactly what I am describing, check out this Cult of Mac article. It comes complete with photos.]

It is true that the USB-Dock cable that ships with the iPhone (as well as with the iPad and currently shipping iPods) fits through the Bumper. I have heard that some third party peripherals also include a newer slimmed-down compatible connector. However, most do not. At least not yet. Regardless, if you have a prior investment in a collection of cables and peripherals, chances are these will not work with the Bumper. This includes Apple’s own cables that shipped with older iPhones and iPods!

Over the years, I have come to accept the idea that design changes in iOS devices may result in newer models not fitting into older Docks. I have similarly come to terms with the fact that almost any sort of case will prevent an iOS device from connecting to a Dock. As some iPad users have lamented, this includes Apple’s iPad Case preventing an iPad from connecting to Apple’s iPad Dock.

Despite all of this, one thing has remained true (at least for everything that I have owned): No case has prevented a Dock cable from connecting. Until now.

I use several of these USB-Dock cables. Doing so allows me to sync/charge iOS devices from multiple locations (more than one device at a time, if desired) without needing to carry a cable around with me. My initial solution to the Bumper problem was to buy a couple of new cables. [Yes, Apple is generating a lot of extra money from from me here. First, I spend $29 on a Bumper I didn't expect to buy. Then I spend $19 each on a pair of cables that I only need because I bought the Bumper. Some might cynically claim this is all part of Apple's devious plan. I'd like to think otherwise. Still, it's irritating.]

The extra cables turned out to be only a partial solution. I have a Richard Solo external battery for the iPhone. This no longer fits when the Bumper is on. My wife has the special USB-Dock cable that came with Apple’s Bluetooth headset (which Apple no longer sells). This cable will not work with the Bumper. I have a power adapter and cable for charging the iPhone in a car. It too no longer connects to an iPhone 4 with a Bumper. And so it goes.

Still, I have tried to remain tolerant. I am all too aware (as evident by comments in the Cult of Mac article) that some will find such complaints to be “whining” about an insignificant matter. And I know I could solve the matter simply by forgoing the use of the Bumper (or perhaps by using a blade to handcraft a larger opening in the Bumper). Still, what makes it hard for me to let this go is how easy it would have been for Apple to avoid the problem altogether.

As one potential solution, I investigated purchasing a SendStation Dock Extender. Unfortunately, the Extender itself is incompatible with the Bumper (the manufacturer is currently working on an upgrade). What’s worse is what the SendStation people pointed out about what it would have taken for Apple to prevent this hassle: “We have absolutely no idea what the Apple engineers had in mind when they’ve created the Bumper case. {The problem is caused by only}…0.3 mm in thickness and 1.0 mm in width.”

Really? I just don’t get it. Why couldn’t Apple make the opening 0.3 mm thicker? Is that too much to expect? What was Apple’s rationale here? Did Apple pay so little attention to the matter that they were unaware of the situation? That would not be typical. Or is it that they just don’t care? Of course, Apple PR is not commenting. Perhaps if some user sent an email to Steve Jobs, he’d offer a helpful one sentence reply. Regardless, unless Apple redesigns the Bumper sometime down the road, it comes down to a choice between bypassing the Bumper or chucking your collection of older cables and Dock devices.

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Steve Jobs’ Top Reasons for Rejecting Apps

At today’s WWDC Keynote, before shifting his attention to iPhone 4, Steve Jobs spent some time on a few other iPhone-related topics. Surprisingly, one of them was defend the “curated” nature of the App Store (Steve must have delved into a thesaurus to come up to this colorful alternative to “closed”). In particular, he offered the three top reasons why Apple rejects apps: 1. The app doesn’t function or do what the developer says it does; 2. The app uses a private API; or 3. The app crashes.

These all seem reasonable; hard to argue with any of them. The only problem is that (with the partial exception of the private API issue) they have little or no bearing on the reasons behind the rejected or accepted-but-later-ousted apps that have made news and generated controversy over the past couple of years. It doesn’t explain the rejection/removal of so-called “porn” apps, of apps that contain political criticism, of apps that mention “jailbreaking” (yes, this one involved my iPhone book), of “widgety” apps (removal still pending) or of most of the other reported cases. This list also doesn’t account for the coming prohibition against Flash-based apps (although Steve has covered this matter elsewhere). There may well be defensible reasons for all of these rejections, but they are not in the top three that Steve chose to highlight. That’s probably why these rejected apps make news. If they were rejected for any of the top three reasons, it wouldn’t be a story.

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