Apple ‘surprised’ by iPhone 4 reception woes

Apple says the formula used for determining signal strength is to blame for reception problems plaguing some users of the iPhone 4.

In a statement released today, the company says it was “surprised” to learn of initial reports that blocking the iPhone’s antenna, located along the lower left side of the device, would result in a dramatic drop in reception.

At the time, Apple suggested not holding the phone in a way that would block the antenna.

Now, Apple says the phone registered a drastic drop in reception because it was incorrectly displaying the level of signal strength available to the user.

“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,” reads the Apple statement. “Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place.”

Apple says it will adopt a signal strength formula created by AT&T which they claim will offer more accurate readings. A software update with the new formula will arrive in the next few weeks for iPhone 4 owners as well as users of the iPhone 3G and 3G S.

Update at 1:24 p.m. ET: Antenna expert Spencer Webb, CEO of New Hampshire-based AntennaSys, says people shouldn’t fixate on bars that determine a phone’s signal strength.

“My message to the world as an antenna nerd is stop staring at the bars. If you’re talking (on the phone) you’re (fine). We should be measuring dropped calls.”

Webb, who doesn’t work with Apple, believes the iPhone 4 antenna issues are overblown. “Any device that uses an antenna that gets covered by human hand is going to have an issue,” he says.

In every picture Webb saw of Apple CEO Steve Jobs holding the iPhone 4, “he was holding it wrong. I’ve never seen a picture of him holding it where he wasn’t touching an antenna.”

Webb himself hasn’t conducted a controlled engineering study of iPhone 4, but his gut reaction after initially testing the iPhone 4 is “it doesn’t appear to be any worse than previous models or other cellphones.”

“I’ve seen people having lawsuits over this — I think that is pure insanity. If you don’t like the product, return it,” says Webb.

Creative Strategies president Tim Bajarin, a tech industry consultant, says he and people he works with haven’t been able to replicate the iPhone 4 antenna problem.

“We’ve tried everything, the death grip,” Bajarin says. “Having said that, there’s enough complaints to suggest something is there. The bottom line is if there’s a real problem, Apple has to fix it.”

When people look back at the antenna issue, they’ll always remember it as a “blip,” Bajarin says, but it won’t damage Apple in the long term. “It’s not going to slow down demand or interest in the iPhone.”

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