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Apple iPhones overstating AT&T's network strength

The iPhone 4 is Apple's fourth version of the popular smartphone that shook up the mobile device industry upon its release in 2007. More than 1.7 million iPhones were sold within the first three days of its release on June 24, making it Apple's most successful product launch in history.

But the company has been catching a lot of criticism in technology news outlets and blogs for what some believe is a faulty antenna design. Videos have sprouted across the Internet (see above) that show people gripping the phone and, moments later, noting how it loses signal strength.

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And two Baltimore residents -- Kevin McCaffrey of Nottingham and Linda Wrinn of Baltimore -- are at the forefront of a class-action lawsuit filed last week against Apple over the antenna reception issue. (Neither McCaffrey or Wrinn could be reached for comment for this article.)

Apple promoted the phone's new antenna design -- which wraps around the steel frame of the phone -- as a feature that would improve reception, and not potentially hamper it.

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Apple has tried to dismiss the chatter by saying that all cell phones lose signal strength, by one or more bars, when gripped. And, in a news statement last week, the company also said that its investigation of the issue unearthed another problem: the iPhone's miscalculation of signal strength.

Essentially, iPhones have been generously overstating the signal strength that AT&T -- Apple's exclusive wireless carrier for the phone -- offers on its network to iPhone users.

"Upon investigation," Apple disclosed last week, "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."

This disclosure is surprising because anytime a company admits to overstating anything, consumers should take note. Basically, Apple's iPhone has erroneously -- and as far as we know, inadvertently -- given AT&T's network more signal strength than it deserves to show on the iPhone.

In short, Apple's iPhones have been exaggerating the strength of AT&T's 3G network.

So, Apple will soon release a software fix that enables the iPhone 4 (and the 3Gs and the 3G versions) to more accurately read AT&T signal strength. The upshot: iPhone users will get a better reading of the strength of AT&T's network -- one that will jibe with a prevailing consumer sentiment that AT&T's 3G network can't handle iPhones, at least with voice calls, especially in big cities such as New York and San Francisco.

I own an iPhone 4 and I have definitely noticed that when the phone has five full bars, and I grip it firmly in my left hand, it drops by two or three bars. When I release the phone, about five to 10 seconds later, the bars return.

But my ultimate conclusion is that my call quality thus far has not been affected, and my connection to the Internet -- for checking email and surfing the Web -- also works the same as past versions of the iPhone I've owned. At least for me.

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So, for now, I'll wait to see if Apple's upcoming software fix – which will also be available for its previous 3Gs and 3G iPhone versions -- will have an impact before I decide whether to return it.

Cool App of the Week:

Fans of National Public Radio will likely enjoy its new iPhone app: NPR Music. The app, which is a free download, gives the user access to the broadcaster's written stories about music, plus a huge library of interviews and musical performances from both new and established artists available for on-demand listening. A version of the app for the Android mobile phone platform is in the works.


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