iPhone 3G’s Misleading Signal Display

I’ve had my share of problems with the iPhone 3G: dropped calls, keyboard lag while text messaging, and GPS location issues. However, firmware 2.1 promised to fix many of the problems.

iPhone 3G firmware 2.1 fixes

Keyboard lag has indeed been fixed, which was one of my biggest issues with the phone. Unfortunately, I’m now experiencing even more dropped calls than before. The improved accuracy of the 3G signal strength display is about as bold-faced of a lie as they get, and that’s what I wanted to talk about here.

I often got only a bar or two of signal at my house, but after upgrading to the new firmware, I had a solid 5 bars of signal almost everywhere I went. It seemed too good to be true. And it was. While Apple says they’ve improved the ‘accuracy’ of the signal strength display, I’d wager that they simply made the signal display show 5 bars with any signal short of nearly losing connection altogether. In the condo I’m staying at in Toronto, I get 5 bars. However, I’ve been experiencing a ton of dropped calls. Earlier today, I found a key combination that brings up the field test mode, *3001#12345#*. This, importantly, displays the signal in dBm instead of the misleading signal bars. First, here’s my full 5 bars of signal…

iPhone 3G signal

And here’s what I get in dBm.

iPhone 3G signal in dBm

Okay, -99dBm is a pretty terrible signal and to put this in perspective, on my previous BlackBerry (8310 Curve), it would have been something around 1 bar, which is far more representative. Close to -100dBm is a crap signal. But Apple, having ‘improved’ the accuracy, is misleading me. With my ‘full’ signal, I couldn’t figure out why I was having problems with dropped calls, but now I know the exact reason. It’s simple physics covered up by a pretty graphic. You know Apple, those magical bars don’t actually produce signal. Displaying more of them doesn’t make the signal stronger.

I wonder how this placebo of a fix has affected perception amongst users, many of whom claim far better signal and fewer dropped calls with the new firmware…


7 Replies to “iPhone 3G’s Misleading Signal Display”

  1. Yeah, it’s pretty pathetic. Is it our problem that Rogers has a lot of subscribers in Toronto? No. I thought we were paying them the SAF so they could make continued advances in their networks. I’m paying them $80 a month and I expect damned good service. I don’t give a crap if they have a lot of subscribers loading the network. I’m paying for the service and I expect to get it when I want it.

  2. Hey Charlie…I’m having the same experience…i contantly get -99 or even -105 at my house….terrible…I’ve been so pissed off and I”ve definitly noticed a differance between the new frimware and the old. On a side note..i totalled an iPhone already, took it swimming on Sept 28th…miraculously after half a week it resurected, however the LCD is boned. I swam for 50 minutes, hottubbed it and went back in the pool for another 15 and took a shower. I found a new lcd online for 89.99….bam gunna resell it lol. Bought a new one in the interim however. nice 650$ swim.

  3. Well, Blackberry Storm just arrived. Wanna switch to Verizon to get it?

    Anyway, iPhone will get more competition and hopefully that makes them improve the product sooner than the competition.

  4. It is very sad to see Apple resort to this. They’ve created two problems.

    1. They should have provided free cases to any customer who complained about signal loss when holding the phone in whatever manner they see fit.

    2. They should have never “falsified” the bar display in the first place to give people a false sense of improved signal.

    They’ve been caught in “two” mistakes now and still aren’t handeling the situation properly 🙁

    I wrote up my thoughts on it here:


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