Apple Inc has said that it was "stunned" to find that its iPhones have for years been using a "totally wrong" formula to determine how many bars of signal strength they are getting.
Apple said that's the reason behind widespread complaints from users that the latest model, iPhone 4, can show a sudden plunge in signal strength when they hold it in a way that covers a small black strip on one edge of the phone. Users have jokingly called this the "death grip" for the phone.
That drop seems exaggerated because the phone can wrongly display four or five bars of signal strength when it shouldn't, Apple said.
"Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place," the company said in a statement to users.
Yet the statement that the bar display is "totally wrong" is surprising, since there is no standard formula in the industry for translating signal strength to bars.
The company said it will fix the formula to one recommended by AT&T Inc. through a free software update within a few weeks for the most recent iPhone models, 3G, 3GS and 4. However, the "wrong" formula goes back as far as the original iPhone, launched in 2007.
AT&T, the iPhone's exclusive carrier in the US, has borne much of the users' blame for dropped calls and poor wireless performance. In saying that the phones have been showing too many bars, Apple is putting the spotlight on the network's performance. AT&T declined comment yesterday.
If the phones haven't been giving a good indication of signal strength, users may have been missing clues that they should go to a location with a better signal to place a call, or that they're holding the phone wrong.
Apple apologised to customers "for any anxiety we may have caused."
"We are also making bars 1, 2 and 3 a bit taller so they will be easier to see," the company said in the statement.
Apple launched the iPhone 4 on June 24 in the US and four other countries, and users began complaining on Apple's customer support website within hours.
Some outside engineers and users have blamed the iPhone 4's apparent reception problems on the novel design that incorporates its antenna into the case. But the company said that any phone will show reduced reception if held in a way that covers the antenna, usually mounted at the rear and bottom of a phone. It maintains that iPhone 4's wireless performance is better than previous models.
Spencer Webb, president of antenna design company AntennaSys Inc, found in cursory testing that switching to the "death grip" took an iPhone 4 from five bars to one. But that didn't interrupt a call in progress.