If you didn't see the thorough reports from AnandTech and Richard Gaywood on the behavior of the iPhone 4 in low-signal areas, one of the conclusions they came to is that 'bars are bogus.'
The behavior of the signal indicators on the phone is wildly shifted toward the optimistic, with over half the available signal range displayed as a cheery five bars. This contributes to the death grip problem: users who are giving up some antenna sensitivity when they grab the phone may not realize that their signal was iffy to begin with.
Guess what: Apple agrees with them, at least in part. The company posted a letter/press release today (unsigned, rather than the attributed-to-Steve past Thoughts on Music and Thoughts on Flash; they could have called this one Thoughts on Bars, but that would have been a little cruel) that admits "We have discovered the cause of this dramatic drop in bars, and it is both simple and surprising." The letter continues: "Upon investigation, we were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong."
Totally wrong? Golly.
Apple says it will be releasing a software update to recalibrate the signal display so that users will be aware of the low signal that they didn't think they had, and as a result the problem of not being able to make calls when they hold the phone 'the wrong way' will be less evident. I guess.
We're all for clarity in signal displays, but what's not clear is how a more sophisticated formula for computing the "more bars in more places" will help users who have bought bumpers, or returned phones, because their iPhone 4s could not make calls in places their 3GS phones did. As Apple notes, there are plenty of users who are not having problems, and in fact get better reception and fewer dropped calls than they did with previous generations; all that does not invalidate the issues that are causing grief for Death Grip Nation.
In their review, Anandtech acknowledged that the iPhone 4's antenna capabilities and performance in low-signal areas are much improved over the earlier generation, with the ability to hold calls in conditions where the 3GS would have dropped them. Still, their conclusion is sound and straightforward: "At the end of the day, Apple should add an insulative coating to the stainless steel band, or subsidize bumper cases. It's that simple."
Note: Whether you are having reception issues or not, please be respectful and constructive in your comments.