Revisiting iPhone Reception Problems

August 20th, 2008

Apple craves good news, so I’m sure they aren’t too happy to read about the random connection problems around the world with the iPhone 3G. Although estimates about the number of users affected are usually in the low single digits, with millions of units out there, little things can mean an awful lot.

The problem apparently involves poor connection quality and sudden disconnects, and appears to happen most often when the phone is switching from a poor 3G connection to a stronger EDGE connection. This network protocol handoff ought to be fairly seamless, but it doesn’t seem to be happening that way in the real world, or at least so they say.

The source of this possible defect might be a number of things, from the software to the 3G chipset, manufactured by  Infineon Technologies AG of Germany. If it’s software, it can be repaired by a downloadable update. However, malfunctioning chips might be cause for a major product recall. However, the very same parts are supposedly used in other 3G phones, and there haven’t been so many complaints about those products, or maybe few are paying attention because you expect wireless phones to misbehave.

But the iPhone is of a different breed. It comes from Apple Inc., and it’s supposed to just work, in the same fashion as an iPod or a Macintosh. But things aren’t that simple in the cluttered cellular world.

You see, when it comes to other products, Apple is responsible for the entire widget, from software to hardware, and has full control over how things run. With a wireless phone, the gadget has to interact with loads of independent carriers. Even though they may all use similar systems and hardware for their networks, there are loads of unpredictable factors entering into the picture. First is, of course, the quality of network reception in any particular area. Tall buildings, thick walls and other common obstructions might combine to impair performance, particularly in the 3G frequency bands, where the transmission range isn’t quite as efficient, because they user higher frequencies.

There’s also the matter of the amount of traffic a given cell tower has to handle, and the sort of demands made on the system. With a standard wireless handset, it’s mostly phone calls. A smartphone is sending and receiving email as well, but the iPhone is particularly attuned to seamless Web surfing. That’s why Web surveys show a surprising percentage of people using the iPhone’s Safari browser.

To be sure, a browser puts different demands on a network, and this may present a fly in the ointment that carriers may not have fully anticipated. But that’s not the entire story.

Earlier this week, Apple released an iPhone 2.0.2 update with the standard pithy expression about “Bug Fixes.” The iPhone and general Mac troubleshooting sites said that app crashes and keyboard responsiveness have improved. But Steve Jobs is also quoted as saying that the real fix for crashing symptoms wouldn’t be released until September.

After regular prodding by the media, an Apple spokesperson admitted that the 2.0.2 firmware is designed to address 3G connection issues. Indeed, the major change, other than version number, is a higher revision for the iPhone 3G’s modem. Does that help?

Depends on whom you ask. Some people say it doesn’t fix their particular connectivity issues. Others say it does, and around and around it goes.

Now it may well be that Apple rushed out an interim fix to get the public off its back, and buy them some time to provide a more thoroughly tested and workable update later on, perhaps in time for the rumored iPhone 2.1 release expected in September.

In the end, I can only talk about my own personal encounters and my experiences with the original iPhone and the 3G version.

On the positive side of the ledger, the new version of the iPhone can handle calls more efficiently in the few regions where I had trouble before. I don’t see any greater number of dropped calls, but when I’m in a so-called “dead area” where AT&T’s signal level is in the “moderate” (barely acceptable) range, it’ll happen from time to time. In fact, I lost a call just the other day from none other than Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus, who is scheduled to appear on The Tech Night Owl LIVE this week. Yes, he forgave me.

Since the 2.0.2 update was installed, I do see an occasional improvement in reception, with a display of an additional one or two bars. I haven’t had a chance to take the phone on too many trips, however, so I can’t say if the few signal glitches I’ve encountered have been repaired or not.

I will tell you, however, that I ran a bandwidth test at a local Chinese restaurant, where my son, Grayson, and I were having lunch. The download speed was nearly 1.2 megabits, which is extremely respectable for 3G at any location. Uploads settled in around 100 kilobits. In another test in front of a bank located several miles away, I got downloads at 431 kilobits, and uploads of 130 kilobits. Besides, signal strength can vary from one moment to the next even in the same place, depending on network traffic levels.

As to app crashes, I tried the usual offenders, such as AIM, and haven’t encountered any, at least so far.

For now, I’m going to avoid the rush-to-judgement temptation. You see, I remain quite satisfied with my decision to buy an iPhone 3G. Based on Apple’s recent performance, I’m fully confident that they’ll address any serious bugs as soon as they can. After all, I’ve already received that promised 60-day MobileMe membership extension.

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4 Responses to “Revisiting iPhone Reception Problems”

  1. Richard says:

    There are some reports (credibility yet to be determined) that the update has actually made things worse.

    What I find curious is that no one seems to have disassembled the iPhone and definitively determined the identity of the 3G chip. If it is the “suspect chip”, that would give some degree of support to conjecture that a software/firmware update may not resolve the problems. Conversely, if it is not the “suspect chip”, it would lend hope that it may be fixable with a firmware update. If this were the case, it would seem that Apple would be better served by getting out in front of the issue. Apple have, however, been characteristically silent on the matter, although acknowledging that the firmware update is intended to address this problem.

    More to the point, if Apple is not prepared to stop making units that are troublesome while a replacement chip is procured, they may simply expand the problem and further damage the company’s reputation. Reputation is something which is easily damaged or lost and often difficult to regain…although the public does seem to have a short attention span occasionally.

    I can not recall the name of the company which disassembles Apple products for the purpose of determining the cost of the components (for financial analysis). It would certainly be interesting if they took a look at the iPhone 3G which they have previously disassembled to determine the identity of the 3G chip.

    P.S. Aren’t you entitled to a 90 day extension of MobileMe? There was a 30 day extension and then a 60 day extension wasn’t there?

  2. I already got the 30 days, so with the additional 60 days granted the other day, I have the full 90 days.

    The place that tears down those parts is called iSuppli, and here’s the link to their iPhone 3G teardown:

    That’s how we know who made the 3G chip, other than published reports that confirm that tidbit of information.


  3. Richard says:

    Thanks for the link, Gene.

    What I have read elsewhere is that the European experience with the Infineon chip was “poor”, to say the least, and that most of them moved away from it rapidly. It makes one wonder who at Apple was not paying attention? Presumably there will be a “Rev B” iPhone 3G, but how soon? (Perhaps we will get lucky and have the memory upgraded while they are at it.)

  4. nilton says:

    I am testing this 😆 😛

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